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Innovator’s Delight

Source: the book

Knowing my interest in tech strategy, a coworker recommended I pick up HBS professor Clayton Christensen’s “classic” book on disruptive innovation: The Innovator’s Dilemma. And, I have to say I was very impressed.

The book tries to answer a very interesting question: why do otherwise successful companies sometimes fail to keep up on innovation? Christensen’s answer is counter-intuitive but deep: the very factors that make a company successful, like listening to customer needs, make it difficult for successful companies to adopt disruptive innovations which create new markets and new capabilities.

This sounds completely irrational, and I was skeptical when I first heard it, but Christensen makes a very compelling case for it. He begins the book by considering the hard disk drive (HDD) industry. The reason for this is, as Christensen puts it (and this is merely page one of chapter one!):

“Those who study genetics avoid studying humans, because new generations come along only every thirty years or so, and so it takes a long time to understand the cause and effect of any changes. Instead, they study fruit flies, because fruit flies are conceived, born, mature, and die all within a single day. If you want to understand why something happens in business, study the disk drive industry. Those companies are the closest things to fruit flies that the business world will ever see.”

From that oddly compelling start, Christensen applies multiple techniques to establish the grounds for his theory. He begins by admitting that his initial hypothesis for why some HDD companies successfully innovated had nothing to do with his current explanation and was something he called “the technology mudslide”: that because technology is constantly evolving and shifting (like a mudslide), companies which could not keep moving to stay afloat (i.e. by innovating) would slip and fall.

But, when he investigated the different types of technological innovations which hit the HDD industry, he found that the large companies were actually constantly innovating, developing new techniques and technologies to improve their products. Contrary to the opinion of many in the startup community, big companies did not lack innovative agility – in fact, they were the leaders in developing and acquiring the successful technologies which allowed them to make better and better products.
But, every now and then, when the basis of competition changed, like the shift to a smaller hard disk size to accommodate a new product category like minicomputers versus mainframes or laptops versus desktops, the big companies faltered.

From that profound yet seemingly innocuous observation grew a series of studies across a number of industries (the book covers industries ranging from hardcore technology like hard disk drives and computers to industries that you normally wouldn’t associate with rapid technological innovation like mechanical excavators, off-road motorbikes, and even discount retailing) which helped Christensen come to a basic logical story involving six distinct steps:

  1. Three things dictate a company’s strategy: resources, processes, and values. Any strategy that a company wishes to embark on will fail if the company doesn’t have the necessary resources (e.g. factories, talent, etc.), processes (e.g. organizational structure, manufacturing process, etc.), and values (e.g. how a company decides between different choices). It doesn’t matter if you have two of the three.
  2. Large, successful companies value listening to their customers. Successful companies became successful because they were able to create and market products that customers were willing to pay for. Companies that didn’t do this wouldn’t survive, and resources and processes which didn’t “get with the program” were either downsized or re-oriented.
  3. Successful companies help create ecosystems which are responsive to customer needs. Successful companies need to have ways of supporting their customers. This means they need to have or build channels (e.g. through a store, or online), services (e.g. repair, installation), standards (e.g. how products are qualified and work with one another), and partners (e.g. suppliers, ecosystem partners) which are all dedicated towards the same goal. If this weren’t true, the companies would all either fail or be replaced by companies which could “get with the program.”
  4. Large, successful companies value big opportunities. If you’re a $10 million company, you only need to generate an extra $1 million in sales to grow 10%. If you’re a $10 billion company, you need to find an extra $1 billion in sales to grow an equivalent amount. Is it any wonder, then, that large companies will look to large opportunities? After all, if companies started throwing significant resources or management effort on small opportunities, the company would quickly be passed up by its competitors.
  5. Successful companies don’t have the values or processes to push innovations aimed at unproven markets, which serve new customers and needs. Because successful companies value big opportunities which meet the needs of their customers and are embedded in ecosystems which help them do that, they will mobilize their resources and processes in the best way possible to fulfill and market those needs. And, in fact, that is what Christensen saw – in almost every market he studied, when the customers of successful companies needed a new feature or level of quality, successful companies were almost always successful at either leading or acquiring the innovation necessary to do that. But, when it came to experimental products offering slimmer profit margins and targeting new customers with new needs and new ecosystems in unproven markets, successful companies often failed, even if management made those new markets a priority, because those companies lacked the values and/or processes needed. After all, if you were working in IBM’s Mainframe division, why would you chase the lower-performance, lower-profit minicomputer industry and its unfamiliar set of customers and needs and distribution channels?
  6. Disruptive innovations tend to start as inferior products, but, over time improve and eventually displace older technologies. Using the previous example, while IBM’s mainframe division found it undesirable to enter the minicomputer market, the minicomputer players were very eager to “go North” and capture the higher performance and profitability that the mainframe players enjoyed. The result? Because of the values of the mainframe players as compared with the values of the minicomputer players, minicomputer companies focused on improving their technology to both service their customer’s needs and capture the mainframe business, resulting in one disruptive innovation replacing an older one.

