“Zone to Win” Missing Critical Elements of Innovation Strategy

Although Zone to Win: Organizing to Compete In an Age of Disruption by Geoffrey Moore is a wonderful framework for the management of organizational resources to both lead, as well as survive, disruptive innovation, there are some missing elements that might prove useful to readers.  Specifically, Moore focuses on management, and although absolutely necessary, management does not supersede strategy or innovation in long-term success.  Zone to Win fails to encompass appropriate innovation strategy in two ways: the idea of disrupting your own organization, and gap between innovation ideation and implementation.

The Strategy of Disrupting Your Own Organization

Moore seems uncharacteristically blunt on the idea of organizations needing to disrupt their own business.  Moore suggests “all that stuff about how you have to learn to disrupt ourself–it’s baloney. It can’t be done.”  Moore’s contention is that it is impossible for an established business to replace one business model with another; yet, later in the book documents the success of organizations like Adobe and Microsoft that have radically changed their business models to deliver software via subscription instead of perpetual licensing.  It turns out Adobe and Microsoft are two excellent examples for exploring why it is absolutely important for organizations to engage in deliberate acts of self-disruption.  Adobe intentionally disrupted their existing business model (a highly profitable one) before anyone else could eat their lunch; Microsoft changed theirs only after Google started taking away their business.  Adobe was seen as a leader; Microsoft as a laggard.

From an organizational strategy standpoint, it is absolutely critical to develop strategic scenarios of how the future world may look, and how those changes may affect your existing business model.  Scenario planning provides context that is essential when disruption happens, but more importantly, can presage potential disruptions before they happen.  If scenario planning illuminates a significant threat, the organization has only two options: disrupt their own business in order to transfer old business to new business; or, let someone else start eating away your customer base.  It can be argued that cannibalizing your own business, if only to prevent someone else from doing so, makes sense in its own right.  If that new business also portends an era of growth, more the better.

Working to disrupt your own business should not be an organization’s only focus, but failure to even contemplate it, or act upon it, is a strategic failure.

Moore does cover how an organization can respond to disruptive innovations once the initial attacks begin and makes an excellent case for how to manage those attacks.  However, by dismissing, out of hand, the idea that an organization can lead those disruptions, and thus avoid the attack in the first place, Moore seems to completely discount the value of doing so.  While a brilliant theorist like Moore likely meant to dissuade companies from trying a wholesale rip-and-replace of their business model (not something any serious innovation strategist would propose), simply dismissing the strategic value of self-disruption seems cursory.  Moore’s stance is even more glaring considering the zone management framework he proposes actually makes it possible to disrupt your own business in a structured, well-managed way.

Working to disrupt your own business should not be an organization’s only focus, but failure to even contemplate it, or act upon it, is a strategic failure.

Mind the Gap

Another topic which gets too little attention in Zone to Win, is the gap between innovation ideation and the development of the Incubation Organizational Units (IOUs) suggested to incubate and develop promising innovation efforts.  Here again, Moore proposes management organization and governance brilliantly, but only once the innovation ideas get to the point of being a well-formed business proposals.  What is missing is the innovation strategy to get from ideation to the point of proposal.  Aside from a brief mention of internal R&D or other means, Moore fails to specify where this fits in the zone management framework, or how to appropriately fund it.

There is substantial research supporting the notion that “having ideas” is not the challenge for most established organizations.  On the contrary, the most commonly cited challenge is in identifying ideas with potential, and exploring them to the point where they can be taken as serious projects for the organization.   This process needs to be budgeted for, managed, and held accountable in order to be successful.  Without it, the only projects that move forward will be those lucky enough to have a champion with the authority, clout, and budget to develop them.  This creates a choke point to innovation.

Yet, it misses the fact most start-ups don’t start life with venture capital; they start with funding from the founders and personal investors until they have something they can pitch to those VCs.

Moore’s framework suggests treating IOUs as “start-up” companies and funding them just like venture capitalists (VCs) would, which is (again) a brilliant way to manage well-formed ideas.  Yet, it misses the fact most start-ups don’t start life with venture capital; they start with funding from the founders and personal investors until they have something they can pitch to those VCs.  This stage in the innovation cycle is critical and where most start-ups fail.  It is the large end of the funnel.  In such a well thought-out framework as Zone to Win presents, missing this critical element is disappointing.

Appropriately funding and managing the initial R&D neccessary to initiate innovation is just as critical to success as any other component.  However, the idea of funding pure R&D is not common among many of the organizations that would most benefit from taking Moore’s framework to heart.  Even technology organizations often do this as skunkworks or “off-the-books” projects with little organization, governance, or metrics.  Moore’s failure to address this misses a critical element in successfully leading disruptive innovation.

A Step in the Right Direction

Barring these two criticisms, Moore’s work has certainly cemented his place in the annals of business gurus and shows a continuing dedication to helping organizations overcome their own success.  The zone management framework provides a blueprint for overcoming the obstacles Clayton Christensen (and colleagues) frequently cites as the downfall of established organziations in light of disruptive innovation.  Most importantly, Moore adds significant credibility to the idea that innovation can only be truly successful if: a) it is done outside of the main business (incubation versus performance zones); and, b) it is treated with the same care and dedication used to manage any business process.   By addressing the importance of strategic planning, and formally defining the R&D component, zone management would be even better.

Lastly, one word of warning to devotees seeking to implement zone management. Remember the words of Michael Porter: “strategic positioning, means performing different activities from rivals’ or performing similar activities in different ways (1996, p. 62).  Frameworks like Moore’s are effective tools, but without making them your own, they lose their strategic value.  This is where leadership takes over from management.

References

Porter, M. E. (1996). What is strategy? Harvard Business Review, 74(6), 61–78. Retrieved from http://hbr.org/

 

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