Embrace change, take chances, and continually innovate to make sure your firm stays ahead on the innovation continuum.
In 1975, Kodak, the world’s largest manufacturer of photographic film, shelved a digital camera invention because it feared it would hurt the company’s dominant market for camera film. By the mid-1990s, digital photography started to overtake the film market. That left Kodak, after having a 100-year near monopoly in the camera film market, filing for bankruptcy by 2012, all because it failed to embrace innovative ideas its own employees created.
Kodak eventually made attempts to enter the digital market, but it was too little too late. As a result, during bankruptcy re-organization, Kodak had to sell hundreds of early patents for digital imaging technology to companies like Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Adobe Systems.
On the other end of the spectrum, Google – which started out as an internet search engine firm – started a self-driving car project in 2009. In 2016, it spun off that project into a new company, Waymo. In 2017, Waymo started testing vehicles on roads. Soon, small scale production of these vehicles will start in a factory near Detroit.
While self-driving cars have not become the norm yet, the fact that a large company like Google was willing to invest heavily in that technology says something important about Google: It will take chances and continually innovate. It embraces change. It has created an environment where innovators and early adopters are protected, encouraged, and given a voice. And they aren’t limited by the company’s early identity as “just” a web search firm.
Let’s look at the terms “innovators” and “early adopters.” Definitions of those terms come from research done by Everett Rogers in the early 1960s. Here is a chart that summarizes his research.
This research shows that, while many people eventually will adopt something new, only 16 percent of us will be innovators and early adopters. This has been proven relevant again and again in areas ranging from consumer products and fashion to design and technology.
We have to accept that we won’t all be on the cutting edge, but we also have to recognize that we need that cutting edge if we plan to stay ahead of the competition. So, if we can’t all be innovators and early adopters, how do we support those of us who do fit those descriptions?
We give them a platform, protect them, listen, and, above all, give their ideas a chance. We accept that trying something new is risky, and therefore we don’t demote or cast aside these people when an idea doesn’t work out. We encourage them to try again and again, and we foster a safe environment that encourages the innovators – and attracts more innovators. We recognize that some of these innovative ideas can take us to the next level – ideas like a vivarium inside a high rise, lighting that helps mental health patients by mirroring circadian rhythms, lab spaces that can be reconfigured as research needs change, data-based design choices, and more.
It is important for leadership of companies to protect and nurture their innovators and early adopters. So, the big question is this: Where do you think you are on the innovation continuum – are you more like Kodak or Google?
Jeff Bischoff is chief operating officer at BSA LifeStructures. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.