How companies can ‘create the enemy’

We’ve seen it happen time and time again: Companies become stuck in their ways, relying too much on tradition, and are too stubborn to realize that their competition is creeping up on them—ready to pounce with a new innovation.

Nokia, the former mobile phone giant, faced this fate when it refused to adapt to new technologies in the marketplace for fear of isolating its current customers. It wasn’t until 2008 that Nokia attempted to compete with the likes of Samsung’s Android and Apple’s iPhone but, by then, the company’s fate had been sealed.

Barnes & Noble is another good example. The national bookstore chain has taken sales hit after sales hit from tech giant Amazon, struggling to remain competitive with the online marketplace. Although Barnes & Noble, among others, has transitioned to online sales, the bookseller recently buckled and sold to a hedge fund in June 2019 as the damage from Amazon became irreversible.

Others like Blockbuster, Xerox, Yahoo! and MySpace have all fallen victim to the beast that is complacency, and therein lies the problem. These businesses waited to act until it was too late, wasting resources within their own four walls that should have been leveraged to keep pace with their ultimate undertaker.

The solution, while seemingly counterintuitive, is simple: Companies should use their own resources to create their own competition.

In order to make this goal a reality, businesses should take it upon themselves to create a team of innovators already working at their company. This team of employees should include top performers who have proven themselves capable of forward thought throughout their tenure at the organization, and perhaps even some dissenters who are able to recognize the possible weaknesses within a company’s product or service.

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Companies should consider hiring employees with different perspectives. They should not just look at those who’ve graduated from certain universities or have achieved a particular GPA, but also intangible traits that create out-of-the-box thinkers who tackle these types of challenges with grit. Companies should also direct resources to this core team and designate a specific space for the team to work creatively, free from the distractions of the day-to-day office dynamics.

Several companies around the world, including Microsoft and Amazon, have taken it upon themselves to create “Innovation Labs” within their organization in order to focus on specific industry challenges.

For instance, Amazon’s Lab 126 was created as a research and development unit filled with some of the company’s top engineers, who were tasked with pursuing new projects within the realm of innovation, research and development. To date, the group has produced devices like the Amazon Echo, Kindle e-readers and Amazon Fire TV.

Google has a similar innovation lab the company calls “The Garage” that is open to all Google employees, who are encouraged to tackle innovative projects. The company has a second group, simply named “X,” whose tagline is: “Advancing the state of the art.” The team works on projects that are directly tied to a Google product in areas like machine intelligence, quantum AI and speech processing.

These groups have one core element in common: They are focusing on out-of-the-box projects that will help keep their company relevant and viable.

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Businesses throughout the U.S. should take note, but efforts need to be made to ensure that these teams are aware of the task at hand, which is to create the enemy. The group should think beyond how to make their already existing product better, instead focusing on what new product, system or service is missing from their industry that hasn’t been thought of yet—and that, in the wrong hands, could bring their own company to its knees.

Of course, companies should also take into consideration the risk of these new units taking their idea and beginning their own venture, a dilemma that any general counsel should be aware of. However, the ability for a business to constantly push the envelope in terms of innovations is a two-fold reward.

One, constantly innovating generally increases a company’s ability to compete in its respective industry, and two, it prepares the business for potential competitors who are also seeking to push boundaries in the field.

A concerted effort beyond implementing a standard research and development unit is wholly worth the investment, regardless of the size or scale of the potential team.

Businesses are already taking note of how simple changes within their workplaces, such as instituting a comprehensive wellness program, can have an impact on productivity and company success. It’s time that these companies take that notion a step further to create a team that could potentially save their business from future predators.

Frank Tirelli is vice chairman of professional services at alliantgroup.

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