Want sustainable growth? Cannibalize yourself.
Growth curves. Life curves. We’re all graded on a curve. Going up is fun. Going down, not so much. But you can beat the bell curve – IF you can trump your own history.
Every enterprise faces a dilemma – the innovator’s dilemma – Clayton Christensen’s iconic insight. Their growth curve will eventually be thwarted by upstarts who sneak up from the fringe.
These curves illustrate how smaller, cheaper, often flimsier alternatives enter the market from below and disrupt incumbents as they rapidly improve, fueled by the less attractive customer segments, either abandoned or ignored.
Now zoom out…
From this wider perspective, it’s easy to see that our original growth curve quickly becomes a bell curve, sloping inevitably downward as new rivals steal customers and revenues.
But – with equal inevitability – new threats are on the horizon, the disruptor disrupted.
We’ve seen it time and again, as bronze replaces stone, only to be defeated by iron and eventually steel; counting on fingers elevated by the abacus, the slide rule, the calculator – ever better/faster/cheaper. Time marches on. Invention begets innovation.
But what if you could cheat the curve?
Death need not be inevitable. You can beat the curve. But it comes with a daunting challenge.
What if you gave birth to your own disruptors? What if all three of the curves were yours? This suggests the immortality of the family tree. The old die off, but they are replaced by the next generation – younger, fitter, better adapted to changing conditions. The lesson of good parents is to procreate and feed your offspring, even as it costs you the time, attention and resources you could have spent on your own waning years.
The challenge of course is that corporations organize for one lifetime – for one set of measures – and to produce today’s set of offerings with today’s capabilities, not tomorrow’s. Somehow, the most natural act of reproduction in nature becomes, in a corporate setting, labeled as “cannibalizing your business.” But if disruption is inevitable, couldn’t this be the better answer?
Plot a new curve.
If, instead of fighting change, companies proactively sought their own disruption, they would benefit from the aggregate net growth. Curve a plus curve b…
…eventually adding curve C, and setting a new, even stronger total curve.
This does not come without pain. The same pain we feel as we age, but – as proud parents – with the joy of spawning the next generation and nurturing their growth.
For parents, we call this love. For companies, we first call it crazy, then foresightful, then bold. Ultimately, history describes it as brave.
But is it really so brave, if you know in the end, the bell tolls for thee?
(And on the plus side, it can be pretty fun to make offspring.)