kodak

Too Big To Fail

Innovation Insights
One of a series by Ken Tencer, Spyder Works CEO

too-big-to-fail

While the assumption that a company or an industry could be “too big to fail” has been used mainly since the recent financial crisis, the notion itself has smugly resided in corporate boardrooms since the dawn of the modern corporation. “Our technology dominates the market, no need to worry,” said the buggy-whip maker to his horse.

Failure and evolution are a natural part of business, but sometimes it’s hard to watch. Sadly, we may now be witnessing the demise of a key industry giant in Kodak – a company that actually foresaw and invented the future, yet somehow managed not to learn from it.

As reported in the New York Times, “The big story here is that their core business, the yellow box business [film], got cannibalized by the digital camera, which ironically they invented,” said analyst Chris Whitmore of Deutsche Bank Securities.

The good news for investors is that Kodak’s management claims that the company is now soundly and strategically focused on digital printing technology – this in a world that is increasingly going paperless.  I don’t mean to pick on Kodak; they are not the first company or industry to resist change, nor will they be the last.

In an upcoming Innovation Insight entitled “Fueling Green,” we will look at how the auto industry is managing changing technologies very well by re-imagining their own future… and actively trying to adapt.

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Make yourself obsolete, or someone else will

make-yourself-obsolete

by Ken Tencer
Originally published as a Special to Globe and Mail Update, Wednesday, Dec. 07, 2011

With Dyson’s new bladeless fans, generation of kids will be denied the chance to stick pencils through screens to see what happens when they touch fast-spinning blades.

For any other reason, you have to love the British-based company because its innovations are so obvious yet so breakthrough.

  • Safe, bladeless fans that move air without all the rumbling and rattling.
  • Technology patterned after jet engines.
  • Dual-cyclonic vacuums that suck up more dirt, more efficiently.
  • Airport hand driers that actually work.

Why were these products not developed sooner? Did no other company listen to generations of frustrated consumers? Or were the former market leaders simply too afraid to cannibalize existing products and markets by introducing something truly innovative?

Dyson’s success is a lesson to all business leaders: Don’t be afraid to make yourself obsolete, or someone else will do it for you.

For most companies that’s easier said than done. I used these words while co-chairing a recent innovation conference in New York City, and I heard the groans from the audience.

I have heard their thoughts out loud too often:

  • “We are the market leaders. We are too big to fail.”
  • “Our technology dominates the market, no need to worry,” said the buggy-whip maker to his horse.

Too many great companies have disappeared because they resisted change instead of embracing it. We may now be watching the demise of yet another giant, in photography company Eastman Kodak Co. The incredible thing is that Kodak actually saw and invented a future when digital photography would replace film. But somehow it managed to resist it. As analyst Chris Whitmore of Deutsche Bank told The New York Times: “The big story here is that their core business — the yellow box business — got cannibalized by the digital camera, which ironically they invented.”

The “good news” for investors is that Kodak is now soundly and strategically focused on digital-printing technology (in an increasingly paperless world?). I don’t mean to pick on Kodak, as it is not the first company to resist change, and it won’t be the last.

So where do we turn to find an example of an industry successfully making itself obsolete? Look at autos. Car makers recognized it was only a matter of time before the traditional combustion engine model gave way to newer, cleaner technology. So over the past decade they have gradually introduced us to the future, in the form of clean diesel, hybrid and now fully electric engines.

Each of these introductions started small, with expensive pioneering products sold to early adopters. This is how the industry developed its ability to introduce alternative technology, test demand, optimize production, and manage the transition. Today auto makers have a clear understanding of their market and possess the production capacity to ramp up a full-scale transition – fully cannibalizing the old combustion technology – without endangering their revenues.

The car industry didn’t just stay ahead of the curve – it created and managed the curve. If more of Dyson’s vacuum-cleaner competitors had shared that kind of vision, they wouldn’t be sucking air.

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