• Strategy
  • CFO Magazine

First, Forget What Works

The success of an innovative new business may depend on forgetting what makes the core business tick.

Genius, said Thomas Edison, is composed of 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Yet treatises on innovation often dwell on the 1 percent, offering ways to spark corporate creativity. Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, professors at Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College and experts on innovation within large organizations, prefer instead to focus on the 99 percent. Only by mastering the sweaty part of innovation — as they advise in their recent book, Ten Rules for Strategic Innovators: From Idea to Execution (Harvard Business School Press, 2005) — can companies attain “breakthrough” growth.

Govindarajan and Trimble are careful to distinguish their subject, strategic innovation — which involves a new, unproven business model — from product, process, or service innovation. Strategic innovation is essentially an experiment, involving a sizable investment in an unfamiliar new business that may take years to produce a profit. Over the past five years, the professors studied a dozen or so such experiments. Five are profiled in their book: Corning Microarray Technologies, New York Times Digital, Hasbro Interactive, Capston-White (a pseudonym for a computer-printer maker), and Analog Devices.

Not all of the experiments were successful, and no company practiced all of the principles that Govindarajan and Trimble now preach. “We didn’t find a lot of commonalities from one company to the next,” says Trimble, who is also a senior fellow at New York consultancy Katzenbach Partners LLC. “It really shows there’s no conventional wisdom in this area.”

Hence their book. Beyond the 10 rules of its title (see “10 Rules for Innovators” at the end of this article), the professors emphasize three basic themes — three challenges, that is, that all would-be strategic innovators must overcome. To wit:

  1. Forgetting. The new business (NewCo) must selectively “forget” the success formula of the most closely related business unit within the company (CoreCo).
  2. Borrowing. NewCo must borrow those assets of CoreCo that will give it a competitive advantage, such as manufacturing capacity, or sales relationships, or a brand.
  3. Learning. NewCo must learn how to succeed in a new and uncertain environment.

Each challenge is analyzed at length, but it’s the first one — forgetting — that readers may find especially provocative. If you do not forget some of the key success factors of your core business, the professors contend, those very factors may stand in the way of strategic innovation. “The core competencies and routines you have developed to succeed allow you to innovate in an incremental way around the current business,” says Govindarajan. But, he adds, those same competencies and routines will hamstring entrepreneurial efforts in new businesses. If NewCo cannot forget the old, then it will have trouble learning the new.

Old Stories

Thus, Govindarajan and Trimble recommend that NewCo selectively renounce its parentage — not a simple task. “There are so many reinforcers of the existing way of doing business,” comments Trimble. “Everything from who you know, who you interact with for certain problems, your performance measures — even the stories you tell about your history and why you’ve been a successful company.” NewCo must forge its own formula for success, forgetting the assumptions and mind-sets that pervade CoreCo.

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