There is a paradox in the field of innovation: everyone is in favor of it, I never meet a manager who explains to me that he does not want to innovate, quite the contrary; They all want to innovate. And yet in most companies, innovation is blocked. An important cause of this paradox lies in a conflict of commitment between the present and the future. Let’s look at it in more detail.
My latest post on Forbes, written with Milo Jones, is a reflection on difficulty of transformation by incumbent companies in the face of digital disruption. It’s available here.
This is unfortunately a common experience: during an executive seminar on innovation I ran for a large group, we outlined an innovation strategy based in particular on the development of intrapreneurship. We designed programs that would allow employees to develop their ideas, and defined appropriate structures and devices to make it work. Then finally came the crucial moment, when one of the participants asked the fateful question: “But do we have the people to do this?” Everyone looked appalled. The HR manager – fortunately she was present – answered, embarrassed, “Well actually, no we don’t.” Game over.
One of my favorite questions when I teach Innovation is to ask participants how long it took for Nestlé to succeed with their Nespresso coffee machine. So what’s your answer? One year? Five year? Well no. The answer is 21 years. Based on a technology licensed from the Battelle Institute by Nestlé in… 1974, Nespresso only became profitable in 1995 after much ups and downs. 21 years were needed to make a success of the Nespresso innovation.
During this period, the project went through severe technical problems several times, a few failed launches, and wrong markets with wrong business models. For instance, one of the first commercialization attempts targeted restaurants. The idea was that a small espresso machine would be appealing to them. Wrong analysis. A small machine saves space but the unit cost of a cup of coffee is much higher than that of a large, heavy-duty machine. But most restaurants have enough space and care a lot about unit cost. Hence the failure. Initially launched within Nestlé, the project is hosted in a separate unit after some time as a result of the widespread skepticism – to say the least – about it within the company. Simply put, nobody believes in it. This is because the product doesn’t fit the company’s business model, which is essentially to sell light products such as coffee or snacks in packages through supermarkets. Nespresso, on the contrary, involves producing and selling a coffee machine and selling coffee cups to machine owners. In addition, the project requires an important budget at the expense of other units who face stiff competition and can’t afford to reduce their own budget for such an uncertain project. Despite the failures, the project carries on thanks the political skills of the team. Until then managed by pure Nestlé lifers, the real break for the project came when Nestlé recruited an outsider – Jean-Paul Gaillard, to lead it. Gaillard was known at that time for having successfully launched Marlboro‘s line of clothes. He had no knowledge of the coffee business but knew how to launch a radically new business unit that broke from the company’s main line of business. He also came from a different culture from the the traditional, rather conservative and low profile Nestlé culture. Nestlé is a very very well managed company that produces profits year after year like a Swiss clock, so the length of the Nespresso innovation process cannot be explained by saying that Nestlé is not well managed. Market studies were negative, nobody wanted the product, but Gaillard ignored them and finally launched the product with the high-end, consumer positioning we know today
And it worked. The Nespresso Club, another innovation, added to the premium positioning and helped with word of mouth and direct marketing. Yet another innovation for Nestlé, the opening of shops, owned by Nestlé. The overall project shows many innovations and significant risk taken by the company. It also shows the persistence of Nestlé, or rather of some Nestlé managers, in the face of persistent skepticism and negative market feedback: 21 years of failures, and each and every year the company soldiers on. 21 years, for a coffee machine! But 21 years giving way to one of the most successful and profitable products in the history of Nestlé. In the first semester of 2009, at the heart of the world recession and despite competition from Senseo and Tassimo for instance, Nespresso sales grew by 25%.
It is often assumed that innovation is about bringing new offerings or methods to the market. In business, there would be a noble side, that of innovation, and a less noble one, that of managing operations. Nothing could be further from the truth. One of the most fundamental aspects of the free market system lies in its ability to reduce costs, and therefore prices.
In his monumental piece "Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy", still an essential read sixty years later, Schumpeter explains that innovation is not the capitalist system's distinguishing feature: other civilizations or political systems have been innovative in sime areas as well (think of space technologies in the former USSR or Law in ancient Rome). The real distinguishing feature of the system is its inherent ability to democratize innovation by making available new products to the masses. This is achieved both through its ability to organize efficiently but also and more importantly through the ability to decrease costs. In other words, the symbol of capitalism and innovation is not so much the start-up as Wal-Mart, the low-cost supermarket that saves Americans' mostly low-income customers about $50 billion a year. For these customers who struggle to make ends meet, it's something.
Schumpeter thus summarized the argument:"The capitalist engine is first and last an engine of mass production which unavoidably also means production for the masses… It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort. . . . the capitalist process, not by coincidence but by virtue of its mechanism, progressively raises the standard of life of the masses." (source)
Unlike what The Economist explains in their must-read article "The Silence of the Mammon", I don't think defending this system in the name of this formidable wealth creation and affordability is defensive or smacks appeasement. On the contrary, it's a perfectly valid argument as it does not pretend to bestow other responsibilities to this system than it is supposed to have.
How did Nokia become a leader of the mobile phone industry in the 90s ?
It’s really hard to see favorable predispositions for a Finnish group initially specialized in mining and forest exploitation, although Nokia already had activities in the radio phones back in the 60s.
It seems that one of the thing which triggered its astonishing success as a mass-market mobile phone producer goes back to a mission carried out by Gary Hamel, the famous strategy guru. To boost the Finnish company creativity, Hamel suggested that teams of Nokia senior managers be sent in three rather special places : Venice Beach in California, King’s Road in London, and the Tokyo night club area…(probably for the greatest delight of the managers, who we rather think of as more used to the polar circle…) Why? Because it was thought that in these areas, trend setters in the use of high technology could be found. The creative spark is not always hidden in a 250 page Gartner Group report, nor in series of endless internal brainstorming meetings… Sometimes, it’s more productive to live as real customers, in remote places ; the creative spark is there, right under your nose. It’s after these “learning expeditions” that Nokia understood that mobile phones had gone beyond their utilitarian purpose, and that they had become “fashion accessories”.