Innovators usually make bad businessmen. They get so enamoured with the product that they may ignore the ecosystem. A product that works wonderfully in sterile lab conditions has to be transposed to the rough and tumble of everyday life; unless the inventor can simulate the innovation in the open, it will be a difficult business proposition. This is a stereotypical view about innovations. So, are good businessmen usually bad innovators? Not necessarily. They could be great innovators, introducing new products and moving the frontiers of the business. But why do great innovations fail?
Welcome to the different world of highly competitive business corporations, identifying a niche customer need, investing in research, developing a scalable product and then failing in the market. What could businesses learn from failures? Is it okay not to be a pioneer? The Wide Lens is a refreshingly different business book on the subject. It builds a theory from successful innovations and (mostly) failed businesses. The essential argument that Ron Adner provides is that if we are in the business, we are in an ecosystem and are not working in isolation. So innovation is not just about, say, carrying out research on Run-Flat, the tyres that were developed by Michelin. The product that was developed was technically superior and possibly a game-changer in the marketplace. Michelin protected itself with a fortress of patents, but unless there was an entire ecosystem of service stations that could service such a concept, automobile manufacturers who saw merit in it and customers willing to experiment with it, it was never going to succeed.
It is with examples like this that Adner discusses, and argues for, a “wide lens” approach for innovation. It is an approach fraught with risks because innovations are usually shrouded in secrecy. But if the business does not take the ecosystem into consideration and if the external environment is not equipped to support the product, it will fail. Therefore, businesses need to look at co-innovation, understanding the adoption chain risk and looking at the internal and external ecosystem.
In this delightfully written book, Adner uses several examples to talk about how innovation should be aligned with the understanding of the final customer experience. How does one overcome the innovator’s blind spot? Nokia saw the opportunity to grow in the mobile phone market and the next big thing was 3G. The first challenge was to build the product; next was to get component suppliers to co-create the product. But what is the use of launching a Ferrari in a place that has no roads? When Nokia launched a 3G phone, were the telcos ready to launch the service with adequate spectrum? And were the apps that make a 3G phone a delight ready? Did it provide a superior customer experience? In highlighting this aspect, we learn that the success of an innovative product depends on the ability of many others to rise to the challenges and deliver in their respective niche areas.
When we talk innovation in this age, it is difficult to ignore Apple and Steve Jobs. Adner analyses Apple and its products extensively and provides an explanation to its success using the wide lens framework.
Adner explains how Apple mostly got its timing right, whether it was the iPod, which came in much after many MP3 players, or the iPhone, which was a late smartphone launch. Both these products represented a timing that was smart and features that the ecosystem allowed the consumer to use. The setting up of iTunes provided easy content for the iPod, and the iPhone was more about moving the loyal iPod customers into the mobile phone market by providing additional features. While Apple did unconventional things like tightly controlling the apps as well as locking the phone with a single service provider, Adner sees a greater pattern in that strategy of differentiation, targeted voice and data plans and uniqueness that the carrier could provide exclusively for Apple owners.
While Adner talks about a series of failures because the companies did not see the ecosystem (Sony’s e-reader, Philips’ HDTV, the current 3D TVs, insulin inhalers and so on), the most impressive chapter is the one about the wide lens framework for an Electric Vehicle (EV). He does a complete analysis of the ecosystem and breaks it up into neat parts that need to be fixed. He then provides a framework of how Better Place in Israel is addressing these issues in launching the EV. This is instructive, and only time will tell whether Adner’s framework had captured all the elements of success or whether there were some elements that were left out. It is one thing to analyse failures, but quite another to predict success.
Which is why it is hoped that Adner’s book is not ahead of its time – one of the usual reasons provided for commercial failures of business innovations – and does well in the market.
THE WIDE LENS
A New Strategy for Innovation
The reviewer is an independent researcher and consultant; firstname.lastname@example.org