Pioneering is lethal

Pioneering is lethal

In 2001, Gerard J. Tellis and Peter N. Golder wrote an interesting book: “Will and Vision”.  They systematically examined the relationship between attaining long-term market leadership and being the innovative pioneer.  They did so in a wide range of markets, from chewing gum to the Internet. Tellis and Golder found that only 9 percent of pioneers end up as the final winners in a market.   Let me give some examples.  Gillette didn’t pioneer the safety razor; Star did. Polaroid didn’t pioneer the instant camera; Dubroni did. Microsoft didn’t pioneer the personal computer spreadsheet; VisiCorp did. Amazon didn’t pioneer online bookselling and AOL didn’t pioneer online Internet service. The authors of “Will and Vision” also concluded that 64 percent of all pioneers failed outright. So it seems that pioneering innovation is good for society but statistically lethal for the individual pioneer…

It may be a safer choice to be innovative enough to be successfulnot to be the most innovative.  Think about it: each business environment has a level of “threshold innovation” that companies within that environment need to meet to be a contender in the game.  Some industries, such as airlines, have a low threshold; whereas industries such as biotechnology command a high threshold.  

If companies fail to meet the innovation threshold of their industry, they can never win. However, once a company is above the threshold, especially in a highly turbulent environment, being more innovative does not seem to matter much.  Once a company meets the threshold of innovation necessary for survival and success in a given environment, it needs a mixture of other elements to become a winner in its industry: a mix of creativity and discipline.  Take Apple as an example.  Once upon a time the company was a disaster, but Steve Jobs turned it into a winner by combining creativity and discipline.

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