The most interesting thing that Christensen pointed out was that, in many cases, established companies actually beat new players to a disruptive innovation (as happened several times in the HDD and mechanical excavator industries)! But, because these companies lacked the necessary values, processes, and ecosystem, they were unable to successfully market them. Their success actually doomed them to failure!

But Christensen doesn’t stop with this multi-faceted and thorough look at why successful companies fail at disruptive innovation. He spends a sizable portion of the book explaining how companies can fight the “trappings” of success (i.e. by creating semi-independent organizations that can chase new markets and be excited about smaller opportunities), and even closes the book with an interesting “ahead-of-his-time” look (remember, this book was written over a decade ago!) at how to bring about electric cars.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the technology industry or even, more broadly speaking, on understanding how to think about corporate strategy. While most business books on this subject use high-flying generalizations and poorly evaluated case studies, Christensen approaches each problem with a level of rigor and thoroughness that you rarely see in corporate boardrooms. His structured approach to explaining how disruptive innovations work, who tends to succeed at them, why, and how to conquer/adapt to them makes for a fascinating read, and, in my humble opinion, is a great example of how corporate strategy should be done – by combining well-researched data and structured thinking. To top it all, I can think of no higher praise than to say that this book, despite being written over a decade ago, has many parallels to strategic issues that companies face today (i.e. what will determine if cloud computing on netbooks can replace the traditional PC model? Will cleantech successfully replace coal and oil?), and has a number of deep insights into how venture capital firms and startups can succeed, as well as some insights into how to create organizations which can be innovative on more than just one level.

Book: The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen

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Seed the Market

In my Introduction to Tech Strategy post, I mentioned that one of the most important aspects of the technology industry is the importance of ecosystem linkages. There are several ways to think about ecosystem linkages. The main linkages I mentioned in my previous post was influence over technology standards. But, there is another very important ecosystem effect for technology companies to think about: encouraging demand.

For Microsoft to be successful, for instance, they must make sure that consumers and businesses are buying new and more powerful computers. For Google to be successful, they must make sure that people are actively using the internet to find information. For Cisco to be successful, they must make sure that people are actively downloading and sharing information over networks.

Is it any wonder, then, that Microsoft develops business software (e.g. Microsoft Office) and games? Or that Google has pushed hard to encourage more widespread internet use by developing an easy-to-use web browser and two internet-centric operating systems (Android and ChromeOS)? Or that Cisco entered the set top box business (to encourage more network traffic) by acquiring Scientific Atlanta and is pushing for companies to adopt web conferencing systems (which consume a lot of networking capacity) like WebEx?

These examples hopefully illustrate that for leading tech companies, it is not sufficient just to develop a good product. It is also important that you move to make sure that customers will continue to demand your product, and a lot more of it.

This is something that Dogbert understands intuitively as this comic strip points out:

Source: Dilbert

To be a leading executive recruiter, its not sufficient just to find great executives – you have to make sure there is demand for new executives. No wonder Dogbert is such a successful CEO. He grasps business strategy like no other.

