Three Traps: Complacency, Cannibalization, Competency

The Three-Box Solution: A Strategy for Leading Innovation by Vijay Govindarajan is a great book to help leader innovate with simple and proven methods for allocating an organization’s energy, time, and resources across the three boxes:

Box 1: The present—Strengthen the core

Box 2: The past— Let go of the practices that fuel the core business but fail the new one

Box 3: The future—Invent a new business model.

Below is an excerpt on the three behavior traps. How do you manage them to the lead your organization to innovate?

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While there were many within IBM who clearly understood the implications of both nonlinear shifts, their insights had difficulty penetrating the entrenched logic of the past. The dominant logic of the past exerts its hold on business cultures and practices in three distinctive but tightly interlocking ways. I think of their dynamic effects as traps that snare the unprepared. All three have common origins in mind-sets that focus excessively on past values, behavior, and beliefs.

The Complacency Trap

Current success conditions a business to suppose that securing the future requires nothing more than repeating what it did to succeed in the past. This is the complacency trap. Complacency shrouds the future in a fog of misplaced confidence, hiding from view a clear understanding of the extent to which the world is changing around you.

IBM’s extraordinary success driving revenues in its Box 1 mainframe business masked difficulties to come. Rather than face up to looming threats to the mainframe business, IBM applied temporary patches. One such patch ‘was to change the revenue model from leasing mainframes to selling them outright. S This produced a pleasing surge in near-term revenues that postponed IBM’s day of reckoning.

The loyalty of successful organizations to the past is often so potent that they become quite ingenious at ignoring the onset of fatigue in the Box 1 business. Instead of building the future day by day, IBM prolonged it’s past with what amounted to an accounting change. The resulting years-long period of bolstered revenues made it easy for the company to think that everything was just fine-four words that fairly summarize complacency.

Another way to understand how IBM fell into the complacency trap is that the company’s continuing Box 1 profitability delayed development of a sense of urgency that might have motivated a more prescient Box 2 judgment: that it was important to invest aggressively in the new enterprise model of client/server computing.

This is the dark side of success. No matter the industry or company, each great innovation spawns a steady accumulation of Box I-based structures, processes, and attitudes of the kind that blinded IBM to its predicament. IBM mainframes were not simply smart machines; they were smart machines that over the years had created at customer work sites whole new layers of enterprise management that had never existed before.

Mainframe computers were island fortresses, secured and operated by a newly empowered IT function and inaccessible, except through IT proxies, to the rest of the enterprise. If a technology can embody a governing philosophy, the mainframe’s philosophy was exactly opposite that of the open, accessible internet that was yet to appear. Even before the internet emerged as a business tool, there were pitched battles within almost every company about making valuable mainframe data accessible to and usable by employees with networked PCs. This increasingly loud demand clashed with the mind-set of IBM’s IT customers, who saw their mission as protecting the security and integrity of corporate data: allowing liberal access would lead to data corruption and to proliferating unreliable versions of the “truth.”

In fact, customers can play an important role in deepening a complacency trap. IBM had collaborated with its customers in creating what became an entrenched system of governance for computerized organizations. That system’s structures and attitudes were a self-reinforcing feedback loop amplified by IBM’s large-enterprise customers.

Ultimately, a more modern version of the mainframe emerged and made peace with the rest of the IT infrastructure. Today’s version powers big data analytics and other applications in many large enterprises. But in the IBM of the 1990s, mainframes cast a long shadow over the emergent model of more open, democratized network computing.

The Cannibalization Trap

The cannibalization trap persuades leaders that new business models based on nonlinear ideas will jeopardize the firm’s present prosperity. So, like antibodies attacking an invading virus, they protect the Box 1 business by resisting ideas that don’t conform to models of the past.

At its heart, the fear of cannibalization reflects a wish to keep the world from changing. It is perhaps easy to understand that wish, but it’s much harder to excuse it. The glib answer to those who suffer from this fear is to remind them that change is inevitable and the world will change either with them or without them. When a business allows worries about cannibalization to interfere with its strategy, it has overinvested in its past and is doomed to undermine its future.

