Category Archives: The Firm

WhatsApp wasn’t overvalued

WhatsApp-Facebook

I have a new post up over at the Deloitte Digital blog, ‘WhatsApp wasn’t overvalued’. I’d been watching the debate around Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp 1)Media Release (19 February 2014), Facebook to Acquire WhatsAppFacebook. and I was struck how many analysts and journalists were stuck in the past, trying to value WhatsApp based on the assets it holds (user base and ad inventory) when clearly the firm’s value lay in the information flow it controlled (~1,000 messages per month, per subscriber). It’s true that it you do asset-based valuation that the deal doesn’t make sense, but if you do an information-flow base valuation then the deal is a no brainer.

On of the big ideas behind the Shift Index 2)Peter Evans-Greenwood & Peter Williams (2014), Setting aside the burdens of the past, Deloitte. is the shift from stocks to flows: it’s not the stocks that you hold (assets, information, etc.), but the flows that you can tap into (partner networks, information, etc.) that drive your competitive advantage. Put another way, in a world where everything you need is available on demand and the world is awash with information, it’s your ability to tap into whats happening in the environment and react that defines your competitive advantage, and not the assets and data you hold.

Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp is a great example of this difference.

Look assets that WhatsApp holds and the deal doesn’t make sense. WhatsApp’s user base of around 450 million active monthly users, many of whom will already be using Facebook, doesn’t seem to be worth the effort, especially since the company is only making US$1 per year (with the first year free). Nor is the advertising revenue of interest, since there isn’t any and WhatsApp has a public position of ‘no ads, no games, no gimmicks’. That user base, with WhatsApp as a standalone service, is not worth what Facebook paid.

Since the deal doesn’t stack up based on a standard valuation most of the pundits are calling the acquisition a ‘strategic’ move. That’s usually code for ‘we’re not sure why they did it’. However, what if we value WhatsApp based on the information flow that the firm controls?

As I point out in the article:

The average WhatsApp user sends more than 1,000 messages every month, and receives more than 2,000 messages. That’s over 30 messages a day, few of which are the spam which dominates email. It’s also a user base where over 70% of the population is active on any given day.

Facebook as a fairly low click through rate, somewhere around 0.09%3)Miranda Miller (23 October 2012), Facebook Click-Through Rates Increase, Costs Per Click Down 20-40% in Q3Search Engine Watch. What if Facebook could use the information flow from WhatsApp to double it’s click through rate? They would double the firm’s revenue, making the 16 billion for WhatsApp look like a bargain. This seems quite possible since Google is running at a click-through rate of about 0.4%, over four times that of Facebook. Google gets there by snooping on your private communications (web searches, email, instant messages) to work out what you might buy. As I point out in the article:

WhatsApp might just provide Facebook with something like that Google Search box, as WhatsApp gives Facebook a big, fat data stream that tells them what their user base is about to do. WhatsApp might not grow Facebook’s user base, and it won’t be a direct source of ad revenue. It will, however, allow them to watch what you’re saying – privately – to your friends and relatives, and then use that information to tailor the ads presented to you on the firm’s various web properties. Tell your best friend that you’re test driving a car tomorrow, and expect to see ads from car manufacturers when you’re browsing another friend’s timeline later that night.

If we value WhatsApp based on the information flows that it has, then the deal starts to make a lot of sense.

I’d greatly appreciate it if you head over to the article and leave your thoughts.

Image: Tsahi Levent-Levi

References   [ + ]

1. Media Release (19 February 2014), Facebook to Acquire WhatsAppFacebook.
2. Peter Evans-Greenwood & Peter Williams (2014), Setting aside the burdens of the past, Deloitte.
3. Miranda Miller (23 October 2012), Facebook Click-Through Rates Increase, Costs Per Click Down 20-40% in Q3Search Engine Watch

The myth of sustainable competitive advantage

I’ve mentioned to a few people that I was unimpressed with The End of Competitive Advantage by Rita Gunther McGrath. I’ve even be so impolitic as to call it ‘crap’ a few times, after which I’m usually asked why I think this, and I then spend time shooting over references and explaining how I came to my conclusion.

Rather than doing this yet again, I thought I’d compile some notes here which I can then point people at.