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Surviving a Consultant’s Axe

Gawker, who seems to really hate McKinsey and other management consulting firms, recently put out a “Complete McKinsey Survival Guide” in response to McKinsey recently being retained by magazine publisher Conde Nast where they lay out a couple of interesting thoughts on how to survive a consultant’s downsizing tendencies including:

Suck Up—Kiss ass, Kiss ass, Kiss ass. “Suck up to your own superiors, and their superiors, and theirs.” It’s just that simple. A brown nose could give you a minute edge on your fellow layoff-eligibles.

Practice Subtle Backstabbing—You don’t want to be seen as a desperate bastard ready to sell out any and all of your colleagues to save your own job (even though you are). You just want to plant the seed. Take it from someone who’s been there: ” Don’t talk shit about individuals, talk shit about DIVISIONS in a passive-aggressive way. Saying things like: ‘Those fellows that work in [blank] division are really nice guys, but I’ve worked here for five years and I still don’t know what they do’ is a winner.” Corporate espionage at its finest, ladies and gentlemen.”

And they even made a suggestion that you practice some form of sexual quid pro quo as a means to escape the hatchet…

The read was entertaining, albeit a little ridiculous with some of the suggestions, but this consultant wanted to clear the air and offer three thoughts:

  1. A consulting firm is not necessarily there to fire people. Yes, that is what they are often called on to do because many firms are staffed very inefficiently (too many people in some divisions, too many managers with no reports in other divisions, too many layers of management/bureaucracy) and management oftentimes lacks the competence or the courage to trim headcount on their own. That being said, management consulting firms are also frequently brought in to do other things like:
    • Business strategy – what markets or market strategies should the company or business unit pursue
    • Supply chain strategy – how can a business reduce its cost structure by re-negotiating its contracts with suppliers
    • Workforce re-deployment – how can a business re-organize its salesforce (not necessarily downsize) to optimize its results (e.g. move X people from West coast to Europe, etc)
    • Operations support – how can a business optimize its decision-making process (e.g. how many people need to approve a decision before its made) or operations (e.g. how can I make a factory process work more smoothly)
  2. If the consulting firm is here to help your company fire people, there’s probably not much you can do. Any consulting firm worth their salt will come to their final recommendation based on objective fact-finding and analysis where they poll many experts both from within the company and externally. It is relatively unlikely that Gawker’s suggestions that you subtly backstab another division or suck up to the consultants will change any of that, unless you have an amazing ability to prove the value of your division or group in such a way that even your senior management and external experts cannot (in which case you should have been doing that already…).
  3. You should see if you can join the joint-working sessions. Although this likely won’t change the outcome, it probably makes sense to join the consulting firm-internal team joint working group if you can, if only to help raise your awareness about (a) how senior managers think and rationalize large business decisions, something with which can help your career, and (b) come up with a sensible way for how to spin whatever decision the consulting firm comes up with.
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Tech Strategy 101

Working on tech strategy consulting case for 18 months ingrains a thing or two in your head about strategy for tech companies, so I thought I’d lay out, in one blog post the major lessons I’ve learned about how strategy in the technology sector works.

To understand that, it’s important to first understand what makes technology special? From that perspective, there are three main things which drive tech strategy:

  1. Low cost of innovation – Technology companies need to be innovative to be successful, duh. But, the challenge with handling tech strategy is not innovation but that innovation in technology is cheap. Your product can be as easily outdone by a giant with billions of dollars like Google as it can be outdone by a couple of bright guys in a garage who still live with their parents.
  2. Moore’s Law – When most technologists think of Moore’s Law, they think of its academic consequences (mainly that chip technology doubles every two years). This is true (and has been for over 50 years), but the strategic consequence of Moore’s Law can be summed up in six words: “Tomorrow will be better, faster, cheaper.” Can you think of any other industry which has so quickly and consistently increased quality while lowering cost?
  3. Ecosystem linkages – No technology company stands alone. They are all inter-related and inter-dependent. Facebook may be a giant in the Web world, but it’s success depends on a wide range of relationships: it depends on browser makers adhering to web standards, on Facebook application developers wanting to use the Facebook platform, on hardware providers selling the right hardware to let Facebook handle the millions of users who want to use it, on CDNs/telecom companies providing the right level of network connectivity, on internet advertising standards, etc. This complex web of relationships is referred to by many in the industry as the ecosystem. A technology company must learn to understand and shape its ecosystem in order to succeed.

