Real Lessons of Innovation from Kodak

At Davos this past week, innovation was trumpeted as a necessity for business and solution for economic ills. And in corporations around the world, business executives speak of the need for ‘innovation’ and ‘agility’ for them to win in the marketplace. Chalk that up to the Apple effect. With the latest demise of Kodak, preceded by Borders, Nokia, and Blockbusters, among others, some business leaders are racing to out-innovate and win in the marketplace. Unfortunately, most of these efforts cause more chaos and harm than good.

Let’s take Kodak. Here was a company that since 1888 has been an innovator. Kodak’s labs are  full of inventions and techniques. It has a patent portfolio worth an estimated $2.5B just for the patents. The failure of Kodak was due to several causes, but it was not due to lack of innovation. Instead, as rightly pointed out by John Bussey at the WSJ, ‘it failed to monetize its most important asset – its inventions.’ It invented digital photography but never took an early or forceful position with product (though it is unlikely that even  a strong position in that market would have contributed enough revenue given digital cameras come for free on every smart phone today). The extremely lucrative film business paralyzed Kodak until it plunged into the wrong sector – the highly mature and competitive printing market.

So, it is all well and good to run around and innovate, but if you cannot monetize it, and worse, if it distracts you from the business at hand, then you will run your business into the ground. I think there are four patterns of companies that successfully innovate:

The Big Bet at the Top: One way that innovation can be successfully implemented is through the big bet at the top. In other words, either the owner or CEO decides the direction and goes ‘all-in’. This has happened time and again. For example, in the mid-80s, Intel made the shift from memory chips to microprocessors. This dramatic shift included large layoffs and shuttering plants in its California operations, but the shift was an easier decision by top management because the microprocessor marketplace was more lucrative than the memory semiconductor marketplace. Intel’s subsequent rapid improvement in processors and later branding proved out and further capitalized on this decision. And I think Apple is a perfect example of big bets by Steve Jobs. From the iPod and iTunes, to the iPhone, to the iPad, Apple made big bets on new consumer devices and experiences that were, at the time, derided by pundits and competitors (I particularly like this one rant by Steve Ballmer on the iPhone). Of course, after a few successes, the critics are hard to find now. These bets require prescient senior management with enough courage and independence to place them, otherwise, even when you have a George Fisher, as Kodak did, the bets are not placed correctly. I also commend bets where you get out of a sector that you know you cannot win in. An excellent example of this is IBM’s spinoff of its printer business in the ’90s and its sale of the PC business to Lenovo more recently. Both turn out to be well ahead of the market (just witness HP’s belated and poorly thought though PC exit attempt this past summer).

Innovating via Acquisition: Another effective strategy is to use acquisition as a weapon. But success comes to those who make multiple small acquisitions as opposed to one or two large acquisitions. Cisco and IBM come to mind with this approach. Cisco effectively branched out to new markets and extended its networking lead in the 1990s and early 2000s with this approach. IBM has greatly broadened and deepened its software and services portfolio in the past decade with it as well. Compaq and Digital, America Online and Time Warner, or perhaps recently, HP’s acquisition of Autonomy, represent those companies that make a late, massive acquisition to try to stave off or shift their corporate course. These fare less well. In part, it is likely due to culture and vision. Small acquisitions, when care is taken by senior management to fully leverage the product, technology and talent of the takeover, can mesh well with the parent. A major acquisition can set off a clash of cultures, visions, and competing products that waste internal energy and place the company further behind in the market. Hats off on at least one major acquisition that changed completely the course of a company: Apple’s acquisition of Next. Of course, along with Next they also got the leader of Next: Steve Jobs, and we all know what happened next to Apple.

Having a Separate Team: Another successful approach is to recognize that the reason a company does well is because it is focused on ensuring predictable delivery and quality to its customer base. And to do so, its operations, product and technology divisions all strive to deliver such value predictably. Innovation by its very nature is discontinuous and causes failure (good innovators require many failures for every success). By teaching the elephant to dance, all you do is ruin the landscape and the productive work that kept the company in business before it lost its edge. Instead, by setting up a separate team, as IBM has done for the past decade and others have done successfully, a company can be far more successful. The separate team will require sponsorship, and it must be recognized that the bulk of the organization will focus on the proper task of delivering to the customer as well as making incremental improvements. You could argue that Kodak’s focus of the bulk of its team on film was its downfall. But I would suggest instead it was the failure of the innovation teams to take what they already had in the lab and make them successful new products in the market.

A Culture of Tinkering: This approach relies on the culture and ingenuity of the team to foster an environment where outstanding delivery in the corporation’s competence area is done routinely, and time and resources are set aside to continuously improve and tinker with the products and capabilities. To have the time and space for teams to be engaged in such ‘tinkering’ requires that the company master the base disciplines of quality and operational excellence. I think you would find such companies in many fields and it has enabled ongoing success and market advantage, in part because not only do they innovate, but they also out-execute. For example, Fedex, well-known for operational excellence, introduced package tracking in 1994, essentially exposing to customers what was a back end system. This product innovation has now become commonplace in the package and shipping industry. Similarly, 3M is well-known as an industry innovator, regularly deriving large amounts of revenue from products that did not exist for them even 5  years prior. But some of their greatest successes (e.g., Post-It Notes) did not come about from some corporate innovation session and project. Instead they came together over years as ideas and failures percolated in a culture of tinkering until finally the teams hit on the right combination of a successful product. And Google is probably the best technology company example where everyone sets aside 20% of their time to ‘tinker’.

So what approach is best? Well, unless you have a Steve Jobs, or are a pioneering company in a new industry, making the big bet for an established corporation should be out. If your performance does not show outstanding excellence, and if your corporate culture does not encourage collegiality and support experimentation and then leverage failure, then a tinkering approach will not work. So you are left with two options, make multiple small acquisitions in the areas of your product direction, and with effective corporate sponsorship, fold the new product set and capabilities into your own. Or, set up a separate team to pursue the innovation areas. This team should brainstorm and create the initial products, test and refine them, and then after market pilot, have the primary production organization deliver it in volume (again with effective corporate sponsorship). Thus the elephant dances the steps it can do and the mice do the work the elephant cannot do.

As for our example, Kodak only had part of the tinkering formula. Kodak had the initial innovation and experimentations but they were unable to take the failures and adjust their delivery to match what was required in the market for success. And they should have executed multiples of smaller efforts across more diverse product sets (similar to what Fujifilm did) to find their new markets.

Have you been part of a successful innovation effort or culture? What approaches did you see being used effectively?

Best, Jim

About Jim D

Jim has worked in the IT field for over 25 years and as a senior leader for over 15 years. He has successfully turned around a number of IT shops to become high performing teams and a competitive advantage for their companies.
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2 Responses to Real Lessons of Innovation from Kodak

  1. Jim K says:

    Any chance you could do an article on Batch Operations, process and best practices?

    • Jim D says:


      I will try and tackle this one next week. It’s a good topic area and if done well can result in very smooth operations that provide extra benefits in terms of early start time for systems and reporting as well as reduced cost.



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