"I know that I am not going to make the transition, but I am sure as hell not going to do anything that accelerates my demise." - Anonymous, a Big Media Exec
It was a serendipitous occurence, to be sure.
I was attending the trade show of an industry in the throes of painful disruption, and in meeting after meeting, I heard the same story. It was both troubling and confusing.
"We rely on the retail channel as our primary marketing vehicle," each senior exec that I met with recounted with certitude.
Confused, I asked, "But you do know that the Number Two player in the space is in the process of going out of business, and based upon my retail contacts, the Number One player can NOT continue with their big box strategy for the long haul."
Expecting an AHA moment, I followed with, "If that's your primary marketing strategy, what happens when the other shoe drops?"
Instead, you could hear the crickets sound. In each and every meeting.
Mind you, these were not unsophisticated people or underlings, and this was not a case of one intellectually blind company, but rather, these were the senior decision-makers at the biggest names in this particular industry.
How could these folks be so blithe -- and passive -- about the impending loss of their primary marketing channel?
It did not compute.
Breakfast at Serendipities
The next day I was at breakfast with a good friend of mine, sharing my story of this seeming disconnect, when he recounted his conversation with a Senior VP he knows at one of the largest media companies on the planet.
"I know that I am not going to make the transition," his friend was lamenting, a tacit acknowledgement that he was a bit of a dinosaur, simultaneously beholden to legacy technologies, rapidly sunsetting organizational structures, and an economic model that paid him richly, but which was withering away.
But then, with a sly grin, the VP added, "But, I am sure as hell not going to do anything that accelerates my demise."
This was the AHA moment that I was struggling to find.
Never underestimate the ability of people to convince themselves of anything, even inaction, when their self-preservation depends upon it.
Understanding the Selfish Gene
In Richard Dawkins seminal book, 'The Selfish Gene,' Dawins introduced the concept of the selfish gene as a way of describing how certain genetic instances might self-propagate even if their survival came at the expense of the viability of the individal organism, and the larger group.
As applied to industry disruptions, this provides a potent impetus for understanding how individuals might behave in ways that threaten the long term viability of their companies or even their industry, since in this context, the immediate driver for the individual is their own self preservation.
Mapping this Dynamic to the Instagram and Kodak Outcomes
So what does all of this have to do with Instagram, which just got acquired for $1 Billion by Facebook, and Kodak, which is in the process of liquiditation?
In yesterday's New York Times, Nick Bilton wrote an excellent article that underscores why culturally-speaking, Kodak would never have been the environment for an innovative re-think of photography, like Instagram, to occur.
A big part of this is the pragmatic truth behind disruptive technologies, as espoused in Clayton Christensen's 'The Innovator's Dilemma'; namely, that industry incumbents look at new market opportunities based upon three, intellectually-reasoned criteria.
One, does the new solution have compelling economic fundamentals? Two, does it leverage the core competencies of the company, and three, do the company's best customers want such a solution?
Christensen's analysis shows how disruptive innovations (e.g., how the PC disrupted the mainframe) foil the smartest companies, since these new segments generally:
- Have uncompelling economics at the begining;
- Are at odds with the company's core competencies; and
- Address the needs of an untapped market base, not the company's existing customers.
Hence, smart analysis can lead well-intentioned companies to their certain demise.
To these three drivers, I would add a fourth: the disproportionate self-interest of the individual not to forge a path that will lead to their demise.
Put another away, few of us have the courage to push for innovations within their company that will accelerate their path to unemployment.
This truth is even more so in difficult economic environments like the present, where the hard reality is that in the post-disruption world, there will be no lateral move for such individuals to make.
When you multiply that self-preservation interest across employees and departments, you can see how disruption becomes doom -- even once the hard truths are realized.