The End of Competitive Advantage claims to provide key insights into how business strategy needs to change, moving on from the foundations laid down by Michael Porter all those years ago. A few even called it an ‘important’ book, as they see it as the first proof that sustainable competitive advantage is a thing of the past.

My problem with the book is in three parts:

  1. The book provides insufficient argument and data to prove its thesis.
  2. The book ignores the fact that Porter’s work was shown to be lacking at least as far back as 2006.
  3. The simple analysis and lack of research into what is driving the shift results in trite recommendations.

The usual response to these points is are along the lines of:

  • ‘But everyone is using Porter still’ – which is an observations and not an argument.
  • They point out that the book is from a professor at Columbia Business School and published by HBR – which is just appealing to credentials.
  • ‘But the book is based on lots of analysis’ – which it is, but the analysis is riddled with holes.

Let’s handle the second point first.

Do Porter’s theories still work?

Porter’s work on competitive strategy might be one of, if not the most, cited works by business academics. This doesn’t mean that it’s any good.

Academia is riddle with frameworks that either have little or no evidence behind them, or which have been proved to be irrelevant in the modern context. This hasn’t stopped them being used as the foundation for new work.

Abraham Maslow and his pyramid of needs, for example, has been shown to have no basis in fact1) William Kremer & Claudia Hammond (31 August 2013), Abraham Maslow and the pyramid that beguiled businessBBC World Service. – it’s just something Maslow made up one day – and yet it’s taught in every b-school in the world. There’s similar problems with business value, technology adoption, and a whole range of topics.

Just because everyone uses Porter’s five forces doesn’t mean it works or has any basis in fact.

As Matthew Stewart pointed out in 2009 in his book The Management Myth2)Matthew Stewart (2009), The Management Myth: Management Consulting Past, Present & Largely Bogus, W. W. Norton & Company., the idea of being able to locate and explot a sustainable competitive advantage was ‘lacking any foundation in fact or logic’. It’s rent seeking of the worst form. There’s an earlier article by the same author from 2006 that points out many of the same flaws3)Matthew Stewart (June 2006), The Management Myth, The Atlantic.. Even earlier in 2000 Pankaj Ghemawat conducted a survey of the history of business strategy which found that ‘In the case of the five forces, a survey of empirical literature in the late 1980s—more than a decade after Porter first developed his framework—revealed that only a few points were strongly supported by the empirical literature generated by the IO [industrial organisation] field.’4)Pankaj Ghemawat (April 2000), Competition and Business Strategy in Historical Perspective, HBS Comp. & Strategy Working Paper No. 798010. The report he drew this from (and which I don’t have in my hands yet) is from 19895)Richard Schmalensee, ‘Inter-Industry Studies of Structure and Performance’, in Richard Schmalensee and R. D. Willig, eds., Handbook of Industrial Organization, vol. 2 (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1989)..

The market even rejected Porter’s theories conclusively in November 2012 when Monitor Group, the firm that Porter founded to consult around his theories, filed for bankruptcy. As Steve Denning over at Forbes commented6)Steve Denning (20 November 2012), What Killed Michael Porter’s Monitor Group? The One Force That Really Matters, Forbes.:

Monitor wasn’t killed by any of the five forces of competitive rivalry. Ultimately what killed Monitor was the fact that its customers were no longer willing to buy what Monitor was selling. Monitor was crushed by the single dominant force in today’s marketplace: the customer.

It was Drucker who pointed out that the whole point of a company is to create a customer, not to try and squat in some magical place that would allow a firm to extract rents without any effort. Porter appears to have ignored this.

So no one wanted to buy the sustainable competitive advantage snake oil from Monitor, nor was Monitor able to apply the theory to its own situation and save itself. The idea has no basis in fact, the market rejected it, and it doesn’t work. And all this happened well before The End of Competitive Advantage was written or published.

Let’s set aside the idea that Prof McGrath’s book is the first time that Porter’s theories have been shown to lack potency: clearly she’s a decade or so late to that party.

The analysis

The second problem I have with the book is the poor quality of the analysis. Generally, the approach used by The End of Competitive Advantage is of the same level as Good to Great, which is another business bible that typically can’t be questioned but is riddled with holes. A lot of data might have been used, but the process is clearly deeply flawed.

