Saturday, August 15, 2015

Persistence Trumps the "Pivot"

Changes keep coming. Yesterday’s new thing is likely to be eclipsed by another new thing tomorrow. Many companies try to catch these waves, but only a few last.

What separates the innovators from those who flame out?

Take “cloud computing,” for instance. Tracing this term among Google searches suggests we’re already on the downswing of the hype cycle. Yet many of the products in this space are here to stay. After all, computing over networks continues. Geographic flexibility in networks makes sense regardless of the cool jargon we use to talk about it. Did your company catch this wave? And, if so, is it competing well? How did some companies benefit from the explosion of interest in cloud computing, while for others it was a passing fad?

Weekly Google Searches for "Cloud Computing"

Some say it comes down to being able to "pivot" into new areas fast. 

The opposite is true; it comes down to persistence.

Here is the problem. You can redesign your company to become something completely different overnight, but companies that pivot overnight lack depth. After all, how deep is your ability in an area that you just discovered yesterday? You may be able to offer a product, but you’ll lose the first time you run up against a firm that has a deep background of knowledge. And to have depth of knowledge, you need to maintain a consistent focus over time.

Look again at cloud computing. One good thing about “the cloud” is that it frees us from dependence on a particular geographic location for data storage. This freedom has many benefits, including that your network keeps working even when disaster strikes in one of your data centers. 

A few years ago – even before cloud computing was all the rage – NetApp, the data storage company, was approached by the Swiss stock exchange for technology to deal with this problem. NetApp’s head of Europe back then was Andreas Koenig, a scrappy “can-do” executive with a good understanding of NetApp’s technologies. Koenig knew that NetApp had been doing research for some time on continuous data availability and disaster recovery for networks spanning different locations. So he went back to corporate R&D to find a solution for this customer. There he found “Metrocluster,” a project that had been researched extensively and then shelved by the company’s corporate engineering group. Koenig resurrected the project, to the surprise of some insiders. But the product was a hit in Europe and quickly became an important part of NetApp’s product offering.

Note the key fact in this story: NetApp engineers had been working persistently on the problem for some time – even before it was clear that there was product demand. So when the market took off in cloud computing, NetApp was able to respond well; they had deep knowledge in this area. A number of companies claim to have this kind of product, but how well-developed is their technology? The firm that persists builds its capabilities, and will win against the Johnny-come-lately.

The key to successful innovation is persistence. Keeping your focus over time builds deep knowledge. In a world of fads and fashions, have the courage to stake out a domain where you are the expert. You won’t be all things to all people, but when you do compete, you’ll win.

Systematic evidence of this idea is in my paper with Elizabeth Pontikes.