One of the interesting phenomenons when it comes to innovating, within an established organization, is that even though the organization knows it needs to innovate, and even encourages and funds innovation, chances are that it will almost immediately seek to shut-down an innovative venture if it does not produce profitable results, overnight. Innovation is threatening to an existing organization, especially a failing one, because innovation uses coveted resources and threatens the status quo. However, even though innovation is risky and comes with many unknowns, it is still vital to the survival and the growth of an organization.
An organization in decline knows that if it keeps doing business as usual, it will fail. It knows it must innovate and reach new markets, however, it also terrified that the time and resources it puts in to any new venture, will speed up their demise. So, when something does not produce immediate results, even if it shows promise and a path to profitability, an organization will hedge its bets and work to preserve any remaining resources. This is an attitude of, “Well, if we’re going to fail, we might as well stick with the failure we know.”
For an example of this, let’s look at the case of former smartphone company, Palm. In 2007 Palm announced a new product called the “Foleo.” The “Foleo” was to be a netbook-like device that worked as a “mobile companion” to a Palm smartphone. The Foleo, however, turned out to be one of the biggest technological flops, ever. In fact, Palm canceled the project before a single device ever hit the consumer market. Following the cancelation, Palm’s CEO quickly retreated back to a sole focus on their smartphones, which were becoming more and more obsolete by the minute. A few years later, Palm would be acquired by HP, who ultimately retired the Palm product line. In the end, Palm decided it was better to stick to what they knew, even though they knew that their smartphones were getting killed by competitors.
I believe, however, that Palm was actually on to something with the Foleo. As the Wikepedia article points out, the Foleo would have been the first mainstream “netbook” to market and, sure enough, not long after the Foleo was canceled, computer companies introduced their own netbooks. For the most part netbooks ended up being flops, but the innovation of netbooks have led to the thinner, lighter, more compact laptop computers and tablets that now dominate the consumer computer market. In fact, looking back on it, the Foleo had many tablet-like features, a full three years before the iPad was released. The Foleo’s design was slimmed down and the hardware (which included flash memory) enabled quick boot-up and response times. It was designed to connect to the internet through wifi and your Palm’s cellular data connection. It was also had a custom slimed-down OS and custom software developed for it, including a number of “apps,” like a music player, web browser, e-mail program, etc.
Now, I’m not saying that the Foleo would have saved Palm from failure. However, it may have given them a shot to disrupt the notebook PC market and to build upon and improve the device, perhaps leading future generations of the device to become the first true tablet computer. Yet, Palm balked and instead chose the failure it was comfortable with.
In order to keep our organizations from going the way of Palm and the Foleo we have to be willing to be innovators and risk-takers, not haphazardly, but by constantly testing, adapting, and improving new ideas and innovations. We have to measure the things that matter, like the ability to reach and adapt to new markets, even if it’s not profitable at first. We have to be willing to push through the criticism, the finger pointers, the status quo, and the doubters, especially if we believe our innovation is going to change everything.
We have to ask ourselves: will we fail slowly, clinging on to what we know? Or, will we risk failure trying to change the world, one last time? With the former option, failure is guaranteed, with the latter, success and transformation are still possibilities.
Which will you choose?
Oh, and before you consider choosing to fail comfortably, imagine for a moment that you just read this article on the latest generation, and number one selling tablet, in the world: the Palm Foleo Air.
This post originally appeared at The Blue Yarn.
Image: Flickr User thomcochrane