Put it all together, what does it all mean? Four things:

Source: the book

I. Only the paranoid survive
This phrase, popularized by ex-Intel CEO Andy Grove, is very apt for describing the tech industry. The low cost of innovation means that your competition could come from anywhere: well-established companies, medium-sized companies, hot new startups, enterprising university students, or a legion of open source developers. The importance of ecosystem linkages means that your profitability is dependent not only on what’s going on with your competitors, but also about the broader ecosystem. If you’re Microsoft, you don’t only have to think about what competitors like Apple and Linux are doing, you also need to think about the health of the overall PC market, about how to connect your software to new smartphones, and many other ecosystem concerns which affect your profitability. And the power of Moore’s Law means that new products need to be rolled out quickly, as old products rapidly turn into antiques from the advance of technology. The result of all of this is that only the technology companies which are constantly fearful of emerging threats will succeed.

II. To win big, you need to change the rules
The need to be constantly innovative (Moore’s Law and low cost of innovation) and the importance of ecosystem linkages favors large, incumbent companies, because they have the resources/manpower to invest in marketing, support, and R&D and they are the ones with the existing ecosystem relationships. As a result, the only way for a little startup to win big, or for a large company to attack another large company is to change the rules of competition. For Apple, to win in a smartphone market dominated by Nokia and RIM required changing the rules of the “traditional” smartphone competition by:

  • Building a new type of user-interface driven by accelerometer and touchscreen unlike anything seen before
  • Designing in a smartphone web browser actually comparable to what you’d expect on a PC as opposed to a pale imitation
  • Building an application store to help establish a new definition of smartphone – one that runs a wide range of software rather than one that runs only software from the carrier/phone manufacturer
  • Bringing the competition back to Apple’s home turf of making complete hardware and software solutions which tie together well, rather than just competing on one or the other

Apple’s iPhone not only provided a tidy profit for Apple, it completely took RIM, which had been betting on taking its enterprise features into the consumer smartphone market, and Nokia, which had been betting on its services strategy, by surprise. Now, Nokia and every other phone manufacturer is desperately trying to compete in a game designed by Apple – no wonder Nokia recently forecasted that it expected its market share to continue to drop.

But it’s not just Apple that does this. Some large companies like Microsoft and Cisco are masters at this game, routinely disrupting new markets with products and services which tie back to their other product offerings – forcing incumbents to compete not only with a new product, but with an entire “platform”. Small up-and-comers can also play this game. MySQL is a great example of a startup which turned the database market on its head by providing access to its software and source code for free (to encourage adoption) in return for a chance to sell services.

III. Be a good ecosystem citizen
Successful tech companies cannot solely focus on their specific markets and product lines. The importance of ecosystem linkages forces tech companies to look outward.

  • They must influence industry standards, oftentimes working with their competitors (case in point: look at the corporate membership in the Khronos Group which controls the OpenGL graphics standard), to make sure their products are supported by the broader industry.
  • They oftentimes have to give away technology and services for free to encourage the ecosystem to work with them. Even mighty Microsoft, who’s CEO had once called Linux “a cancer”, has had to open source 20,000 lines of operating system code in an attempt to increase the attractiveness of the Microsoft server platform to Linux technology. Is anyone surprised that Google and Nokia have open sourced the software for their Android and Symbian mobile phone operating systems and have gone to great lengths to make it easy for software developers to design software for them?
  • They have to work collaboratively with a wide range of partners and providers. Intel and Microsoft work actively with PC manufacturers to help with marketing and product targeting. Mobile phone chip manufacturers invest millions in helping mobile phone makers and mobile software developers build phones with their chip technology. Even “simple” activities like outsourcing manufacturing requires a strong partnership in order to get things done properly.
  • The largest of companies (e.g. Cisco, Intel, Qualcomm, etc) takes this whole influence thing a whole step further by creating corporate venture groups to invest in startups, oftentimes for the purpose of influencing the ecosystem in their favor.

