Apr 182012

The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business by Clayton M. Christensen  

Clayton M. Christensen is a professor at the Harvard Business School. In the Innovator’s Dilemma, he presents his research into business life cycles and how larger companies find it difficult to innovate. He shows how these larger companies eventually are replaced by innovators who make inroads by taking the bottom markets willing ceded to them by the bigger companies. Little by little, the smaller companies eat away until they have market dominance themselves, leaving the once market leader without a place to go.

The concept of how small companies can thrive in a world dominated by large companies is an interesting one, especially for the entrepreneurs facing Goliath. Christensen lays out several test cases where the larger company couldn’t innovate, allowing smaller companies to enter at the bottom of the market. He even shows how and why it made sense for the management of these dominant companies to allow this to happen – at the time. Innovation is not an easy prospect for large companies because their large existing customer base often will not allow the innovations to move forward because it doesn’t fit their needs. Innovations often bring a different customer and large companies are not always able to choose to service both.

Christensen provides a few examples of this phenomena in excruciating detail, studying the rapidly changing industries of disk drives and steel production. He rounds out the book with a discussion of the steam shovel and how it lost out to hydraulics. In a final case study, he examines how the principles could be applied to a potential disruptive technology – the electric car. He lays out a complete game plan for a company to take the innovations available and capture a new market. Sadly, in the years since publication in 1997, it doesn’t appear anyone has taken up the challenge, although perhaps Tesla Motors has come the closest.

The problem I have with Christensen’s book is his writing style. He is definitely a Harvard Business School professor. He delves deeply into his research, explaining every nuance of the industry in such detail as to leave no doubt he has done an extensive study. I grew up in IT, living just miles away from one of the great innovators of the disk drive industry, yet I learned many things about  disk drives. I hadn’t imagined I could get a technical education from a book on business management.

Christensen’s writing style was the biggest barrier to the material. His explanations were too deeply steeped with details that didn’t move the story forward. While the datum was valid and important, it didn’t necessarily have to be presented in long, exhaustive detail. Today’s readers do not have a lot of time or desire to spend long stretches of deep explanation. I found it necessary to spend at least 45 minutes reading before getting “into” the book. I couldn’t help comparing the style to that of Jim Collins in Great By Choice. Yes, Collins is also a researcher who loves detail. The difference is that Collins moves all his detailed explanations to the appendix where those who desire it can find it. The book itself is organized into fast moving, short chapters laying out the salient points distilled from the exhaustive research. I would really have appreciated this approach in this book by Christensen. Collins is a storyteller where Christensen is a Harvard professor.

Christensen’s insight is worth the slog through the knee deep data. Just be ready with a canteen for dry stretches of endless detail as far as the eye can see.

Mar 132012

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer  

Every now and then, I come across a book that is so engaging, I simply cannot put it down. Into Thin Air is one of those books that pulled me in and I found myself listening to it every free second of every day until it, too soon, came to an end. I even brushed my teeth extra long, trying to fit in a few extra moments before I had to move on with the rest of my day.

Introduced to this book in Great By Choice by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen during their discussion on leading above the Death Line, I decided I had to read it. I had heard about the tragic Everest expeditions of 1996 in which eight people died when a storm caught them exposed near the summit. I wanted to learn more of the incident that inspired that chapter of Great By Choice.

Jon Krakauer, a journalist and mountain climber, was asked by Outside magazine to accompany an expedition and report on the commercialization of Mount Everest. Once reserved for the mountaineering elite, access to the world’s highest peak has recently been made available to anyone in reasonable condition and enough money to hire a guide. However, Krakauer, and the dozens of others who attempted to climb Everest in May, 1996, came face to face with the reality of how dangerous the mountain remains.

The book spend considerable time examining the guides, especially Rob Hall, the New Zealander who had pioneered the concept of helping get people to the top. Were the guides at fault for the disaster? Were there signs that could have prevented the disaster? Krakauer lays out the facts as he remembered them, realizing he, like the others, were in a fog of oxygen deprivation. He pieced the story together from interviews with many of the other climbers.

