Amit S. Mukherjee is a professor of leadership and strategy at IMD’s Singapore campus. He has led technology development teams, served as an executive officer of a public company, and advised CEOs of global companies on strategy and organization design.
Leadership has always required the willingness to move in directions that peers avoid. Great leaders have the ability to convince, or induce, others to follow. Apple Inc. cofounder Steve Jobs, for instance, stared down the derision of analysts and peers when he first opened Apple retail stores. Those outlets attracted millions of consumers who were new to the brand and have achieved the highest retail sales rates ($5,546 per square foot in 2016) of any retail brand. Microsoft and Sony followed Apple’s lead with brand-specific technology retail stores.
Leaders today face a particularly consequential need to question conventional wisdom. They must wean their companies away from three ideas that have anchored technological decision-making for over a decade but that have become dangerous for our current age. Making this shift will be difficult because the costs will be immediately apparent whereas the benefits may not come for years. The three ideas that must go are:
- Agility, which prizes the ability to rapidly change established strategies, assets, or processes;
- First-mover advantage, which decrees that whoever introduces a new product or service or technology first will almost inevitably win; and
- Minimum viable product, which encourages the release of early versions of products or services, letting the market decide whether to give these early versions further support.
The collective output of these ideas is a very strong bias toward accelerating a project’s speed to market. But the broad acceptance of these ideas, which are pronounced sacrosanct by those academics and consultants who are mesmerized by startups, is incomprehensible.
While a case can be made for their value to venture capitalists, who want portfolio companies to produce quick returns, the business landscape is littered with examples of how these strategies fall short. Agility can help in volatile conditions, but it is useless, and even detrimental, in uncertain, complex, or ambiguous ones. First-mover advantage is demonstrably fallacious: Many exemplar innovators — including Google, Amazon, and Facebook — weren’t first to market. And the idea of a minimum viable product is flawed for many tech products. Should Boeing launch a minimally viable airplane? Should GE Healthcare launch a minimally viable CT scanner?
Why Speed-Centric Goals Are So Dangerous Today
These three ideas are highly unsuitable for the emerging digital world. At an organizational level, two trends I discussed in prior articles — distribution of work over time and geography and thought-driven, not muscle-powered, work — are dramatically increasing environmental uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. At a technological level, ever-more-interconnected software and software-hardware systems are doing the same. In these conditions, we need more thoughtfulness rather than more speed.
The spontaneous fires of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphones, which led to the recall of over a million devices, illustrate the danger. “In the Samsung culture, managers constantly feel pressured to prove themselves with short-term achievements,” Kim Jin-baek, who worked at Samsung until 2010, told The New York Times. The company’s relentless focus on speed “focused on maxing out the capability of components like the battery,” noted the Times, leading the company to release a product in which flawed design and inadequate testing afflicted two different types of batteries, which caught fire for unrelated reasons. A bias toward speed over thoughtfulness slowed the diagnosis of the problems and tarnished the reputation of a partner, Korea Testing Laboratory, in the process.
In the near future, every “minimally viable product” developed with “great agility” to seize “first-mover advantage” will carry within it the potential to harm not just a company but the economy. The internet of things will connect products and services to other products and services, systems to other systems, and companies to other companies. Consequently, our ability to diagnose and fortify failure points will be challenged so much that Samsung’s one-company-and-its-partners crisis will seem like child’s play.
We have seen this happen in a different context. The global financial services industry is the best prototype we currently have of such a hyperconnected world. Its links across products, processes, and organizations enabled the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States to spread with blinding speed. It produced the Great Recession of late 2007 to mid-2009, and ravaged the economies of far-off countries. Experts passionately offered contradictory advice for how to respond, and, for most part, regulatory authorities and even the financial institutions themselves seemed unable to contain the crisis.
While we can’t do much about the organizational and technological changes that are under way, we can reform how we create digital products and services. Executives who continue to blindly follow the siren song of speed at all cost are abdicating the right to be considered leaders. They are no longer making the best decisions humanly possible for their organizations, people, or society at large.
Three Steps to Take Now
As a leader, what should you do?
First, let two questions be your operational guide for new technology initiatives:
- “If we are wrong, how quickly can we fix this and at what cost?” If the speed and cost for fixing errors and miscalculations are acceptable, by all means proceed with agility, aim to be first to market, or launch minimally viable products. Otherwise, stiffen your backbone and demand thoughtfulness.
- “What’s our policy for testing the core idea at each stage?” Establish a rigorous regimen of testing during development. If the core idea fails in a complex, uncertain, and ambiguous environment, the full-fledged idea inevitably will. If the core idea succeeds, the initiative will have earned the right to advance further.
Second, emulate great leaders and craft simple messages making your case. Ask people to justify agility when five-year grandiose development plans are no longer the norm. Tell stories of great innovators who weren’t first to market. Remind people that the idea of minimally viable products originated in efforts to quickly find and fix bugs in stand-alone consumer software. Explain why these ideas are less relevant for apps, distributed software, and software-impregnated hardware. When you think people understand, deliver the messages again.
And third, truly understand that while the failure to be in tune with time will be a failure to lead, doing the right thing may endanger your job. Persist anyway! Goldilocks-like, search for the “just right” middle between speed and tardiness. Speed that impedes thoughtfulness is worse than tardiness: While tardiness can hurt your own institution competitively, excessive speed may land you on history’s list of incompetent business executives. The pain of change will be real, and the value of your foresight may only be apparent when your company escapes the mayhem that others, steered by lesser executives, can’t.
Abandoning the three ideas won’t slow down innovation. Apple’s new products and services aren’t chock-full of bleeding-edge technology, and yet Samsung has been playing catch-up for years. The Note 7 was supposed to make Samsung the innovation pacesetter, but it did the opposite.
Thoughtfully and efficiently created ideas generally outperform slipshod ones. Aspiring leaders will do well to remember this in an increasingly interconnected digital world.