The End of Competitive Advantage is built on a set of ‘growth outlier’ companies which out-performed the market. As is stated in the book:

In 2010, my research team tracked down every publicly traded company on any global exchange with a market capitalization of over $1 billion US dollars as of the end of 2009 (4,793 firms). Then we examined how many of these firms had been able to grow revenue or net income by at least 5 percent every year for the preceding five years (in other words, from 2004 to 2009).

These firms were then compared with their top three competitors and then with each other to identify what made them different. (Comparing a firm with its top three competitors is not the same as controlling for natural industry or geography growth, but we’ll let that one slide. At least there was some attempt to normalise the results. We can also set aside the question of why a five year period was used, even though it seems completely arbitrary.) The rest of the book presents what was learned, and provides the reader with some advice and a simple framework that you too can use to copy these growth outliers’ success. (This is why some reviews think that the book is an extended ad for consulting services, as the information presented is not much more than a teaser.)

As the book states:

The major conclusion was that this group of firms was pursuing strategies with a long-term perspective on where they wanted to go, but also with the recognition that whatever they were doing today wasn’t going to drive their future growth. Interestingly, they had identified and implemented ways of combining tremendous internal stability while motivating tremendous external agility, particularly in terms of business models.

The first issue we can call out with the analysis is a lack of disconfirming research. Consider, for example, if the CEOs of all the growth outliers wore red socks on Tuesdays. We might conclude that wearing red socks on a Tuesday will give us the edge we need. Humans have a natural confirmation bias so when you reach a conclusion you need to ask yourself ‘What would it take to prove this conclusion false?’ Can you find a significant number of firms where the CEO religiously wears red socks on Tuesday and which are not growth outliers? How do we know that the correlation they you’ve found isn’t just a happy accident, and that we’re reading a lot more into it than we should?

Next we have to consider survivorship bias. Someone has to win, but coming out on top does not imply that you were more skilful. There’s a lot of dumb luck in business; it’s not enough to be good at what you do, you need to be at the right place in the right time with the right product(s) and you still need a healthy does of luck. Did the growth outliers survive because they were good at what they do? Or is their success the result of happy accidents that took down their competition, or lucky coincidences that enabled them to leap ahead? Were they in the right places at the right time, moving into Asia when their competitors moved into South America, for example? Someone must survive, but there’s no rule that says that their skill was the only determinant of their survival.

Next we have the unknown unknowns. How do we know that the practices identified by Rita and her team are the right practices? Perhaps some of the outliers were more financially savvy and managed their cash flows, something which is hard at the best of times and even more challenging in the current turbulent environment, and which is inherently boring. Or perhaps they made a couple of astute (or just plain lucky) bets on which sectors to play in, nudging them past their competition. How do we know the survey or practices was complete? What was the framework used to identify these practices, and link them to changes in the environment. Correlations don’t cut it.

Ultimately, identifying a common set of practices for a set of companies that performed well over a given time period does little more than confirm that over the last time period these companies did well. That was already obvious.

We need to build a model that allows us to feed in long term market trends (increasing competitive intensity, decrease in ROA – at least in the US – blurring of sectors, etc.) and ask questions like, ‘How would these companies have performed three or more periods back in the past, and how might they perform in the future as the market evolves?’. If we’re looking for a change in the market then there should be an earlier time period where these practices were counterproductive. It’s this sort of approach that makes Thomas Piketty’s new book so interesting7)Thomas Piketty (10 March 2014), Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Belknap Press..

If you’re going to write a book about what to do in the future than you need to do more than point out what worked in the past, even if it’s the recent past. The future, as they say, is a foreign country.

This is also the big mistake that Good to Great made: identify a group of profitable companies that have some shared characteristic, assume that what made them successful in the past will also make them successful in the future, and then call out the common elements from this set of companies. As Freakanomics, put it, a lot of the Good to Great companies went ‘From Good to Great … to Below Average’8)Steven D. Levitt (28 July 2008), From Good to Great … to Below Average, Freakonomics..

The recommendations

Given all this, the book introduces the idea of ‘areas’ as the basis for competition, rather than industries. Its a nice idea as it allows us to pull more context into our analysis of the market: industries modulated by a few different dimensions, such as geography, demographic, etc.

