Sometimes something is better than always nothing within an existing large corporation

Source: posted by: Helen Walters on May 06


Today was the second and final day of the World Innovation Forum, and speakers included disruptive innovation specialist and Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen, Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp and behavioral economist and author, Dan Ariely.

When I saw the schedule, I was initially skeptical. Did Christensen really warrant not one but both of the morning’s keynote slots?

As it turns out, he could have had the stage all day and I – and most of the audience, by the looks of things – would have been just fine.

We were all fine with the length of the presentations, too. Having been conditioned to believe we can only cope with bitesize morsels of Internet goodness, and with current conventional conference wisdom from the likes of TED and Pop!Tech limiting speakers to under 20 minutes, the prospect of an hour and a half per speaker seemed a little daunting. Yet with seasoned speakers such as Christensen and, yesterday, Vijay Govindarajan at the helm, the time whizzed by.

Christensen was informative, eloquent, passionate and drily funny. Clearly he’s delivered both of today’s presentations many times before (indeed, you can see one of the segments here, in a video piece he recorded for BusinessWeek last year), but the practice has paid off.

His insights were designed to hit home while his analyses seemed tailored to the audience. Meanwhile, his self-deprecation and occasional off-the-cuff personal insights, including his irregular checks of his insulin pump and a description of the heart attack he suffered 18 months ago, served to captivate the audience.

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On, then, to the content, which ranged from the academic and conceptual to the more practical, with plenty of global corporate examples peppering the mix.

One of the major themes, in keeping with Christensen’s longtime research, was the difficulties faced by large companies looking to innovate while keeping the home fires burning. Of course it’s easy for an entrepreneurial start up to be nimble and flexible! What choice do they have? If your entire business model is to do something rather than nothing, that something has a shot. “Something, not nothing” was a concept repeated in both sessions, and the advantage for companies dealing with “current non-consumption,” particularly in emerging markets such as India and China, cropped up time and again.

That’s not to say that Christensen thinks radical or disruptive innovation is impossible within an existing large corporation. It’s just that, as he put it, “the common methods of financial analysis systematically bias managers against innovation.” And these methods essentially overlook the fact that the status quo does not remain constant. Failure to innovate will see its inexorable decay.

Instead, Christensen advised, executives need to think about reframing an issue. They should think about building a business around “jobs to be done.” This approach applies to every industry, be that healthcare, education, technology, b2b and so on. And, in a neat tie-in with Paul Saffo’s analysis yesterday of how companies should think about their legacy, Christensen argued that executives should be prepared to support and spin off new companies that might at some point even supersede or consume the parent company. For, as he described, “a business unit cannot evolve… but a corporation can.”

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[Sadly, I wasn’t able to catch either Krupp or Ariely, as I’m currently en route to the west coast and had to hotfoot it to JFK. But if you want to know what they had to say, I’d recommend checking out the #wif09 hashtag on Twitter. A positive phalanx of bloggers and tweeters were opining merrily throughout the event, so there’ll be plenty of opinion there.]

Photo courtesy Dov Friedmann

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