Innovate or Die


“America demands invention and innovation to succeed.” -Kit Bond

Blockbuster. Research in Motion (Blackberry). Borders. AOL. Palm.

What do these companies have in common? They used to be on the leaders in their respective industries, but are now either bankrupt or on the way out. The cause of their slow slides into irrelevancy is their failure to innovate after they hit it big. Their stagnation prevented them from adapting to meet the changing demands of their clientele, provoking their customers to leave them for their more agile competitors. Companies that fail to innovate should rightly be allowed to go out of business. 

Of course the companies aren’t alone. Each year Yahoo’s 24/7 Wall Street puts out its predictions of brands that will disappear during that year (here are their 2013 predictions). Even Apple, the world’s richest company, needs to keep innovating or it will eventually lose its cash stockpile and disappear. On the day of the iPhone 5 launch, Mashable’s Chris Taylor wrote a fantastic article entitled “Apple, It’s Time To Make Something New” encouraging the tech company to get back to what elevated it to its current status.

Innovation is essential at all levels of business (or education, ministry, politics, etc). Organizations must adapt to the changing business environment, customer desires, available technologies, and competitor strategies. Leaders should be able to incorporate new ideas without compromising the core values of their companies.

It Started With Paper

Here’s the story of one company that has embodied the ability to innovate:

In 1865, Fredrik Idestam built a pulp mill on the banks of the Temmerkoski River in southwestern Finland. Soon he added a papermaking machine. As with any papermaker at the time, much of what the company produced was used for stationery, newsprint, and books- the primary means of communication before the invention of radio, telephones, and television. So, indirectly this company was in the communications business.

By 1900, it was already one of the largest paper producers in Finland and was looking for different growth opportunities. Electricity was a rapidly growing source of energy at the time, so in 1902 the company began building its own electric generators and sold the current to local businesses. By the end of the 1910s, however, the company was going through some financial struggles, so it decided to join forces with Finnish Rubber Works. Rubber offered obvious synergies for the combined companies since it is a natural insulator for electricity.

By the 1920s, telephone service was a rapidly growing business and cables were being laid from city to city. In 1922, the Finnish Cable Company was added to the growing conglomerate. Over the next few decades, it continued to expand smartly into adjacent industries and around the world. By 2010, it had become a $40 billion company, with operations in 120 countries around the world, and a market leader in its main business sector, which is still communications. You know the company by the same name it had a hundred years ago when it was producing paper in Finland– Nokia.

Driving Innovation

No matter where you work or what you do, we can all learn from the ingenuity of Nokia.  So, how can you stay innovative? MentorCamp founder Permjot Valia offered two important ways in a recent panel discussion:

  1. Always think like a customer. Put yourself in their shoes.
  2. Check your ego at the door and be open minded when it comes to business strategy. As a leader, there is a certain level of ego involved, but you have to be willing to humbly listen to the ideas of others and admit that your way isn’t always the best.

With that in mind, find a way to drive innovation, whether that means becoming an entrepreneur or working within your current organization to encourage smart change. By seeking to promote innovation in our different contexts, we will create companies, schools, churches, and a country that successfully meet the changing needs of the people in our world.

Learn It. Love It. Live It.

[image credit: Boegh on Flickr]


About Lawson Hembree
Lawson is an entrepreneur, ministry leader, and outdoors enthusiast who also enjoys blogging about business, ideas, and theology. Want to continue the discussion or write a guest post? Let's Connect!

2 Responses to Innovate or Die

  1. benklar says:

    Interesting to see RIM on the list, especially with a new OS to be released in a week or two. Not saying that RIM is on the up and up but they’ve generated some good press coverage in the mainstream media (and even tech blogs) for their new user interface. Sounds like their browser speeds are beating some of the big players too. A new interface could break Blackberry past its own “business-only” glass ceiling. If nothing else, it has given people a reason to raise an eyebrow or two rather than laugh at the Blackberry. BB10 won’t flip RIM’s fortunes but it will be the anchor that allows them to continue to survive and (optimistically) give them a platform for future building.

    • Obviously it’s not too late for any of these companies to save themselves, but they have all definitely lost their market leader position. I look forward to seeing RIM’s new OS in action, but it may be hard for them now that Apple (iOS) and Google (Android) control the market. Even MySpace is trying to make a comeback. Of course if these two would have continued innovating after they achieved their peak, they may not have needed a comeback at all.

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