A New Order of Things

"There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct or more uncertain in its success than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things..."

Machiavelli innovation

So said Machiavelli around 1513 and his sentiment is still true today. Yet, we are seeing health care being reinvented through the convergence of CVS and Aetna; driverless cars are steadily being prototyped and tested. Bitcoin - which few people comprehend - is being embraced rapidly. Netflix and Hulu are chewing up network and cable audiences.

On and on.

Why does it seem like we are being overwhelmed with disruptive innovations, yet most business owners resist innovating until "things settle down" and a future path emerges clearly?

Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer tried to explain this paradox a few years ago as he prepared to leave his position: "I believe that there's a dangerous complacency about innovation amongst people in the world these days. That complacency threatens to leave companies behind in a world that will continue to change rapidly."

four seasons of business

One of the most important ideas to remember is that business is like a four-season climate; Doing something completely new is critical in "winter" (think retail and other staid industries). That's when everything is falling apart and outside consultants are being asked to get involved. It's when everything is on the table (think about the newspaper publishing industry) and no one has a really big idea.


Being super-creative is also important in "spring" (think artificial intelligence and the Internet of Everything) when new ideas blossom and testing is the main function. Invest here and invest there. Make your office a "campus" that generates ideas. Glamorize the brand. Something will click soon...

These are the two seasons when it's important to think exponentially. Sky's the limit. Disrupt and start over. Redefine the pie and make it bigger. Keep things bubbling. Focus on WHY, don't worry about HOW.


But if your industry is in "summer," it's more about replicating previous success and doing it just a tad faster or better. Think incrementally. Stay in the groove. Make it efficient. Don't zoom out, zoom in. Don't do it differently, simply do it easier. Hang on to the profits. Play it safe.

Those summertime profits invite competition. Now you're in autumn. As fall arrives, you must protect your summertime business momentum; that means you must become more relevant to the core audience. In autumn, you slice and dice. Use customer prototypes. Think more precisely. Create sales messages for every step in the sales journey. In autumn, you embrace multi-channel messaging. (That requires a lot of coordination.) Fall is about niche. You want to get close to the customer and foster loyalty. Your overtures become more customized and emotional. (In summer, remember, they were driven by standardized, easy to explain features-and-functions.)


So this is the problem with innovation: there's a time for big ideas that shake up the status quo, but require time and money to "get it just right." And then there's a time for tweaks, many of which are barely noticed. The return on those tweaks is expected to be quick. There's a time to play defense and a time to play offense. Managers don't know the difference, so they avoid taking the lead in anything that looks risky.

Of course, the trick is having one foot in the present and one foot in the future. Management's attitude toward innovation can become confused. One day, we aspire to achieve greater scale and efficiency. The next day, we feel the need to differentiate ourselves and be uniquely effective. The tension between efficiency and effectiveness becomes obvious when our employees freeze up in their implementation.

They don't know which way to move so they hardly move at all. They pretend to be doing something even when they're not. They experience psychic frustration. 70% of them are less than thrilled about their jobs.

All because the Boss doesn't know how to tell them what season it is. Which is the primary driver of innovation strategy.

Here's a better quote than Steve Ballmer's...a more philosophical quote that explains how it feels when your company is moving out of spring into summer or from autumn into winter:

"Grasp the mystery of our time: birth is the death of the past; death is the birth of the future. In between, with all its danger and promise, is where we stand now."

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