Coming to terms with the disruption of innovation 

James Dyson took five years to develop his bagless vacuum cleaner and another 10 to get it into the market. Was it worth the wait?

Coming to terms with the disruption of innovation

Yes, he is now a Sir and worth £23 billion. This sort of faith and commitment does not exist in many established businesses. Why not?

The Dyson bagless cleaner was a true innovation disrupting a mature market of established businesses who preferred the status quo and a steady stream of income from bag sales. For the competition, innovation was confined to new hose attachments or more powerful motors. The sort of incremental change that would create new news in the market but would not risk rejection from consumers or require substantial investment or disruption. Even when Dyson became a threat, their response was not to supercharge their innovation response, but to try and lock him out and convince themselves that he was a niche player. The same is true of the big German car manufacturers’ slow response to Tesla. The inevitability and necessity of electric vehicles is plain to see, and logic would say the sooner you invest the sooner you will protect your future. Electrification should have logically come from the most powerful and advanced car manufacturers, but it didn’t, it came from an outsider not wedded to existing financial spreadsheets and manufacturing plants.

As an entrepreneur Dyson had total faith in his new design – he knew it was better. However, even if the competition hadn’t tried to lock him out, he would have run the risk that consumers might have been perfectly happy, as an established habit, to change their bags every so often. However, he did not rely just on an increased benefit His dramatic designs and effective marketing attracted the early adopters with money to match – people who probably had other people to do their cleaning, but wanted the latest tech. The Dyson became a lifestyle choice as well as a better product – he won consumers over on two fronts, emotion and logic. James Dyson proved to be as good a marketer as inventor – a rare breed indeed.  Even Apple needed the combination Steve Jobs, Jonny Ives and a vast team of invisible techies to create their astounding success with the I-phone. 

I have been helping businesses big and small innovate for decades, but despite great designs created by clever teams few are given the chance to succeed. Why? It seems to me there is always a very good manager that finds a perfectly good reason not to do it. Here lies the problem, Dyson in my view is an inventor first, a marketer second and a manager third and that makes him a great business leader. Elon Musk comes from the same mould as Henry Ford, a complex personality who is passionate, focused and comfortable with risk. Too many established businesses are run first and foremost as effective systems with very good managers, from the board down, oiling the cogs to maximise efficiencies and ultimately profits. They are, by necessity, risk adverse and so feel more comfortable with the measurable and the near term. As a result, they demand unachievable commercial expectations of innovation. 

Ultimately the risk of not innovating is far greater so how do we balance the need for efficiency, scale and measurability of a day-to-day business with the disruption, uncertainty and experimentation of trying something new? Here are a few suggestions:

Have a representative on the board whose job it is to encourage and support positive disruption. They should also be responsible for the long-term business vision and the roadmaps required to predict and plan for future threats and opportunities. 

Give entrepreneurial leaders within the business the money, access to resources and time to go off on their own to create and establish something new without interference from the clever manager types. However, these need to be more than skunkworks.  They need to establish innovation in market before folding back into the bigger machine for the job of scaling. 

Stop buying so many start-ups in the hope that you can buy your way into being innovative. I suspect most of these companies were designed to get to the point where they could be sold just as they run out of ideas. Invest the money in your own initiatives.

Establishing platforms of multiple, related innovations has a better chance of success than one-off products as the risk is spread – one-off failures don’t kill off the initiative and can be learnt from to build future launches.

Reduce risk by building a roadmap of innovation that can incrementally build over time in terms of technology and quality, as well as bring the consumer along on the journey.

Finally, as Dyson knows, winning innovations should appeal to the consumer’s heart more than the head – the power of branding. To create momentum inside the business this is also true within the innovation team who create them, the wider stakeholders who hold the budgets and those managers whose lives have just been turned upside down. Innovation should be exciting not scary.

Nick Dormon
Nick Dormon

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