What Boats Are You Not Seeing?

It is said that when European discoverers first came to the New World some five centuries ago, the natives they encountered literally could not see the explorers' large-masted ships, even though they were moored no more than a hundred yards or so off shore. How could this possibly be? How do you "miss" a 60-foot ship the likes of which you've never seen before?

Well, the thinking goes that to the natives, their world ended at the shoreline. It was simply not possible for anything to exist beyond the water's edge. To them, these men magically appeared out of nowhere. Even the wisest among them could not see beyond this paradigm.

Now consider how leading business people every day fail to see the boats right in front of them. How many times must an organization get blind-sided by new competition that comes out of the blue simply because it is unable to see beyond its own "shoreline?"

Take Sony as an example. How did the company not beat Apple to the iPod? And IBM. How were the company's PCs made irrelevant by a 20-year-old college student building computers in his dorm room? There are plenty more examples. How did Xerox totally miss out on the desktop publishing phenomenon? How did Polaroid, the company that invented instant photography, somehow end up AWOL in the development of digital photography?



In short, how did these companies, with resources, market share and intelligence the newcomers could only dream of, get beaten at their own game? I would submit that they were unable to see beyond their "water's edge." They accepted as gospel the prevailing paradigm, and saw it as static, as something that would never change. After all, all these companies had an unprecedented share of the market. Why monkey with success?

With that mindset, the term "innovation" gets defined as finding ways to make your product or service incrementally better. Add a few more bells and whistles. Find ways to cut production costs. Release it in some hot new color. Cut R&D, because we already have a product people love. What you end up with is a Walkman that plays both sides of the tape.

Settling for incremental improvements is rarely the road to long-term prosperity.

So how do you keep from "pulling a Sony?" For starters, develop a flanking strategy. Dedicate a meaningful budget to explore "what might be." Treat this as "couch cushion money," not accountable to any ROI analysis. Assign your best big-picture thinkers. Talk to customers, not just about how they like your product today, but what they expect in the future. Look at emerging technologies and trends, and ask how these can be harnessed to improve future offerings.

Above all, it helps to believe that the impossible is (somehow) possible. That the world might not end at the shoreline, as we've been taught all these years.

And continually ask yourself, what boats are you not seeing?

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