A pretty convincing argument for why large, established companies struggle to keep up with disruptive innovations. It turns out that the very things that make those companies dominant in an existing market work against them when considering new markets. As the pace of disruption accelerates, the lessons in this book become more and more important.
Less convincing are the solutions the book proposes and, at an even more basic level, how to distinguish between what the book calls "sustaining innovations" and "disruptive innovations". It seems that the definitions rely on hindsight (ie, a disruptive innovation is one that turns out to, uh, disrupt the leaders) and are not particularly predictive. And since the solutions the book proposes only work for the disruptive ones, this is a rather big weakness.
Still, the book is worth reading for building your awareness and vocabulary around these issues. The writing is a bit dry and academic-sounding, but there are plenty of good examples that, if you've ever worked at a large company, will feel all-too-familiar.
Some good quotes from the book:
First, disruptive products are simpler and cheaper; they generally promise lower margins, not greater profits. Second, disruptive technologies typically are first commercialized in emerging or insignificant markets. And third, leading firms’ most profitable customers generally don’t want, and indeed initially can’t use, products based on disruptive technologies. By and large, a disruptive technology is initially embraced by the least profitable customers in a market. Hence, most companies with a practiced discipline of listening to their best customers and identifying new products that promise greater profitability and growth are rarely able to build a case for investing in disruptive technologies until it is too late.
While managers may think they control the flow of resources in their firms, in the end it is really customers and investors who dictate how money will be spent because companies with investment patterns that don’t satisfy their customers and investors don’t survive. The highest-performing companies, in fact, are those that are the best at this, that is, they have well-developed systems for killing ideas that their customers don’t want. As a result, these companies find it very difficult to invest adequate resources in disruptive technologies—lower-margin opportunities that their customers don’t want—until their customers want them. And by then it is too late.
With few exceptions, the only instances in which mainstream firms have successfully established a timely position in a disruptive technology were those in which the firms’ managers set up an autonomous organization charged with building a new and independent business around the disruptive technology. Such organizations, free of the power of the customers of the mainstream company, ensconce themselves among a different set of customers—those who want the products of the disruptive technology.
In dealing with disruptive technologies leading to new markets, however, market researchers and business planners have consistently dismal records. In fact, based upon the evidence from the disk drive, motorcycle, and microprocessor industries, reviewed in chapter 7, the only thing we may know for sure when we read experts’ forecasts about how large emerging markets will become is that they are wrong.
Simply put, when the best firms succeeded, they did so because they listened responsively to their customers and invested aggressively in the technology, products, and manufacturing capabilities that satisfied their customers’ next-generation needs. But, paradoxically, when the best firms subsequently failed, it was for the same reasons—they listened responsively to their customers and invested aggressively in the technology, products, and manufacturing capabilities that satisfied their customers’ next-generation needs. This is one of the innovator’s dilemmas: Blindly following the maxim that good managers should keep close to their customers can sometimes be a fatal mistake.
My findings consistently showed that established firms confronted with disruptive technology change did not have trouble developing the requisite technology [...] Rather, disruptive projects stalled when it came to allocating scarce resources among competing product and technology development proposals [...] Sustaining projects addressing the needs of the firms’ most powerful customers [...] almost always preempted resources from disruptive technologies with small markets and poorly defined customer needs.
Successful companies want their resources to be focused on activities that address customers’ needs, that promise higher profits, that are technologically feasible, and that help them play in substantial markets. Yet, to expect the processes that accomplish these things also to do something like nurturing disruptive technologies—to focus resources on proposals that customers reject, that offer lower profit, that underperform existing technologies and can only be sold in insignificant markets—is akin to flapping one’s arms with wings strapped to them in an attempt to fly. Such expectations involve fighting some fundamental tendencies about the way successful organizations work and about how their performance is evaluated.
One of the dilemmas of management is that, by their very nature, processes are established so that employees perform recurrent tasks in a consistent way, time after time. To ensure consistency, they are meant not to change—or if they must change, to change through tightly controlled procedures. This means that the very mechanisms through which organizations create value are intrinsically inimical to change.
In order for a $40 million company to grow 25 percent, it needs to find $10 million in new business the next year. For a $40 billion company to grow 25 percent, it needs to find $10 billion in new business the next year. The size of market opportunity that will solve each of these companies’ needs for growth is very different. As noted in chapter 6, an opportunity that excites a small organization isn’t big enough to be interesting to a very large one. One of the bittersweet rewards of success is, in fact, that as companies become large, they literally lose the capability to enter small emerging markets.
Disruptive technology should be framed as a marketing challenge, not a technological one.