Innovation – Who Should You Fast Follow?
In a recent, and strangely unremarked post, I wrote about some reasons that firms don’t innovate. Perhaps one of the most telling is what I call the “safety of sameness”. No one ever gets fired if they:
- Hire IBM
- Execute a strategy McKinsey suggested, or
- Become a “fast follower” and mimic what other firms in the space do
The beauty of the safety of sameness strategy is that we’ll allow others to take all of the innovation risk and we’ll swoop down, copy their ideas and we’ll be the winner. In theory this is a great idea, in practice there are a number of reasons why this is risky.
First, becoming a fast follower, if there is such a thing, means intentionally adopting a reactive posture. If you are a fast follower you are intentionally setting out your strategies, processes and operations to react to what others do – in fact you’ve abdicated any responsibility for uncovering new opportunities or establishing an alternative vision. Over time, any strategic capabilities you have will atrophy, and when the disruption happens, and it will happen, you won’t have the internal capabilities to respond.
Second, I remain unconvinced that there is such a thing as a “fast follower”. If a fast follower exists, it must have the most optimized decision making and product development and launch practices in the industry. It must be able to decide exactly when to enter each market, just as the early adopters are giving way to the late adopters. It must be able to re-engineer or re-architect its competitors products in such a way that customers view them as indistinguishable. In my experience, no such firm exists. There are pioneers, slow followers and laggards, but no “fast followers”.
Third, a fast follower strategy assumes that there is a relatively lengthy product development cycle. The length of that cycle allows you to gear up, copy the innovators and get into the market before the onslaught of competition, and with enough time to generate revenues and profits before the market deteriorates. While that thinking may have held water in the past, the pace of change and speed of business has increased to the point where product cycles are far shorter. Do you have the ability to shrink your product cycles and still make money?
Fourth, being a fast follower means identifying the “right” innovator to follow and hoping like crazy that that firm has good insights. Supposed you’d hitched your wagon to DEC computers in the 80s, or even Apple computer in the 90s before the iPod. These market leaders fell on hard times. DEC never recovered and Apple recovered not because of computers but because of consumer electronics. So for all of those fast followers that were pursuing Sony (Walkman/Discman/etc), you lose and Apple wins, at least for now.
Finally, being an innovator means setting out your own course. As they say in dog sledding – if you aren’t the lead dog the view never changes. Innovators want to be out in front, establishing their own “blue oceans” and meeting previously unmet or unarticulated needs. I often have clients tell me they want to be the next iPod or Google of their industry. What I hope they’ll become is the first “X Corp” in their industry. Becoming the next anything is setting your sights too low. I thought about differentiation when I saw the cartoon above from GapingVoid. Don’t be the “next” Google. After all, Google was just the next Yahoo. Decide to leave the safety of sameness and become the first “something”.
Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of “Make us more Innovative”, and innovateonpurpose.blogspot.com.
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