Too much of our planning for growth these days is predicated on incremental improvements: brand extensions, product re-sizing, territorial expansions and the like. These are attempts to capture market share available in readily apparent adjacencies rather than through undertaking completely new ventures. One problem with this safe approach is that these paths are demonstrably evolutionary rather than revolutionary--they’re great add-ons, but rarely will they generate needle-moving numbers. Sure bets guarantee small margins: The standard “no one ever got fired” process is all about taking carefully qualified steps forward instead of making quantum leaps.
But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this heads-down, “grind it out” approach (which might have been entirely prudent and reasonable in less flush or chaotic times) keeps many of us from seeing and seizing the game-changing opportunities enabled by the rapid spread of new low-cost technologies, as well as by the dual explosion of ubiquitous mobility and connectivity. If we are principally focused on getting as close as possible to achieving our currently defined goals and objectives (and our operating numbers for the quarter or the year), it’s just not very likely that we’re going to look beyond those targets and over the horizon in order to see the less obvious and more extraordinary areas of possible change.
The truth is that we just don’t have to do things in the same calculated ways that we always have in the past. We especially don’t have to construct the kinds of capital-intensive, time-consuming foundations (including brick-and-mortar solutions) that were required in the past. Today, these things simply slow us down.
What we need are disruptive new inspirations and approaches: true experiments with admittedly unknown outcomes, but also with the prospect of exponential potential gains. And the very good news today is that these types of new solutions can be implemented in less costly ways than ever before, so that the real risks and downsides of continued experimentation can be largely mitigated. Be sure to ask yourself what--if anything--is the sustainable competitive advantage that you are hoping to create for your business so that it can compete in the future.
No one can tell you the specific steps you will need to take to make these jumps, but here are two interesting, instructive cases that are worth continuing to watch in order to see how they might be applicable to your own situation. One is a done deal and one is an open question.
(1) The Book Biz is About Anything But Books
Please don’t call anyone in the book biz a “publisher” these days just because--if you twist their arms--they might sell you a book. The “P” word is definitely out, and the new industry buzzwords are all about adaptive learning and learning management systems. Why is this seemingly semantic change so interesting? Because--for all intents and purposes--it reflects the decisions made by all of the biggest book publishers in the land to just throw in the towel and pretty much leapfrog right over the digital book business without even trying to explore those kinds of content offerings. It would appear that they’re leaving the field wide open for Amazon and Apple, but maybe they know something that isn’t obvious to the rest of us. There may not be any there there any longer.
If you ask them why they didn’t aggressively pursue the protected digital distribution of their content, it turns out that their decisions weren’t really based on the usual considerations that continue to plague the music and film industries: theft by pirates; cheap, low-quality duplication; peer-to-peer sharing, etc. It turns out they concluded that the intrinsic value of the content itself was being slowly ground down to nothing by: (a) the actions of the content creators themselves (rather than the actions of others as was the case in music and movies); (b) highly-efficient used book marketers; (c) the advent of MOOCs; and (d) free webcasting of lectures and classes by universities and professors all over the world. They just decided to jump right over the challenging and unprofitable distribution game and move to building proprietary and protectable learning systems that they could market and sell to the same customers. This assists in teaching whatever the content might be and, more importantly, measuring the results of those efforts.
(2) A New Lease on Life for Libraries?
Libraries aren’t much better off than books these days, and cities and schools of every size are trying to figure out what the library of the future will look like and - very frankly - what real functions it will provide that justifies its continued existence. There are about 120,000 libraries in the U.S. these days, and the vast majority (pretty close to 100,000) are in schools and universities. And you can be sure that in almost every instance, there are other users, groups, departments and facility management professionals who are coveting those large (and largely empty) spaces in their institutions for a million other uses.
The one thing we know for sure is that relying on “tradition” in order to support the old ways of doing things won’t do the trick much longer. Tradition these days is just a delusion of permanence and--most often--it’s just an easy excuse for those who don’t want to change.
So the challenge that I would leave you with is to think creatively and disruptively about what we do with our libraries now that books are increasingly a thing of the past. Should they simply be community spaces? Safe harbors for kids after school? Coaching and supplementary education places? Or just rows and rows of recycled desktops for accessing digital everything? Right now, this is a very open question. You should regard it not as a closed book, but as a very large volume full of empty pages.