MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

Is innovation sustainable?

One could argue that innovation is not sustainable. Just take a look at the many market leaders who ultimately failed because they did not continue to innovate—the latest of which is BlackBerry® (formerly RIM).

What was once innovative and disruptive technology is now simply an email gadget— one that has no mindshare in the innovation culture and little hope of resurgence, despite its recent sale to Fairfax Financial. While BlackBerry still has 80 million subscribers (including two million added in the last three months), industry analyst firm IDC reported that BlackBerry’s market share in the second quarter was 2.9%, the lowest it has been since IDC began measuring that market.

“Recent corporate history is littered with successful established firms who failed to manage disruptive innovation even with full knowledge it was coming,” says Eric von Hippel, MIT Sloan Professor of Management of Innovation and Engineering Systems.

So if this is a familiar tale, why do companies keep having to/needing to learn this often-fatal lesson? Perhaps because companies like BlackBerry favor protecting their user base over investing in disruptive technologies. They choose evolution over revolution.

The way to keep innovation sustainable, as von Hippel advises in the MIT Sloan Executive Education course, Building, Leading and Sustaining the Innovative Organization, is to adopt and incorporate the lead-user method within the corporation.

Simply put, lead users demonstrate two characteristics:

  • They have a high incentive to solve a problem

  • They want today what the market will want in the future

By focusing only on being the enterprise standard for mobile email, BlackBerry did not think about what the future would bring, ignoring those not in their target market: smartphone users for whom email was not a key feature. As history bore out, new smartphone users clamored for applications, not just email.

Successful companies take the lead-user method even further by making sure their management teams are lead users.

“A key indicator of whether you might have a chance in managing disruption as a market leader is whether the lead users in your management team want to use your own products above all others,” said von Hippel.

It’s doubtful BlackBerry’s management team use iPhones or Androids. But one has to wonder what devices their kids use.

Eric von Hippel is Faculty Director for MIT Sloan Executive Education’s Building, Leading and Sustaining the Innovative Organization program and is a founder of the Entrepreneurship Program at MIT. His most recent book is Democratizing Innovation.


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