How to overcome ideological barriers to innovation

Ideological barriers to innovation are often hardest to overcome.

Andrew Bosworth, vice president of ads and business platform at Facebook, played upon "the-only-constant-is-change" theme in his disrupt-or-die speech at the recent IAB Mixx event in New York, using the now defunct ice trade fighting against new-fangled refrigeration as an example of entrepreneurs who failed to capitalize on new technology and merely delayed the inevitable.

“If they had pivoted, these once great ice companies could have brought refrigeration to the world,” Bosworth said.

Brands like Kodak suffered similar fates. And countless other examples exist.

“Failure to innovate is not a function of size, it’s a function of vision,” Bosworth said. “It’s who you are and how far you are willing to go.”

Further, brands that innovate nail three steps: They understand what they do, they structure themselves for change and they commit to change, Bosworth said.

And while understanding what you do sounds simple, it may be the toughest part, he added. Like, say, whale oil barons didn’t just sell oil – they sold heat and light – and they fought against cheaper kerosene, trying to dissuade consumers by labeling it as a dirty alternative — and they eventually found themselves out of business, too.

And Kodak sold memories, Bosworth said – but it failed to realize this and missed a key opportunity to shape the future with digital cameras.

“Companies often miss the moment because they are stuck in an inflexible conception of what it is they do,” Bosworth said. “There are legal, social and technological barriers to innovation, but ideological is the biggest. What you do for the world isn’t necessarily the same as what you sell. You are defined by the value you create for the world…it’s not what people are paying for, but the reason they are paying you in the first place. What the ice barons and whalers didn’t understand is if you let changes pass you by, you became a product, not a service.”

That’s the dilemma Facebook faced when it was a college-only network in 2006 and had to decide whether to open itself up beyond students.

“There were a lot of very smart people who believed it would kill the company,” Bosworth said. “But we realized our product is connection. And if we pass up an opportunity to connect people, we’re letting our customers down and giving fuel to our competitors to beat us tomorrow.”

Further, real pivots require real commitment, he added. In other words, companies fail by either setting ambitious goals they don’t hit or by setting safe goals they do hit – all the way to obsolescence.

“The point will come when you have to make a change and you can’t half ass it. You have to go all in,” he said. “Sometimes the riskiest thing is to not risk anything. Growth happens in moments of deep discomfort.”

And that’s in part why Facebook is building a fleet of solar-powered aircraft and why it acquired Oculus.

“Our mission is to make the world more connected,” Bosworth said.

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