You can’t sit at your desk and nextsense. I’m bet­ting that res­onates with most peo­ple, because it is obvi­ous to most that look­ing inside one’s com­pa­ny is not like­ly to lead to the path of the cor­po­rate future. Yet, there are so many com­pa­nies whose des­tinies have been wrecked by the predilec­tion of top man­agers either to not look at all or to look only at at inter­nal oper­a­tions, while the firm slow­ly but sure­ly sinks.

In 2009, Drea Knufken (@dreaknufken) in Busi­ness Pun­dit wrote a fun (but very instruc­tive!) arti­cle about “The 25 Worst Busi­ness Fail­ures in His­to­ry” [link]. You should check it out before you go to the next meet­ing that is even remote­ly tied to the need for inno­va­tion inside your busi­ness. Just to give you a feel for how oth­er com­pa­nies went wrong, allow me to quote a few excerpts from a few of Knufken’s exam­ples.

Of Pets.com, she notes: “They over­ex­pand­ed by open­ing a nation­wide net­work of ware­hous­es … too quick­ly (tak­ing a hint from Star­bucks). Unfor­tu­nate­ly, prof­its nev­er caught up with media buys for com­mer­cials. In mar­ket­ing, noth­ing is worse than hav­ing every­one know who you are and no one inter­est­ed in what you sell.”

Of Polaroid, she notes: “But while you and I were buy­ing our first dig­i­tal cam­era, print­ing pic­tures and lat­er tak­ing pho­tos with our phones and PDA’s, the execs at Polaroid were snap­ping and shak­ing their pic­tures into obliv­ion. So loved was the brand that count­less peo­ple took dai­ly shots of and cre­at­ed art, diaries and lit­er­a­ture using these mag­i­cal snap­shots taped to their walls or to the street. The leader of an amaz­ing niche tech­nol­o­gy that so enriched any­one born before 1980, Polaroid went bank­rupt in 2005.”

Of Ford’s Edsel, she notes: “In 1958, Ford’s newest vehi­cle, launched on ‘E-Day’, flailed, flopped, and implod­ed. Ford kept the Edsel under wraps as a new kind of futur­is­tic, exper­i­men­tal car. One fate­ful day in 1958, the Edsel was revealed … and imme­di­ate­ly face­plant­ed. This car of the future was blah by anyone’s stan­dards.”

Ford Edsel in JunkyardEach of these sto­ries of fail­ures have been pro­filed in enor­mous detail by authors and case study writ­ers. I cite these three from Knufken’s work because they all seem to me to expose the enor­mous dan­gers to any com­pa­ny that does not look out­side its own walls at the mar­ket­place, com­peti­tors and, most impor­tant­ly, poten­tial cus­tomers. They didn’t search out­side.

A notable exam­ple of a com­pa­ny agres­sive­ly search­ing out­side is Intel. Natasha Singer (@natashanyt) in the 15 Feb­ru­ary issue of The New York Times (@nytimes) wrote about “Intel’s Sharp-Eyed Social Sci­en­tist” [link]. This is a don’t-miss pro­file of Genevieve Bell (@feraldata), an anthro­pol­o­gist who has worked at Intel since 1998. Doing what?

As Singer explains:

Dr. Bell’s title at Intel, the world’s largest pro­duc­er of semi­con­duc­tors, is direc­tor of user expe­ri­ence research at Intel Labs, the company’s research arm. She runs a skunk works of some 100 social sci­en­tists and design­ers who trav­el the globe, observ­ing how peo­ple use tech­nol­o­gy in their homes and in pub­lic. The team’s find­ings help inform the company’s prod­uct devel­op­ment process, and are also often shared with the lap­top mak­ers, automak­ers and oth­er com­pa­nies that embed Intel proces­sors in their goods.

I strong­ly urge you to read the arti­cle, because it is a great exam­ple of the enor­mous com­mit­ment one com­pa­ny is mak­ing to be cer­tain that it is search­ing out­side its own walls to observe life, organ­ise its search data, and orig­i­nate new ideas about what all this means to the future of the firm. Singer pro­vides ter­rif­ic exam­ples of how Dr. Bell’s team has made a dif­fer­ence. Thanks to the team’s work, Intel is exam­in­ing the poten­tial for items such as wear­able elec­tron­ics, “ultra­small chips”, and robots for the home and office.

Only when one begins to comb the world for clues about the future direc­tion of soci­ety and the mar­ket­place can nextsens­ing tru­ly begin. Increas­ing­ly, I am defin­ing inno­va­tion as bring­ing “what’s hap­pen­ing” out in the world to those inside the com­pa­ny who can trans­late such obser­va­tions (via dis­ci­plined think­ing) into strong hunch­es about future pos­si­bil­i­ties. Per Singer’s arti­cle: “My man­date at Intel has always been to bring the sto­ries of every­one out­side the build­ing inside the build­ing — and make them count,” says Dr. Bell, who con­sid­ers her­self among the out­siders. “You have to under­stand peo­ple to build the next gen­er­a­tion of tech­nol­o­gy.”

But I’d add that this is not just about tech­nol­o­gy. You have to under­stand peo­ple — and how they are liv­ing and work­ing around the globe — to build the next gen­er­a­tion of any­thing.


Pho­to Cred­it: Hugo90 via pho­topin cc

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