The technology company that chooses not to play nice with the rest of the ecosystem will rapidly find itself alone and unprofitable.

IV. Never stop overachieving
There are many ways to screw up in the technology industry. You might not be paranoid enough and watch as a new competitor or Moore’s Law eats away at your profits. You might not present a compelling enough product and watch as your partners and the industry as a whole shuns your product. But the terrifying thing is that this is true regardless of how well you were doing a few months ago — it could just as easily happen to a market leader as a market follower (i.e. Polaroid watching its profits disappear when digital cameras entered the scene).
As a result, it’s important for every technology company to keep their eye on the ball in two key areas, so as to reduce the chance of misstep and increase the chance that you recover when you eventually do:

  • Stay lean – I am amazed at how many observers of the technology industry (most often the marketing types) seem to think that things like keeping costs low, setting up a good IT system, and maintaining a nimble yet deliberate decision process are unimportant as long as you have an innovative design or technology. This is very short-sighted especially when you consider how easy it is for a company to take a wrong step. Only the lean and nimble companies will survive the inevitable hard times, and, in good times, it is the lean and nimble companies which can afford to cut prices and offer more services better than their competitors.
  • Invest in innovation – At the end of the day, technology is about innovation, and the companies which consistently grow and turn a profit are the ones who invest in that. If your engineers and scientists aren’t getting the resources it needs, no amount of marketing or “business development” will save you from oblivion. And, if your engineers/scientists are cranking out top notch research and development, then even if you make a mistake, there’s a decent chance you’ll be ready to bounce right back.

Obviously, each of these four “conclusions” needs to be fleshed out further with details and concrete analyses before they can be truly called a “strategy”. But, I think they are a very useful framework for understanding how to make a tech company successful (although they don’t give any magic answers), and any exec who doesn’t understand these will eventually learn them the hard way.

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Robbing a store with a Klingon weapon

I consider myself, unabashedly, a big Star Trek fan. Being a big fan means a lot of things. It means that I can quickly engage another Star Trek fan in a myriad of conversation about alien races and science fiction scenarios and debates about “which captain was the greatest”.

It also means that I can recognize a Klingon Bat’leth, a traditional weapon of the Klingon race:

What being a fan doesn’t mean, however, is that I take said Bat’leth and use it to rob a store:

COLORADO SPRINGS — A surveillance picture released by police Wednesday afternoon shows a man armed with what appears to be a small Klingon sword, holding up a 7-Eleven convenience store.

That same man robbed another 7-Eleven store store a half-hour later, and remains at large, Colorado Springs police Lt. David Whitlock said.

The first robbery was reported at 1:50 a.m., at 145 N Spruce St. The clerk told police a white man in his 20s, wearing a black mask, black jacket, and blue jeans, entered the store with a weapon the clerk recognized from the Star Trek TV series.

The robber demanded money and left with an undisclosed amount.

A half hour later, police received a call from a 7-Eleven at 2407 N. Union Blvd., where a man matching the previous description entered the store with a similar weapon. He also demanded money from the store clerk. The clerk refused and the robber “transported” himself out of the store on foot.

Both clerks described the weapon as a Star Trek Klingon-type sword, called a “bat’leth.”

Neither clerk was injured in the robberies.

It especially means that I wouldn’t try to rob a store with a Bat’leth that is too small for even a child Klingon warrior to use:

Now, this is a bat’leth that you might be able to rob a store with:

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The “First Lady” of Star Trek

I just discovered, with much sadness, that Majel Roddenberry, wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, the actress who played the ever-memorable Lwaxana Troi, and the voice of all the various incarnations of Star Trek’s “computers” has just passed away.

I just spent the past couple of minutes browsing her Wikipedia page, and found some amusing anecdotes:

She first appeared in Star Trek’s initial pilot, “The Cage”, as the USS Enterprise’s unnamed first officer. Barrett was romantically involved with Roddenberry, and the idea of having an otherwise unknown woman in a leading role because she was the producer’s girlfriend is said to have infuriated NBC executives who insisted that Roddenberry give the role to a man. In Star Trek Memories, William Shatner noted that women viewers felt she was “pushy” and “annoying” and thought that “Number One shouldn’t be trying so hard to fit in with the men.” Barrett often joked that Roddenberry, given the choice between keeping Mr. Spock (whom the network also hated) or the woman character, “kept the Vulcan and married the woman, ’cause he didn’t think Leonard [Nimoy] would have it the other way around.”

