Everybody can visualize the organizational culture of a start-up company. A small group of dedicated, motivated people working shoulder-to-shoulder with visionary founder(s). Things are humming and dynamic. How about the organizational culture when the product matures and is adopted by a larger market segment? How does that culture contribute to further innovation?
Let me first frame the conversation using Geoffrey Moore’s four innovation zones, introduced in his book Dealing With Darwin. Moore maps these four zones to his famous market adoption curve.
At the leading edge of the curve is Product Leadership, which corresponds to disruptive innovation. At the tail end, there is Category Renewal. In this post, I will focus on the middle section and discuss the role of organizational culture in the company’s ability to innovate in that area.
Geoffrey Moore identified two main innovation categories for mature products/services:
- Customer Intimacy refers to improving the value of the product/service to customers,
- Operational Excellence is about improving operational efficiency to gain cost advantage over competitors.
While many organizations claim or want to do both, typically their culture is geared towards one or the other, not both. Improving customer intimacy requires an outward looking culture whereas the attention is inside when it comes to operational excellence. In today’s bottom-line driven approach, operational excellence is where most organizations focus because:
- One can readily quantify goals: Cost of materials, taking waste out of operations, automating processes are all quantifiable and easily understandable. Leaders can set goals (eg. “reduce warehouse floor usage by 50%”) and monitor progress.
- Improvements are internal: Improvements are done in operations behind closed doors. They are under the control of leaders of the organization.
- There is little risk of public failure: What happens in the company stays in the company. Naturally, operational changes may impact customer experience but, for the most part, the outside world has limited visibility to how operations are run.
Customer intimacy, on the other hand, requires a different culture, which emphasizes continuous effort to better understand customers and respond to their evolving needs. True customer insight comes through walking a mile in the customers’ shoes, understanding their pain points and improving the product/service to eliminate these pain points. This approach conflicts with operational excellence as it is outward looking, ambiguous, risky and potentially costly.
In summary, customer intimacy and operational excellence require two very different organizational cultures to do well. These cultures are inherently in conflict with each other and should be managed well to be successful. Otherwise, typically operational excellence camp wins at the expense of better customer experience.
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