The concept falls down, though, as it ignores the fact that industry definitions have become fluid. (What? Apple is a PC maker, not a phone maker? And what’s this touch and apps store stuff?) This  means that areas must also be a fluid concept, but the book does not look into the dynamics of how areas change. (I expect that this is left as an exercise for the reader, or they assume that you use Porter’s model to evaluate opportunity.)

The model for managing change across areas is a simple launch, ramp-up, sustain, ramp-down, disengage process. This doesn’t account for the pace in the current market. If your competitor can launch a new product in two to six weeks from a standing start (as many companies now can) then, while your carefully thought out launch process taking six months might seem modern, it’s largely irrelevant. There is no insight in the recommendations on what the change in market pace means other than ‘the end of competitive advantage’.

The recommendations all but ignore the shift from stocks to flows9)Peter Evans-Greenwood (20 Feburary 2014), Setting Aside the Burdens of the Past, PEG., which has huge implications for how we think about, organise, govern and manage our business. There is, however, a brief mention to the idea of consuming services rather than building assets, and the book even name-checks Odesk. However, it doesn’t look into the implications that spring out of this. The coverage is only a few spare paragraphs and you’re left wondering if the author doesn’t really know what to make of the topic.

The rest of the book which follows is a fairly straightforward process of working through the stages of the model and providing a few points of sage sounding advice for each stage (‘Rotate you team through departments so that they don’t get comfortable’ type of thing). You’ll either nod and say yes to each of these (the Barnam effect10)From wikipedia: The Forer effect (also called the Barnum effect after P. T. Barnum’s observation that ‘we’ve got something for everyone’) is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. This effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some beliefs and practices, such as astrology, fortune telling, graphology, and some types of personality test. in action) or go ‘meh’. Your mileage might vary.

My review

So, as you can see, my opinion is based on the following pillars:

  • The main thesis that ‘sustainable competitive advantage is over’ is very old news.
  • The analysis is suspect, at least, and doesn’t prove the thesis.
  • The model and recommendations provided hold little value.

Calling it ‘crap‘ might be going a bit far, but for me the book was a waste of money. Use the money to buy a coffee for a friend that you haven’t spoken to in a while; you’ll learn a lot more.

While the content might come from a major b-school and has been written up in respected journals, that doesn’t change the fact that we live on the internet now and we need proof that we can see. As Jay Rosen pointed out the other day11)Jay Rosen (March 2014), “I want it to be 25 years ago!” Newsweek’s blown cover story on bitcoin, PressThink., appealing to credentials doesn’t work in this day and age.

Image: Peter Mooney

References   [ + ]

1.  William Kremer & Claudia Hammond (31 August 2013), Abraham Maslow and the pyramid that beguiled businessBBC World Service.
2. Matthew Stewart (2009), The Management Myth: Management Consulting Past, Present & Largely Bogus, W. W. Norton & Company.
3. Matthew Stewart (June 2006), The Management Myth, The Atlantic.
4. Pankaj Ghemawat (April 2000), Competition and Business Strategy in Historical Perspective, HBS Comp. & Strategy Working Paper No. 798010.
5. Richard Schmalensee, ‘Inter-Industry Studies of Structure and Performance’, in Richard Schmalensee and R. D. Willig, eds., Handbook of Industrial Organization, vol. 2 (Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1989).
6. Steve Denning (20 November 2012), What Killed Michael Porter’s Monitor Group? The One Force That Really Matters, Forbes.
7. Thomas Piketty (10 March 2014), Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Belknap Press.
8. Steven D. Levitt (28 July 2008), From Good to Great … to Below Average, Freakonomics.
9. Peter Evans-Greenwood (20 Feburary 2014), Setting Aside the Burdens of the Past, PEG.
10. From wikipedia: The Forer effect (also called the Barnum effect after P. T. Barnum’s observation that ‘we’ve got something for everyone’) is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. This effect can provide a partial explanation for the widespread acceptance of some beliefs and practices, such as astrology, fortune telling, graphology, and some types of personality test.
11. Jay Rosen (March 2014), “I want it to be 25 years ago!” Newsweek’s blown cover story on bitcoin, PressThink.

Bitcoin might make AML/CTF regulation a problem for everyone

I spent a little time over the break thinking about what’s happening with anti money-laundering (AML) and counter terrorism-financing (CTF) regulation, since it had come time to update the Technological Considerations of AML/CTF Programs published by LexisNexis as part of their Anti-Money Laundering and Financial Crime publication. (There’s a blurb for my part embedded below.)

