Don’t Be the Victim of Disruptive Innovation!

  • VHS tapes.
  • Landlines.
  • Encyclopedias.
  • Film (the Kodak kind).

All examples of products that have already, or will probably soon, disappear from use. Why? Because they were made obsolete due to new advancements, replacements or changing consumer demand that led to their demise. That kind of evolution is happening all of the time. Sometimes slowly. Sometimes rapidly. Just as DVDs signaled the end of VHS tapes, so do new innovations like the iPad and video streaming suggest that DVDs may also go the way of the 8-track tape (remember those?).

How often do you give any consideration to the tenure of your own product or service? Are you aware of emerging or existing innovations that may make your company obsolete?

We are all at risk of becoming the victims of disruptive technology. Disruptive technology is an innovation that produces incremental, radical or revolutionary changes in products, processes – and entire industries sometimes – in ways that are often unexpected and unplanned for. Vinyl records. Audiotapes. Video rental stores. Typewriters. Carbon paper. That white stuff that Mike Nesmith’s mom invented that we used to use to correct typing errors. Rotary phones. The Post Office (well, not yet…) Look back over the past 10, 20, 50 years and you’ll find countless examples of products and services that simply no longer exist or that have “morphed” into something else.

“Planned obsolescence” is where manufacturers plan for their products to fail or “wear out” after a time so consumers have to repurchase. Planned obsolescence can be a positive business strategy (more so for the businesses than for consumers, of course…). But, there’s also obsolescence that’s driven by change and innovation. We tend to think primarily of obsolescence being  driven by technology and that certainly is common these days. But obsolescence can occur due to non-technology related impacts as well. Changing fashion trends, for instance. Changing taste in music, movies or literature.

Whether or not your company is based on, or dependent on, technology, you are at risk to become obsolete.   The concept of evolution —  “adapt – migrate – mutate – or die” – applies to marketing as it does to biology. Could your product or service become the victim of a disruptive technology?  Most importantly, what could – or should – you do to evolve?

But you don’t have to be a victim. There are two key ways that you can prevent your product or service from becoming an anachronism:

  • Paying attention – continually monitoring the external environment and listening to your customers, your competitors and your community.
  • Refusing to “believe your own press” – how many organizations die or products lose their allure simply because the leaders behind them refused to believe that their product or service could possibly ever be replaced? Too many.

We obviously can’t accurately predict the future. But, what we can and should be doing is continually evaluating the variety of impacts that affect us by staying aware and current. Why is it that companies like  DuPont (1802), Wiley (1806 – yes, the publisher!) and Colgate (1807)  still exist after two centuries in business, while others like Woolworth’s (1879) and  Compaq (1982) are long gone. There are still stores – there are still computer companies. But there is obviously something different about the companies like Saks Fifth Avenue (1867) and IBM (1911)  that still exist despite weathering environmental changes and fluctuating economic conditions.

The difference – paying attention! Refusing to become complacent. Refusing to believe that nobody could ever possibly replace or improve what you have to offer. Refusing to hold fast to “the old way” and, instead, embracing new challenges and resultant new opportunities that could potentially launch your company into another century.

Easy? No. But certainly worth the effort. The start of a new year is not a bad time to give some consideration to what you could or should be doing to ensure that you have the right listening posts in place to hear and respond to early warning signs that you might become a victim of disruptive innovation. And, conversely, the think about ways that you might drive disruptive innovation in your industry.

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