Unrelenting Innovation: A book review by Bob Morris

Unrelenting InnoUnrelenting Innovation: How to Build a Culture for Market Dominance
Gerard J. Tellis
Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint (2013)

How to avoid or overcome “the incumbent’s curse” to achieve market dominance

By nature, books about innovation should contribute something new and/or something better to our understanding of what innovation is and isn’t as well as how to develop a mindset and skills that will enable us to (yes) contribute something new and/or something better. Gerard Tellis makes such a contribution as he explains how to build and then sustain a culture for market dominance. As Vijay Govindarajan suggests in the Foreword, “I like the central argument in this book: success breeds complacency, lethargy, or arrogance – in short, a culture that embraces the status quo instead of the future abhors risk and protects current successful products.”

This is what Tellis characterizes as “the incumbent’s curse”: Becoming successful hampers continued innovation and hinders continued leadership. He identifies three defining traits: “First, incumbents fear cannibalizing their current successful products…Second, incumbents are risk averse…Third, incumbents focus too much on the present” and probably the past. Hence a paradox: To paraphrase Marshall Goldsmith, whatever got an organization to its current success (however defined) will not only be unable to sustain that success; worse yet, it will almost certainly eliminate that success in weeks and months (probably not years) to come.

Simply stated, “unrelenting innovation” is constant effort to make something new and/or make something better.” Odd are that, more often than not, innovation will not be the result. The process “fails” only when it does not continue. Every so-called “failure” is in fact a precious learning opportunity. I agree with Tellis that a culture within which innovation thrives must have defining characteristics that include the three he identifies: a willingness to “cannibalize” incumbent products and/or services, embracing risk, and a focus on the future. Organizations that aspire to establish and nourish such a culture must (a) provide appropriate incentives (i.e. strong for successful innovation but weak penalties for anything less), (b) establish internal competitive markets, and (c) empower innovation “champions” who not only create but also develop (with others) whatever is new or better.

These are among the dozens of passages I found to be of greatest interest and value, also listed to suggest the range of subjects covered during the course of the book’s narrative:

o Why Incumbents Fail to Innovate Unrelentingly (Pages 3-17)
o Understanding Technological Evolution (33-37)
o The Reflection, Hot-Stove, and The Expectation Effects (63-69)
o Availability Bias (114-121)
o Incentives for Enterprise (143-155)
o Four Characteristics of Markets (181-192)
o Four Characteristics of “Champions” (208-210)
o Steps in Empowering Champions (235-236)
o Micro Theories (238-250)
o Macro Theories (250-260)

With rare exception, the best business books are driven by research and that is certainly true of this one. Check out the list of major studies Tellis co0nsulted on Pages 17-19, the additional details in Chapter 8, his Notes (263-288), and his Bibliography (289-306. Exemplar innovation cultures include IBM, Samsung, P&G, and General Motors. However different they may be in most respects, all of them demonstrate highly developed communication, cooperation, and most important of all, collaboration. This book is also a major collaborative effort, as Tellis gratefully acknowledges on Page 307.

No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the scope of material that Gerald Tellis provides in this volume but I hope that I have at least suggested why I think so highly of it. Also, I hope that those who read this commentary will be better prepared to determine whether or not they wish to read the book and, in that event, will have at least some idea of how to build and then nourish a culture for market dominance, an achievement that would be of substantial benefit to his readers’ professional development as well as to the success of their organization.

Those who share my high regard for this volume are urged to check out as well as Josh Lerner’s The Architecture of Innovation: The Economics of Creative Organizations as well as Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere co-authored by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble with Indra K. Nooyi and The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge co-authored by Govindarajan and Trimble; also, Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation and two co-authored by Tom Kelley and Jonathan Littman: The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America’s Leading Design Firm and The Ten Faces of Innovation: IDEO’s Strategies for Defeating the Devil’s Advocate and Driving Creativity Throughout Your Organization.

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