The interesting shift in this version is that growth of AML/CTF regulation for complementary currencies (ie. currencies that are not backed by a government). Organised crime groups are finding all sorts of creative ways to use complementary currencies to launder money, including the creation of bitcoin ‘mixers’ that are intended to improve anonymity for bitcoin transactions.

A side effect of this regulation – which is largely targeted at bitcoin but which is been written in a way to bring all complimentary currencies under regulation – is that the points-based loyalty programme that you were thinking about introducing might actually bring you under the AML/CTF regulator’s watchful eye. Something as ambitious as Facebook Credits definitely would.

This has all sorts of interesting implications for enterprise-wide governance, but that’s a different discussion since it’s well beyond the scope of the Technological Considerations of AML/CTF Programs piece.

If you’re interested then head over to LexisNexis (or we can catch up for a coffee if you like).

Image sourceMike Cauldwell

In retail you’re either a religion, a community hub, or a commodity

Being a successful retailer used to be a question of stocking the right products. Given that consumers all have their own preferences this usually devolved into trying to offer either the best or the cheapest, or products tailored to the unique needs of a specific market segment. Or, putting it another way, you could choose to sell expensive suits, cheap suits, or suits for the broad and tall.

Today – as globalisation, the internet and social media bite into retail – retailers have been working hard to build a compelling in-store experience. The theory is that by providing a pleasant and streamlined buying journey (or, at least, a more pleasant and streamlined journey than your local and online competitors) you’ll encourage consumers to shop at your store. This has driven the recent wave of investment in omni-channel, in-store WiFi and mobile apps.

The problem is that consumer behaviour is changing.1)The destruction of traditional retail @ PEG No longer do we identify a need and then head out to the store to find a product to fill it. Browsing is something we do in a spare moment, sitting in front of the TV with a tablet, or via a smartphone during our commute on the train. We purchase when we realise that we’ve found something we want or need, wherever we are at the time and via the channel that is the most convenient.

Building your business on the assumption that customers will come to your store looking for a product in no longer a viable strategy. It’s not enough to provide the best products or the cheapest. Nor is it enough to provide a more pleasant experience than the competition.

You need to find a way to draw customers to your store before they want to buy something. Retail must make itself part of the consumer’s identity, it needs to become one of their habits or rituals, rather than simply providing a convenient delivery mechanism for someone else’s products.

Three options seem to be emerging from he turbulent market we’re in at the moment.

  1. Make your business into a community hub
  2. Create a religion
  3. Resign yourself to being a commodity

Continue reading In retail you’re either a religion, a community hub, or a commodity

References   [ + ]

Has Apple made NFC irrelevant?

In The future of exchanging value{{1}} I, along with Peter Williams and Ian Harper at Deloitte, pointed out that a successful retail payments strategy should be founded on empowering consumers and merchants to transact when and where they want to. Investing in technologies such as near-field communication (NFC) networks might allow you to shave a couple of seconds off the transaction time once customer was at the till, but it ignores the fact that consumers are increasingly transacting away from the till as mobile phones and ubiquitous connectivity allow them to transact when and where they want to.

[[1]]Peter Evans-Greenwood, Ian Harper, Peter Williams (2012), The future of exchanging value, Deloitte[[1]]

We are seeing a shift from technology acquisition to technology use. Rather than building a payment strategy around the acquisition of a new technology (such as NFC), a successful strategy needs to be based on streamlining the buying journey. While NFC might enable the consumer to save a few seconds at the till, it does not address the far larger time they spent waiting in the queue beforehand. A more valuable solution might avoid the need to queue entirely. This is a design-led approach, focused on the overall problem the customer is solving and the context in which they are solving. Technologies are pulled into the payment strategy as needed, rather than building the strategy around the acquisition of an asset or capability.

Amazon used this approach with the development of the company’s mobile application, one that allows you snap an image of a barcode to purchase a product. Bricks-and-morter retailers see this as showrooming and unsportsmanlike. Many consumers, however, love the idea.

As I pointed out in The destruction of traditional retail{{2}}:

[[2]]The destruction of traditional retail @ PEG[[2]]

If you’re standing in an aisle casually browsing products then Amazon’s till is closer to you than the one at the front of the store[4]. You also don’t need to worry about carrying your purchase home.