Cannibalization is typically understood-and feared-as a near-term threat. As foresighted as IBM was in developing its personal computer in the early 1980s, forces marshaled within the company to protect the legacy business. Those who feared the PC believed it had the potential to threaten the mainframe computing model, perhaps by feeding the growing appetite to liberate enterprise data or by diverting attention and investment away from the company’s dominant business.

People who fear new technology are usually more right than wrong about its potential to supersede legacy products. The truth is, every Box 1 business has reason to fear, sometimes even hate, whatever shiny new thing is being launched. When Steve Jobs gave a big push to the Macintosh launch toward the end of his first stint at Apple, the group in charge of the incumbent Apple II felt threatened and undercut. It was as if cofounder Jobs had sponsored an insurrection.”

In reality, however, cannibalization should be understood as a long- term benefit. The new Apple Macintosh embodied features that soon enough would make its predecessors obsolete. If Apple hadn’t moved quickly, a competitor-maybe even IBM-would have filled the vacuum. Given its history, IBM’s embrace of microcomputing was unexpected. But it quickly set the standard for PCs and legitimized them as tools for both home and business users. While IBM’s marketing of the PC initially tilted toward home users, the real revenue bonanza came from businesses. Suddenly, at least part of IBM had reason to root for client/ server computing. No matter what anyone in the mainframe business thought about it, the client/server model had the shine of inevitability.

So, while companies must take the fear of cannibalization seriously as a problem to manage, it can’t become a reason not to act with foresight when new nonlinear strategies or business models present an opportunity.

The Competency Trap

The competency trap arises when positive results the current core business encourage the organization to invest mainly in Box 1 competencies and provide little incentive for investing in new and future-oriented competencies. In established companies built around a spectacular success, such as IBM’s industry-defining mainframe computers, it is natural to want to create a workforce whose skills dominantly reflect the legacy success. But a competency trap is a double- edged sword. IBM’s investments in Box 1 competencies helped its mainframe business. But Box 1 logic asks, why invest in skills not vital to the company’s current profitability? That is why Box 2 is necessary.

IBM eventually recognized that the dominant computing model it had exploited to achieve such great success was changing. Yet, despite having made significant investments in a robust R&D function, it was having chronic difficulty incubating new ventures. It struggled to find what IBM insiders called “The Next Big Thing.” The organization appeared to have succumbed to a “four monkeys” value system.

Believing that there were indeed systemic problems, then-CEO Louis Gerstner commissioned an internal inquiry to identify root causes. The inquiry, led by Bruce Harreld, IBM’s head of corporate strategy, confirmed Gerstner’s fears. Looking at a number of recent examples of flawed new-business incubation, Harreld’s team concluded that the company’s dominant Box 1 systems, structures, processes, and culture had:

  • Created a powerful bias for near-term results.
  • Encouraged a focus on existing customers and offerings to the extent that new technologies and nonlinear trends were either underestimated or escaped detection entirely.
  • Burdened new businesses with unreasonably high performance goals-especially damaging to ventures that targeted newer, riskier, but often more promising markets.
  • Motivated an unimaginative approach to market analysis that impaired the company’s ability to understand the sorts of “embryonic markets” most likely to spawn nonlinear Box 3 ideas.
  • Interfered with development of the skills necessary to adaptively transition a new business through its emergent and growth stages until it finally became an established enterprise.
  • Caused assorted failures of execution, many owing to the inflexibility of Box l=driven organizational structures, which leaders of new ventures “were expected to rise above … Voicing concerns over [such challenges], even when they were major barriers to new business initiatives, was seen as a sign of weakness.”

What the report didn’t say is important to note. IBM’s problem was not caused by a lack of research competency. On the contrary, its workforce possessed at least some expertise in a wide array of disciplines and technologies. Among its research projects were some that were quite promising and others that were highly speculative, unproven, and obscure. But for all the reasons listed, even ideas that managed to get traction were being ineptly developed and executed. What IBM needed was a well-designed process for enabling, supporting, and rewarding its maverick monkeys and likewise for managing new ventures onward through their developmental stages.

Such a process typically should incorporate a range of structural, cultural, and leadership remedies. At IBM-first under Gerstner and later Sam Palmisano-these distinctive remedies came together under the emerging business opportunities (EBO) framework, which created new structures, changes to the buttoned-down IBM culture, and more versatile and adaptive leadership behavior.


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