I don’t know what Gene Roddenberry was thinking, but Star Trek would always cast her in the role of women who fell in love with men who could/would never return their affection: first as a woman who fell in love with the non-emotional Spock and later as the outrageous mother of Deanna Troi who chased Captain Picard and Odo:

That Mrs. Roddenberry will reprise her role as “the computer” in the new Star Trek movie has just made it a lot more meaningful for me.

RIP

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Made in Taiwan

I’ve been on my current consulting case for about 3 months. It is a strategy case for a technology client. As a result, I’ve been able to do a great deal of work researching various technology markets and trends, ranging from the typical (Internet search) to the more esoteric (grid computing), as I help the client scope out possible expansion opportunities.

During the course of this research, I have been surprised by many aspects of the technology value chain I did not appreciate before, but what I found most surprising on a personal level was how important Taiwan is to the global technology market.

This is a particular point of pride for me, for despite Taiwan’s pre-eminence as an economic power and it’s fascinating fusion of Western, Japanese, and Chinese influences, the island is not given the same respect or attention as Hong Kong or Singapore. Despite a vibrant political system, it has no seat on the United Nations, no diplomatic recognition by any major country, and even to the United States which guards the island as if it were its own, it is the black sheep of the US’s circle of friends.

And yet, the world as you or I know it would not be able to get along without it:

  1. Taiwan is the center of the world’s semiconductor foundry business. Because cutting-edge semiconductor factories (called fabs) are so expensive to manufacture, only the largest semiconductor firms (such as Samsung and Intel) have the annual sales numbers to justify building their own factories. Smaller players are better off outsourcing their production capacity to dedicated semiconductor factories, called foundries. Today, almost all semiconductor manufacturers use the services of a foundry to build most if not all of their semiconductors. The world’s two largest foundries, TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor) and UMC (United Microelectronics) are located in Taiwan, and together control approximately 60% of the world foundry business (the next largest foundry is only half the size of UMC, which is itself only about one third the size of TSMC!) and exert significant influence in the global semiconductor industry.
  2. Taiwan is the center of the world’s electronics manufacturing services. What many people don’t realize is that companies like Apple and Dell tend to only specialize in marketing and some design, but not in manufacturing (which would involve building a factory, gaining manufacturing expertise and skill, and other expensive and difficult things for a firm trying to stay lean and on the cutting edge). These firms thus outsource their manufacturing to specialized firms called Electronic Manufacturing Services (EMS) firms. The world’s largest EMS company by far is the Foxconn/Hon Hai conglomerate which is responsible for about 20% of the world’s outsourced electronics manufacturing, almost double that of the second largest firm. Never heard of them? You’ve certainly heard of its products: the MacBook Pro, the iPhone, the iPod, the Playstation 3, the Wii, the Xbox 360, graphics cards for AMD/ATI and NVIDIA, … the list goes on.
  3. Taiwan is the world’s original design manufacturing capital. Original design manufacturers (ODMs) go a step further than EMS firms — they actually do provide some of their own design services (which begs the question of what we’re paying Dell and HP and Apple for when they’re outsourcing design to ODMs). This is one reason that many ODMs are also original electronics manufacturers (OEMs) — companies which attach brands to the electronics themselves (think Apple, Lenovo, Dell, etc.) Of the top 10 ODMs in the world in 2006, at least 9 are Taiwanese companies (and that’s because I was too lazy to look up the last one — TPV technology) — those firms alone control nearly 70% of the global ODM market — and they include Windows Mobile phone manufacturer and Open Handset Alliance member HTC and the rapidly growing computer OEM ASUS.
  4. Taiwan is also home to D-Link and Acer. The latter of which recently is trying to resurrect dying brands of eMachines and Gateway.

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