The Innovator’s Dilemma with Chinese Characteristics

Hutong West
Catching up
2009 hrs

In what has to have been one of the most important moments of my life, while running errands today in the car my wife touched my hand, looked into my eyes, and said “the time has come in our lives for you to focus on what is important: your books, your blogs, your research, your speaking, and your teaching. Let me worry about the other stuff from now on.”

Talk about a lump in the throat. I do not deserve a partner like her. With that kind of support, however, I’m rolling up the sleeves.

With this post, I am beginning an effort to write the posts I have been dying to write, but have put off over the years because of other obligations. Not everything will be timely, but it will all be relevant. I can promise you, though, that I’ll keep most of them short and pithy. To keep these grouped together, I will mark each of them with my “FITG” (“flag in the ground”) category.

Is China like Japan, Only Bigger?

In a thoughtful article in The New York Times from January 2011 [see, I told you I’d been waiting a long time to write these – dw], Steve Lohr suggested that perhaps the U.S. trade disputes and commercial competition with Japan were mere warm-ups for what we would face in China. It’s a provocative thesis, but the passage that got me in the article was this one:

“The bet for I.B.M. in Japan, as it is for companies like Boeing and General Electric today in China, is that they can stay ahead, innovate faster than the potential competitors they are helping,” says Edward J. Lincoln, professor of economics at the Stern School of Business at New York University, and director of its Japan-U.S. Center for Business and Economic Studies.

I’m on record in this blog for suggesting that the way for companies to keep ahead of the Chinese was with a flow of innovation. But when I read Professor Lincoln’s words, my brain goes straight to Clayton Christiansen’s Innovator’s Dilemma. Piling innovations on top of each other to stay ahead is great, but at some point your customers are going to wake up and ask exactly how much of this innovation they really need, or whether buying “good enough” products will do just fine?

Bells, Whistles, and Value

What triggered me was the reference to Boeing. I’ve been compiling notes and research on a book about Chinese aerospace over the years, and the issue I keep coming back to is that at some point Boeing’s innovations – as remarkable as they may be – may not mean enough to a Chinese, Latin American, or African customer to make a 11o passenger jet worth 25% or 30% more.

In construction equipment, for example, the global manufacturers have created so many process innovations that their earth movers, graders, and loaders will last for a decade or more. But those innovations don’t pay off with many Chinese customers: they amortize the cost of the equipment over a year or two, so they would rather buy cheap equipment, burn it up, and then sell it used to companies in the poorer parts of China than pay a premium for the longer-lasting equipment.

With airliners, many carriers in the developing world have been getting by with used Boeings and Airbuses for years because they simply could not afford to equip their airlines with the newest planes. But at some point, a company (like China’s COMAC, for instance) will come to those carriers and say “look, we’ll sell you our new airliners for just a bit more than you have been paying for the used Boeings and Airbuses. You get new planes rather than used ones, and it doesn’t cost you much more. Sure, they don’t use the latest technologies, but you don’t really need composites and Garmin avionics – you’d be perfectly happy with aluminum planes with old-fashioned dials for instruments. Your maintenance costs will drop substantially, and you’ll have happier passengers.”

Apologies to Debbie Fields of Mrs. Field Cookies, but sometimes, good enough is good enough.

What KIND of Innovation Stream?

So what do companies like Boeing need to do?

Part of the answer is to go back to Franz Johansson’s definition of “innovation” from his book The Medici Effect. A true innovation, Johansson noted, has two characteristics: it is novel (i.e., new or never been done before), and it is useful. That last bit, he noted was the part most people missed. But I think companies like Boeing and GE manage to get both the “novel” and “useful” bits right, but that is not enough: just ask the guys who make earth moving equipment. Something is missing.

I once had a jolly debate by mail with an auto reviewer for the L.A. Times who felt that Mitsubishi’s inclusion of an inclinometer in the instrument panel of its off-road vehicles was useless. I thought it was quite useful, as it is possible to get disoriented when bouncing around off-road, especially in low light. He responded by suggesting that maybe I needed my inner ear checked. I ended the conversation before calling him an effete Limey, which is just as well. Twenty years on, I think we were both right. For him, the doohickey was useless, but for me, it was useful.

Herein, I think, lies an answer to the challenge innovative companies are going to face with Chinese competitors. An innovation must be novel, and it must be useful, but it also must be relevant: it must be meaningful to the specific customer given that customer’s preferences and proclivities. In fact, the more relevant an innovation is, the less truly novel it need be.

This simple question reframes the thinking around innovation and around the value proposition an innovation offers. Instead of assuming that, say, because Singapore Airlines will value an innovation, Air Afrique will value it equally, we automatically assume that some of our customers will value an innovation and that some will not, and we start seeing innovations as targeted rather than as generic. This means that there will be multiple streams of innovations that are targeted to customers with different needs and preferences.

So yes, as Professor Lincoln said, to keep ahead of the competition who are innovating on your heels, innovate faster. But keep the innovations relevant, or you may turn around and realize that you missed a turn, but the competition didn’t.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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