• Innovator’s dilemma: Define the unstated, do the impossible

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    Reylito A.H. Elbo

    Reylito A.H. Elbo

    A TODDLER seems to know all the questions, while a teenager appears to know all the answers. Using this as a metric, how would you classify people in your network? Are there more toddlers than teenagers or vice-versa? For instance, if your organization is losing money and customers—what questions do you expect from the stakeholders?

    A toddler may ask—why are we losing money and customers? While a teenager would have a ready kilometric answer: There are no new product offerings, poor service quality, low labor productivity, saturated market, militant labor union, weak management, smuggling, government regulations, and many more. Name it and we’ll have all the unchecked reasons in this planet to confuse us.

    That’s how we love toddlers more than our teenagers. Hearing dumb questions from a toddler is better and easier, than correcting dumb mistakes committed by teenagers. By asking questions, you can be a fool for a moment, if not, you’ll remain fool forever.

    Among us in the Total Quality Movement, the first thing that comes to our mind are the “five whys” to help us in going beyond the symptoms of a problem.

    We can ask at least five whys or even more (can go beyond 20 whys) until such time we’re convinced that we’ve identified the real problem. Essentially, the five whys approach is for the line workers, supervisors and managers but what is the best strategic approach for top management and corporate board directors?

    Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen has the answer—the innovator’s dilemma. In his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, Christensen opines that successful companies, even big ones are putting too much emphasis on the customers’ current needs, instead of defining and meeting their unstated or future needs.

    He argues that organizations, regardless of its size, can readily fall behind if they do not create the future. Christensen also coins another related buzzword called “disruptive innovation” and gives examples like the personal computer, milkshakes and steel mini mills.

    The disruptive innovation is an old concept that is best appreciated when you understand the “reality distortion field” that Bud Tribble created in 1981 to describe Steve Jobs (1955-2011) who claimed that impossible things can be done. That’s how Jobs’ critics went on to say that “nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do it himself.”

    Among us in the corporate sector, this means only one thing—accomplishing the impossible means that the boss will add it to our job description.

    Seeking impossible things can seem daunting. Many people assume this as some kind of foolishness until we discover that it is only a matter of time and perspective before we can make it happen.

    It has been proven many times over. Even Sony’s legendary Akio Morita (1921-1999), the man behind Walkman, the portable compact disc player and a wide-range of other marketing innovations, became successful with innovation just by watching and analyzing what the target customers are doing and what the competitors are not doing.

    Morita and Jobs avoided quantitative market research. Instead, they took the working style of anthropologists who carefully observe indigenous people to define their unstated needs and wants, and to figure out how they can help them.

    Now, how do you propose to copy the style of Morita and Jobs, one of the two greatest innovators of our time? Obviously, the answer is clear. Toddlers are sent to school to become masters at answering questions, but they must remain novices by asking more dumb questions.

    Rey Elbo is a business consultant on human resources and total quality management as a fused interest. Send feedback to elbonomics@gmail.com or follow him on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter for his random management thoughts.

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    1 Comment

    1. Herminio Geronimo on

      It’s refreshing to read your article. This is what we need today for the country to move forward. We need more ideas like those of Prof. Christensen. This book is a favorite of Steve Jobs and we need more jobs which could happen if only we can have more people who Think Different. Nice to know there are columnists like you. May pag-asa pa Pilipinas. Thanks a lot.