The challenge for retailers (from The future of exchanging value) is to:

… manage a portfolio of technologies, from existing payment infrastructure through NFC to emerging tools, combining them to enable customers to transact when and how they need to.

The way for bricks-and-morter retailers to fight showrooming is use a range of low-cost consumer technologies to make it more convenient to transact with them than an internet retailer.

Apple showed how this might be done during the What’s New in Core Location presentation at the company’s recent Worldwide Developers Conference.

Imagine you walk into Jay’s Donut Shop. iBeacons from Core Location are accurate enough for the retailer to be sure that you have walked in, while other location technologies (such as GPS or those based on Wi-Fi) could, at best, provide a list of guesses. You don’t even need to check in. You could order you donuts before you entered the shop. When you reach the counter your iPhone would display a QR code that a clerk uses to verify the purchase. You grab your donuts and leave, the transaction charged to your iTunes account and your receipt already on your phone.

As Mike Elgan points out in his post Why Apple’s ‘indoor GPS’ plan is brilliant{{3}}, it’s not much of stretch to consider some much more interesting scenarios.

[[3]]Mike Elgan (14th September 2013), Why Apple’s ‘indoor GPS’ plan is brilliant, Computer World.[[3]]

A customer could scan the labels on clothing, process the transaction on the phone, then stroll out of the store with purchases in hand (the alarm would be de-activated for those items).

This is a solution that could be supported tomorrow on all iPhone 4Ss through to the new iPhone 5C. The hardware required to create an iBeacon is already available and it’s cheap, often in the 10s of US$.

NFC continues to struggle and it seems that Apple might have pulled together a solution that makes it irrelevent.

Governance isn’t a process

For some strange reason every time someone mentions ‘governance’ all sense is thrown out the window, the process wonks rub their hands with glee, and you soon find yourself waist deep in treacle like processes that slow everything down to the point that it’s impossible to get anything done.

Governance isn’t a process, and adding more processes won’t necessarily improve your governance.

Governance is a question of decision rights:

  • who gets to make the decision
  • what information should be considered when making the decision
  • who can influence the decision
  • who needs to be informed of the decision

‘Process’ is just a tool we use to manage the decision making journey.

Technological Considerations of AML/CTF Programs

I had the chance in the last couple of months to review the (very old) chapter Technological Considerations of AML/CTF Programs chapter the I wrote with a couple of colleagues for LexisNexis’s Anti-Money Laundering and Financial Crime publication. The world has changed quite a bit since then so it was more like a recreation than a simple revision.

LexisNexis have kindly made an extract available, which you can find below via a Scribd embed. If you’re interested then head over to LexisNexis (or I suppose we can catch up for a coffee or something).

Dynamic pricing and the race to the bottom

I see that online retailers have been admiring the yield management techniques used by airlines and hotels{{1}}. After all, what’s not to like about profit maximisation? Consumer goods, however, are not a time sensitive resource who’s value crashes to zero after a particular date. Online retailers might just be starting an arms war with customers that they cannot win. The result will be a race to the bottom as mounting pressure compresses already tight margins.

[[1]]Brian Proffitt (September 2012), How much will it cost you? With Dynamic Pricing, online sellers say ‘It depends’.., ReadWriteWeb[[1]]

Continue reading Dynamic pricing and the race to the bottom

Taking innovation to the edge

Deloitte were kind enough to invite me to present last week at the Melbourne leg of their regular CIO forum. The topic was innovation in IT.

The Innovative CIO: taking the core to the edge

Innovation strikes both dread and elation into the heart of the CIO. How does the CIO embrace and deploy rapid technology changes without falling into the trap of project plans and corporate regulation?

Continue reading Taking innovation to the edge

You can’t buy innovation

Why is it so hard to incent our companies or teams to do anything innovative? Something tangible that makes a difference to the top or bottom line. The vast majority of innovation programmes seem to deliver little more that some nice demos before the programme peters out, with stakeholders often happy to return to their usual duties. The problem is that innovation is neither a product or a process, nor is it a skill; innovation is an artefact of culture, and culture is something that you cannot buy, hire or implement. The reason that most companies fail to innovate – despite significant investment in innovation – is that innovation is a result of culture and their culture actively prevents them from realising anything innovative.