Being a professional writer, Krakauer’s narrative is engaging and descriptive. This is what pulled me in to the book and helped me get closer to understanding why anyone endures the physical torture and risks their life to climb the world’s highest peaks.

What of the controversy surrounding the cause of the disaster? Krakauer did not gloss over the actions or inactions of several who resulted in the disaster. He holds himself responsible for mistakes made that caused pain and loss of life for his teammates and their families. He explains in detail many of the questions that will never be answered, including why Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, experienced guides, ignored their own abort time by over three hours that would have saw everyone safely back to camp before the storm broke. Krakauer’s account created enough pain and anger among the survivors and families he felt it necessary to add an epilogue attempting reconciliation.

As I listened to this book, I couldn’t help draw comparisons to the decision making processes followed in business leadership. Disasters are rarely a result of a single poor choice, but instead are the compounding of many, tiny missteps. Such was the conclusion to which Krakauer came. The guides had rules predetermined to keep everyone safe while under the effect of hypoxia brought on by the low oxygen levels at high altitude. However, the bending of several placed everyone in unnecessary risk. Individually, none of the small infractions would have made a difference. Adding them all up, however, spelled disaster when the storm hit. How many times do I allow myself a small bending of the rules I have placed to keep me out of danger? Can I afford to let myself place myself and others in danger? The lessons of Into Thin Air will stay with me for a long time.

Mar 082012

I recently reviewed the book Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck–Why Some Thrive Despite Them All by Jim Collins and Morten Hansen. While written about making businesses great, I believe they have perhaps inadvertently written one of the best books on improving oneself. I am taking the next few posts to lay the case of how we can ourselves be Great By Choice.

Collins and Hansen’s last behavior of great companies is Return On Luck. Luck, as defined by the authors, is an event that occurs independent of the one’s actions, has significant consequence (good or bad), and is unpredictable. There is, of course, both good and bad luck. What surprised them in their research is that the 10X companies did not experience more good luck or less bad luck than their competitors. In short, it isn’t the luck that you get, it is what you do with it.

We all have what we consider to be luck, both good and bad, in our lives. How we respond to the luck has a lot to do with our character and the other traits described in Great by Choice. Obtaining return on luck takes dedication and foresight. How we handle bad luck is even more telling than good luck. After all, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger.” That is all about luck.

One point that the authors make that resonated with me is what they call “Who Luck”. This is the luck of finding the right mentor, partner, teammate, leader or friend. They maintain the best way to maintain a strong current of good luck is to associate with great people and build strong relationships with them. When luck turns bad, they will be there to help out. When times are good, they will share unselfishly. This is what building a professional network is all about. I have had the thrill of having a large amount of Who Luck. It seems everywhere I turn, people are eager to help me.

The authors recommend throwing ourselves at luck events, using all the other behaviors of success: the 20 mile march, firing bullets, then cannonballs, staying above the Death Line and maintaining the SMaC rules. By employing these skills, the most can be made of any kind of luck. Do I consider my experience of being laid off as bad luck? Yes, but it is also one of the best experiences of my life. The results the subsequent experiences have changed my life for the better. I was able to use the experience to my advantage and built a wonderful network of people who helped and an provided more profitable experiences than I could have ever hoped.

So, when regardless whether life hands us a lemon or a rose, take it and use all the skills to make it into something even more wonderful. Don’t get discouraged. The experience can be, in time and with work, some of the best luck ever experienced. Keep in mind the importance of Return On Luck.

Great By Choice Personal Improvement Series

Great By Choice: Personal Success In Reach
Great By Choice: The 20 Mile March
Great By Choice: Fire Bullets, Then Cannonballs
Great By Choice: Leading Above the Death Line
Great By Choice: SMaC

Great By Choice: Return On Luck