Success can be the Enemy of Innovation

When thing are going well we can become blinded. Success becomes a prophylactic against disruptive ideas. Why should we change a winning formula? Don’t mess with success! These are the sorts of things people say. And yet the business cemetery is littered with companies that were shooting stars – a brilliant success for a while followed by an inexorable fall to earth. Gary Hamel says, ‘Success breeds stewards, not entrepreneurs.’ People want to conserve and nurture what they have. In this way business success can deter risk and entrepreneurial action.

Clayton Christensen in his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, gives cogent explanations for this process. He gives examples drawn from fields as varied as steel mills to disk drives. He shows that as new technologies come along the leaders in the previous technologies fail to make the switch until it is too late. They make the classic mistake of listening to their customers! The customers tell them that they like their products and want bigger better, faster, slicker versions of the same. They see the new technologies as risky and lower quality and they fear cannibalization of their mainstream revenues. Consequently it tends to be the newcomers who develop the new technologies and then eventually win over customers.

The political forces within the business tend to be inimical to new ideas. There is considerable revenue associated with the current successful model. Careers have been built on its growth. Any change to a new model threatens those revenues and those reputations.

The innovative leader has to vigorously fight the complacency of success. What is needed is a restless hunger for experimentation and change. The current success is temporary and a useful platform for the greater things ahead. We can only find those things by constantly testing new ways of doing things.

Paul Sloane


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