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Swinging your way out of the Innovator’s Dilemma

Updated: Jun 9, 2023


There is a Golf Quote by Harvey Penick that states “In golf your strengths and weaknesses will always be there. If you could improve your weaknesses, you would improve your game. The irony is that people prefer to practice their strengths “. Until about 3 years ago, I fell in the majority category of people who keep practicing their strengths and hoping that this will result in an overall improvement in the game. I picked up Golf about 20+ years back and after the first 6 months where I made dramatic improvements almost every week, my overall golf game did not improve much over the 20+ years that I have dabbled in the sport as a weekend warrior. Over the last 3 years, I decided consciously (unaware of Harvey Penick’s wisdom at that time) that to get better, I need to innovate my golf swing by focusing on the weaker areas of my game, which does not necessarily translate into hitting the ball farther all the time. This felt very uncomfortable as some of the changes that I was making were disrupting the strong parts of my game. It is still a journey and work in progress, however now I have started experiencing overall improvements in almost all aspects of my game and reduction in my net handicap.

For those of you, familiar with Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s dilemma, you may be able to draw a parallel. The Innovator’s dilemma in its simple form covers how large incumbent companies lose market share by listening to their customers and providing what appears to be the highest-value products, but new companies that serve low-value customers with poorly developed technology can improve that technology incrementally until it is good enough to quickly take market share from established business. Having had the opportunity to be part of large and small companies in a market that has gone through several technology, market, and business model transitions, I have been at both ends of the innovator’s dilemma. Being a big believer in applying lessons learnt from one field to another, subconsciously I was applying lessons learnt through my professional career towards innovating my golf swing. Coming across the quote by Harvey Penick as well as observing remarkable improvements in my game made me really think about this correlation further and sharing my thoughts here.

My first real-world experience of Innovator’s dilemma was when I joined Starent Networks in 2008, a small company engaged in developing the industry’s first multi-service, multi-access mobile gateways. We were the disruptors and because of many decisions made by the great leadership that we had at that time, I got to be part of a wave of disruption that saw us capture the mindshare with early adopters and successfully cross the chasm and start attracting the early majority customers on to the platform. This eventually led to us to being acquired by Cisco and with the strength of Cisco and the great technology, we became the market leader. Through a series of technology and business/market transitions over the next several years, we got to experience the innovator’s dilemma from the position of a dominant market leader. Through these transitions, we got to experience both being disrupted by smaller challengers as well as successfully navigating some of the disruptive transitions by consciously changing the way we operated internally. There are several lessons that I have taken out of all these experiences but one thing that does stand out consistently (just like my golf swing experiments) is that it takes a different playbook to innovate vs. scale a business. You must be brutally honest about your strengths/weaknesses and your overall goals (or pick the zone you are playing in as captured brilliantly in Geoffery Moore’s “Zone to Win”) and adopt the playbook that is best suited for the situation and stick to it to drive the results. As I reflect on my career, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to experience the various transitions very closely. The pace of change and market is even more dynamic now than ever and I am looking forward to applying some of the lessons and keep learning new lessons as I embark on the next phase of my career.

With that in mind, I decided to conduct an experiment and besides writing this article, I prompted ChatGPT to write a short article by giving it the following challenge: “Write a LinkedIn article on innovator's dilemma comparing it to learning golf “. Below is the article that ChatGPT authored. I am genuinely impressed. What do you think?

Article on Innovator’s Dilemma and comparing it to Learning Golf - Authored by ChatGPT

As a professional, you might have heard of the term "innovator's dilemma" at some point. It is a concept coined by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen in his book "The Innovator's Dilemma," where he explains how successful companies often fail to innovate because they become too focused on satisfying their current customers and defending their current business model.

Interestingly, the innovator's dilemma can be compared to learning golf. When you start playing golf, you might have some natural talent, but you are likely to struggle with the basics, such as getting the ball to go where you want it to go. You might be tempted to use your natural ability to hit the ball as hard as you can and aim for the farthest target. However, this approach often leads to poor results, as you are likely to miss the target or hit the ball out of bounds.

In the same way, companies that are successful in their current market often focus on hitting the ball as hard as they can. They invest heavily in their core business and strive to improve their existing products and services. However, this approach can be shortsighted, as it neglects the need to develop new products and services that can address emerging customer needs and preferences.

As you continue to play golf, you will realize that hitting the ball as hard as you can is not always the best strategy. You will learn to focus on accuracy, consistency, and strategy, which can help you get the ball closer to your target and achieve better results. Similarly, companies that want to innovate must focus on developing new products and services that can meet emerging customer needs and preferences, even if this means disrupting their existing business model.

Learning to golf is a journey that requires patience, practice, and perseverance. You must be willing to learn from your mistakes, adapt to new situations, and constantly improve your skills. Similarly, innovating is a journey that requires a willingness to take risks, experiment with new ideas, and embrace failure as an opportunity to learn and improve.

In conclusion, the innovator's dilemma is a challenge that many successful companies face when trying to innovate. By comparing it to learning golf, we can see that both require a focus on accuracy, consistency, and strategy, as well as a willingness to learn from mistakes, adapt to new situations, and constantly improve. If companies want to stay competitive and continue to grow, they must embrace innovation as a journey and be willing to take the necessary risks and make the necessary changes to succeed.

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Gaurav Vaid
Gaurav Vaid
26 mai 2023

Innovator's Dilemma Blogpost

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