Monday, October 26, 2009

Reversing the Hippocratic Oath

When I visit the doctor, I like to repeat to myself the Hippocratic Oath - "First, do no harm". I like to remind myself that no matter how much the doctor may poke and prod, he or she has committed themselves to not harm the patient, no matter how sick. This means that most doctors proceed to investigate any illness with an abundance of caution, and carefully understand the symptoms before prescribing treatment or medication.

Sometimes I think that many managers feel the same way about their businesses. Their approach to every issue is first - do no harm. Don't do anything to damage the status quo. Don't challenge the existing orthodoxy. Don't do anything that will damage my reputation. Whatever happens, don't do anything to disrupt the existing products or processes. In fact, in fairness, this is how most businesses are structured, so to say that managers reinforce this thinking is like saying that Frenchmen like wine. It goes without saying. Few businesses would exist if all they focused on was destroying their own products and services.

An innovator has to take on a different motto however. I don't think it's "First, do lots of harm" but I do think that an innovator must first decide what kind of change to introduce, and the volume and magnitude of the change. Then, he or she must decide where to focus that change. The new idea or change could be a radical new product or service that forces significant change or cannibalization on existing products or services. The new idea could disrupt an adjacent market space. The new idea could literally birth a new market or new space. Any of these concepts are valid. Looking back now at the corporate manager who is stuck on "doing no harm" but needs to create something innovative, his or her most comfortable choice is to disrupt someone else's market or product, since the first law of equilibrium is to not disrupt or cannibalize your own firm's products or services. This leaves only a radical or disruptive innovation that significantly disrupts a market or product where the firm has little insight or knowledge.

Perhaps, instead, the innovator should begin by asking "What are our sacred cows, and who is seeking to gorge them?" Or, "What product or service should we cannibalize to enable greater growth and differentiation". Start by disrupting the markets or products you understand and influence, then work outward to disrupt the adjacent and secondary or tertiary markets. This logically leads us to the concept that a true innovator working within a large company should usually cannibalize first, then attack other adjacent markets second. This makes sense, because it's easier to disrupt something that exists than to create an entirely new product or market.

With that in mind, the innovator's oath should probably be something like "Attack ourselves before someone else does" or "No Sacred Cow left unmolested". Perhaps you can suggest a better one?
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:56 PM

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