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The Innovator's Dilemma

Sept. 15, 2015
How do you move forward without severing your ties to the past? Take a lesson from Google's mistakes.
How do you move forward without severing your ties to the past? Take a lesson from Google's mistakes.

In 2005, Google launched what many of us still regard as the best RSS platform ever designed, Google Reader.

The site let readers easily peruse thousands of articles, blog posts, images, and updates from their favorite sites, no matter how obscure or diverse. It was simple and perfect. In its 8-year run, the service collected a relatively small but desperately addicted audience of users—loudly supportive devotes that were absolutely ravenous for the information, leads, and insights Reader provided.

But then came Google+, the Facebook-like platform that promised to deliver all the best parts of Reader plus a host of social functions and capabilities. In 2013, Google decided to shut down Readerand fold Reader’s audience into Google+. Because, of course, Plus was the big new thing, a state-of-the-art site that would serve all of our needs.

Except, Reader already served those needs. We didn’t want anything else. So we did what any disgruntled consumer does: we left Google for the competition and never looked back.

This is a pretty common story today. With all of the changes occurring in the market now, and with all of the tools we have at our disposal – from IoT and robotics to advanced materials and design software—products are changing faster and more profoundly than ever before.

Whether you make wrenches or wheels, CNCs or AGVs, chances are you have a next-generation product somewhere in the pipeline that will blow your core offering out of the water.

The temptation for these kinds of disruptions is always to go the Google+ route—to market them in the biggest way possible and position your newest, greatest efforts front and center for the whole world to see. You put the weight of your entire company behind it and pull in all of your customers to enjoy it.

But it’s risky business. Going that route may alienate your base, all of those existing consumers whose needs are already met by your current product. Forcing them to embrace a new model or a new direction—no matter how sound it may be—means you may lose them to competitors offering the tried and true.

This is the innovator’s dilemma: How do you move forward without severing your ties to the past?

Sealed Air’s work on the new Bubble Wrap discussed in this month’s cover story might be a good map through this dilemma.

Inflatable Bubble, if it lives up to the promise, offers a world of improvements over traditional Bubble Wrap. However, the original has 45 years of success – 45 years of building and maintaining relationships with consumers across North America and Western Europe, in a market it helped invent.

The company could have ended the Bubble Wrap line and converted all of those customers to this new space-saving pop-less design. That might have even worked.

But Sealed Air has taken a different approach. Rather than discontinuing Bubble Wrap, it is allowing both products to continue independently, letting consumers decide which is right for them.  

Rather than creating one superior product to attract the full audience, the company has created two unique lines for two unique audiences. Two growth streams, two sides of the business.

Will there be cannibalization between these divisions? Sure. But in the process, the company is able to keep their already satisfied customers happy while it changes and innovates on its own terms.

This might be the most powerful solution to the dilemma. It demonstrates the art of moving forward without turning your back on the past. That might be a powerful lesson for all of us.

Travis HessmanEditor-in-Chief
New Equipment Digest