Innovation (whatever that is1)What is innovation? @ PEG) has become the Mecca for modern business. In today’s turbulent environment everyone is looking for that new idea or product, that innovation, which will give them an edge. Nowhere is this more obvious than the crowded market places for smartphones and mobile applications, where crowds of companies compete to become the next iPhone, Angry Birds or FarmVille. It’s hard to stand out in a crowded market and you need something unique, something innovative to grab the public’s attention.

In their quest for the next big (innovative) thing, management teams engage innovation consultancies, create innovation functions and programmes, and hire the hot new skills which claim to be the next source of innovation. (Yesterday it was portfolio management; today, Design Thinking, next some are claiming that it’s the skills provided by a liberal arts degree.) The hope it that a tangible investment will result in an intangible outcome, as if innovation is something that can be standardised and transformed into a repeatable process. None of these approaches work reliably.

Innovation, of course, extends to more than casual games and mobile phones. Apple seems to have established a track record for innovation across a number of sectors, Amazon has proved itself to be a lot more than a simple web retailer, while 3M has a long history of bringing interesting products to market (PostIt notes, Scotchguard, Goretex…). We’re also seeing success at the bottom end of the market, where companies such as Kogan2)Kogan are finding new (innovative) was to products to waiting customers at a price point radically lower than traditional bricks and mortar retailers.

At the individual level we find the innovator situated in a broader context. The questing of Pablo Picasso, Jimi Hendrix, Laurie Anderson and Miles Davis was woven into and built apon ideas that they found around them as they tried to make sense of the world. Picasso’s desire to draw a picture showing all sides of the subject once built on Cézanne’s abstract shapes and resulted in cubism. Miles Davis wanted to bring the some of the soul from Sly Stone’s work into the world of Jazz, and created fusion and Bitches’ Brew in the process. New work – innovation – is created by cultural accretion, as the artisan pulls in tools, techniques and ideas from the community around them as they search for the best way to express their aspirations. The innovator’s role is to provide the focus, the drive to realise a new idea, that enables these previously disparit threads together. The context that enables them to do this is the culture, the thick soup of ideas that that’s been simmering for generations.

Picasso's Weeping Woman (1937)
Picasso’s Femme en pleurs (1937)

The common thread running through innovators — both businesses and individuals — is cultural. They approach the problem of innovation obliquely, if they approach it at all. Jon Ives, for example, is on record as claiming that Apple “just makes products that we would love to own ourselves”. Innovation is not something discovered, rather than something intentionally designed. “I’ll play it first, and tell you what it is later”, as Miles Davis said. Rather than invest in innovation functions and processes, or hire innovation gurus, and striving to be innovative, they are focused on solving problems. Tools, techniques and skills (such as Design Thinking) are pulled in as needed to solve a problem, instead of being implemented in the hope that they will instil innovation in whatever we’re doing. Sometimes the focus, the drive to realise a new idea, comes from the top-down, as in Apple’s case. Other times it works bottom-up, as with 3M’s more organic approach to innovation that allows individuals to vote with their feet.

Whether organic or structured, innovation is the result of two things. First is a rich and diverse cultural soup full of the ideas and skills that the innovator can draw on. A culture that values the learning and investigation needed to constantly enrich the soup, and one that extends beyond the wall of the organisation or individual to draw on, and appropriate, ideas an needed.

Jim Jarmusch on biting
Jim Jarmusch on biting

Second is the imperative, the desire, to follow through on an idea, to realise an idea or find a more elegant solution to a problem. Sometimes is means providing the time and space to develop and idea, but often it means proving constraints to drive the creative process. These constraints might involve time and money, forcing a team to solve a problem faster or more cheaply than a conventional approach would allow. Or the constraints might be written into the requirements, such as Steve Job’s desire to eliminate all but one button to create a more elegant solution.

The failure of many efforts to instil innovation into existing organisations is that they focus on the tools, and forget that innovation is the result of a culture more than it is a process. Without the drive to try something new, and permission to pull in the ideas and tools are most valuable, any investment in innovation will just result in little more than a bright flash followed by silence. Innovation is not something you can buy. It’s the result of the organisational culture you have create, and culture is the hardest thing to change.

References   [ + ]

1. What is innovation? @ PEG
2. Kogan