Volume 15, 
March, 2017


Of Cannibals and Risk
Three Ways to Change Your Conversation Around Innovation


Sheila Mello and Wayne Mackey

I have two questions for you to ponder:

1. How many of the products and services that seem a natural part of our lives now were wild ideas a decade or two ago? Some examples that occur to me:

  • A device that responds to your voice and can carry out many common tasks in your house (voice-activated home-control systems)
  • A car that guides you to your destination (built-in navigation)
  • A face-to-face meeting with a colleague across the country without leaving your desk (desktop videoconferencing)
  • A personalized cancer treatment (precision medicine)

2) Is your company working on a product or service that will change the way customers view your market in the coming decade—and that might make the list in 2027 of products we can’t imagine doing without?

When I ask question #2 of people in R&D or product development, I hear some common objections:

  • “We aren’t that kind of company.”
  • “We don’t want to cannibalize our current product line.”
  • “We can’t afford to take those kinds of risks.”

I understand that you face real challenges right now that seem like barriers to the kind of forward thinking that results in new-to-the-world products. Yes, you need to keep current customers happy. Yes, you have obligations to your stakeholders. But current customers will become future customers only if your offerings remain relevant to them. And new customers won’t find you unless you make your products and services an indispensible part of their lives. 

To do that, you need to change the conversation you’re having about innovation. And to do that, you first have to overcome the naysayers’ objections (which may be coming from inside your own head).

Not that kind of company. For years, Microsoft hadn’t been “that kind of company.” It started making personal computer software in 1975, but by the early 2000s it had become mainstream and its core products were at risk of being sidelined. Then, according to Fast Company’s “Most Innovative Companies” writeup of Microsoft, “Under CEO Satya Nadella, who succeeded Steve Ballmer in February 2014, Microsoft has reengineered itself in multiple ways to ensure that decades-old cash cows such as Windows and Office are part of technology’s future rather than legacies of a more PC-centric past.”

These days, the luxury of being a “legacy” company is gone. Even if you run a family business that has made the same widgets for a hundred years, you’ll need to keep your offering relevant to the needs of modern customers, or risk being driven out of business by a competitor who has done just that.

Which brings us to the next objection.

Don’t want to cannibalize. No one wants to think of themselves as a cannibal, and the aversion to consuming/devouring/destroying your own product line runs deep. But, as I pointed out above, if you don’t do it, somebody will. And when you do it, you have the opportunity to define the path forward. Your customers will still be your customers—they won’t have migrated to another company to find the next evolution of whatever you’re offering. And you, rather than your competitors, will open up new markets.

Can’t afford to take risks. Quite the contrary: you can’t afford not to take risks. (See fear of cannibalizing, above). Sure, you don’t want to tank your existing business. That’s why you need a rigorous process for determining customer needs and winnowing out the potentially fruitful ideas from the ones that won’t succeed—before you’ve sunk R&D dollars into a failing project. Get comfortable with evaluating and managing risk, rather than sticking to what seems safe or to what has worked in the past.

And now, on to some practical steps, including changing the conversation, that you can do right away to get your company headed in the direction of change.

1. Do requirements right

I’ve written extensively on the importance of ensuring that your VOC process lets you create a vision of the future that goes beyond customers’ current frame of reference. This involves a rigorous, open-ended process for listening to customers that helps you (and them) get past the temptation to simply design a better widget. And it means keeping the focus on the customers' problems, not on products or solutions.

2. Work to change the conversation

I know you’ve hired smart, independent team members who aren’t blindly imitating what they see around them. However, if your team sees new ideas belittled or dismissed, or contributors unrewarded (or worse, punished) for taking risks, you’re not cultivating a culture that can sustain innovation. But working explicitly to “change the culture” can seem daunting or outright counterproductive. Instead, as a leader, start by changing the conversation. This can mean anything from realigning incentives to reward people who are trying to evaluate new opportunities to giving employees time to work on side projects.

3. Model unconstrained brainstorming

Look at the examples from the beginning of this article or at a list like the Fast Company Most Innovative Companies. These ideas likely didn’t come about through cautious, incremental planning. Once you have a framework for brainstorming (what I like to think of as the “sandbox” where you’ll play, defined by your corporate mission and strategy) and some sense of the challenges your market faces (based on the VOC work you’ve done), it’s time to let loose without restraint. No idea is too wild. Don’t worry about how to accomplish it or whether it will bust the budget. Brainstorming constrained by current reality won’t l lead you to lasting innovation.

In practice, this might mean engaging in some team activities around creativity. It could mean field trips or educating your team in areas (seemingly) unrelated to their areas of expertise. Go to a sci-fi movie. Find a free Webinar about a subject you know nothing about. Have a brown bag lunch and talk about how other companies—the innovative ones you admire most, both inside and outside your market area—come up with ideas. Get the conversation going—and change the focus from making this quarter’s numbers to what will help you make your numbers five years from now. 

By doing this as a management team, you’re sending the message that it’s okay to be a risk taker.

The key word around all these activities is “transform.” Will your company be transformed right out of business, or will you bust out of the constraints of today and allow your team to envision the crazy ideas that will become the “of course” products of the future?

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