Why timing is everything when it comes to disruption

Timing on any transformation governs its success; it often depends on whether market, ecosystem, customers and vendors are ready for it. Subrata looks at the automobile industry and hybrid cars to see if there are any learning for us technology executives.

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“The right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing.”

- Joshua Harris a pastor from Maryland

This year on Black Friday, I went into Best Buy to check out the deals on the latest TV sets in the market – so many to choose from, so many technologies, and so many price points – although all mostly affordable for an average middle class family standpoint.

Then a stupid thought crossed my mind. These days we do not ask the salesperson if the TV set in question includes a remote control. So, imagine a world in which you have 1000+ channels on your 4K UD television and you did not get a remote control. Every time you wanted to change a channel you had to walk up to your set and twist a knob clockwise or anti-clockwise. Or we had to carry a long corded box with channel numbers on them. It does sound absurd but this absurd example proves a point that multiple innovations from the entire ecosystem results in our current user experience.

Cathode ray tube got disrupted by flat panel LCD / plasma technology and then the resolution got better and better and the TV became thinner and thinner. Sound technology improved and made it possible to get surround sound from single transmitters. Computer processing enhanced over decades and the internet got into our TVs. Analog NTSC tuners and antennas got disrupted by free to the air digital signals. Lastly, all these technologies have become so mainstream and cheap that common people like me can afford such an exotic TV in our basements. It’s these and hundreds of other innovation and disruptions has resulted in the 4K TVs that we lined up on Black Friday for.

Outcome based

The TV revolution took many decades to where it is today. It’s not that customers said they did not like bulky sets, maybe customers just did not care or pay enough attention. The demand for this all hinges on outcome – something very fundamental. All customers want is to be entertained at home and that small screen entertainment look as close to our real world as possible. Timing is everything in the marketplace. Some evolution (such as TVs) take decades while some revolutions like ride sharing with Uber& Lyft only took years. Business leaders and technologists are often faced with the problem of timing. Adoption is a complicated art and science and so strategy evangelists often fail in predicting this pace of change. Disruption timing is often a delicate equation between when a “market need” is ripe to be exploited vs when the “supplier product” is mature to disrupt the market. Electric car vs Hybrid cars vs fossil fuel car is a great example.  

Too early disruption

Many of us (including me) did not know that a German engineer called Henri Pieper invented the first hybrid car in 1900 with an electric motor/generator, batteries, and a gas engine. Similar to modern day hybrids it used the electric motor to charge the battery while driving and used both motors to for acceleration power. A patent was filed in 1905 and under those patents Auto-Mixte built hybrid vehicles from 1906 to 1912. This is a great example of Disruption happening “Too early” as the hybrid vehicles were too slow, batteries bulky and difficult to service. Plus it was not solving a customer problem rather it caused challenges. In the 1930s Hybrids only went up to 25 miles/hour and hence did not gain traction. Audi experimented with a few models in 1980s and they were neither successful. In spite of the increasing popularity of Electric cars, I personally believe it would take another decade to become completely mainstream. It would take a lot of time for Governments and private companies to litter the planet with charging stations, hence the barrier to adoption. Plus they still do not hold enough change to do “worry free” long distance driving.

Right timed disruption

Toyota came out with its hybrid technology at the “right time”. The first commercial successful hybrid was the Toyota Prius which launched in 1997 (Disclaimer – My wife and I own a newer Prius) With the various gulf wars, crude oil crisis and other economic conditions the cost of gas kept increasing over the last few decades. Cars also increased in size and were lot heavy than it predecessors and needed more fuel. Carbon emission became an issue and world leaders were looking for ways to decrease the carbon footprint. All of these market and consumer conditions meant that it was the right time for Disruption.

Too late innovation

The Hummer was an iconic brand for military and all terrain settings till Feb 2009 when GM dismantled the brand. Although it was a luxury brand, its ownership posed some serious challenges for its customers – size making parking complicated, fuel efficiency earning gas guzzler title and inadequate safely features making them a risky buy. While GM focused on a lot of licensing of the Hummer brand on perfumes, caps, key rings, garments, bags etc it did not focus on re-inventing the brand. Right at the time of the brand closing down the market came to know of its two concept cars – a smaller Hummer HX and a Plug in hybrid using Chevy Volt electric technology.

Lessons learned

Now what lesson can we learn from this journey of hybrid cars for our companies and our disruption initiatives? Here are five key things you have to remember.

  1. Focus on customer needs and wants. If there is gap in what the customer needs vs what you provide – you are at a risk. You have to constantly work to close or eliminate that gap or create a new offering that’s going to replace your current offering
  2. Look at the full picture. Innovating or transforming part of your offering is only going to get you temporary gains and will not mitigate any risk. Chalk out the entire customer journey(s) and then make sure your R&D dollars is spent on evolving that customer journey
  3. Keep an eye out for startups, competitors and other related or unrelated offerings in your general ecosystem. Focus on the expected outcome from a perspective of a customer and not your solution
  4. Cost effectiveness should be a mantra irrespective of your disruption threat. Constantly keep your costs low and production / service efficient – you will never know when it would come in handy
  5. Don’t be emotional towards your initiatives. Acknowledge failure quickly and also feel free to re-disrupt again and again. The market does not take a breather and so you should not as well.

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