“Every major industry was once a growth industry.”
—Theodore Levitt, writing in Harvard Business Review, 1960
Levitt, a scholar and economist who has been called a founder of modern marketing, may be best known for posing a challenging question to all business leaders: What business are you in?
Levitt’s insightful articles prompted readers to reexamine their traditional ideas and beliefs about running a business—or face the risk of not having a business to run. His powerful message was for organizations to avoid a narrow focus on their products and services, and instead organize around the value they might provide to current and future customers.
At the time he wrote in the 1960s, the once-mighty railroads were facing problems because they were being disrupted by rising competition from cars, trucks, and airlines. Those leaders who considered themselves in the railroad business, rather than the transportation business, failed to size up the competition before it was too late. The U.S. was well on its way to becoming a nation built around automobiles as the primary mode of transportation, and there was no going back.
What business will you be in?
If Levitt were writing today, he might have similar advice for organizations that fail to negotiate the exponential curve with respect to their innovation practices. Nearly six decades later, many organizations still struggle to keep pace with exponential technology growth and a constantly changing business environment. Today, as the stakes grow higher and changes come faster, many organizations would benefit from asking again—what business are you in?
But because the rate of change continues to accelerate due to the rising tide of exponential technologies, it may be useful to add two more thought-starters to that original question:
- What business will you be in—in 10 or 25 years?
- Who will be your competitors, partners, allies, and mentors?
Although corporate mergers and acquisitions have continued since the late 1800s, companies are increasingly finding novel ways to work together to develop solutions that harness the power of exponential technologies, including artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, blockchain, 3D-printing, and data science.
Creating unholy alliances and uncommon partnerships
“Uncommon partners are the types of organizations you might not typically work with, but which can significantly help you create radical new futures.” —Kyle Nel, SU Faculty, Corporate Innovation
Today, multiple organizations and industries are forming what Kyle Nel, co-founder of Uncommon Partners and SU faculty member, calls uncommon partnerships to collaborate and reimagine products and services for future customers. A notable example of Nel’s experience is the partnership he forged between Lowe’s, where he founded and led Lowe’s Innovation Labs, and SU Portfolio Company Made In Space. The partnership culminated in the launch of the first commercial 3D printer to the International Space Station in 2016—essentially putting a Lowe’s store in space!—where it was used to print tools and other parts for astronauts. The Made In Space mission statement speaks to the importance of focusing on future customers:
Made In Space is the space-based manufacturing company. We specialize in leveraging the unique properties of the space environment to develop solutions to commercial, industrial, research and defense challenges. We see a future where life and work in space are commonplace.
Why form innovative partnerships?
Peter Diamandis, Executive Founder and Director of Singularity University, also advocates that organizations seek outside perspectives to challenge their thinking, referring to these collaborations as unholy alliances. Often, today’s business leaders are uncomfortable collaborating with non-traditional players outside their own expertise, especially if there are no apparent near-term profits in sight.
Regardless of what these partnerships are called, there is tremendous value in seeking out dialogs that spark you to think beyond your existing strategy and value chain—and further out into your own organization’s future.
“No matter how brilliant your mind or strategy, if you’re playing a solo game, you’ll always lose out to a team.” —Reid Hoffman
Often, such new alliances are forming between organizations to share a specific domain or technology expertise for the benefit of all parties. Here are some examples of interesting uncommon partnerships that have been formed recently to ride the exponential technology wave:
- Nvidia and Mercedes: AI and automotive
- Apple and SAP: Mobile devices and enterprise platforms
- Verizon and Disney: Mobile devices and media/entertainment
- American Express and Ripple: Financial services and blockchain/cryptocurrency
One of the most compelling aspects of digital transformation is the reinvention of traditional organizational roles, structures, and relationships. Working with uncommon partners can help you disrupt yourself before someone else does. Exponential technology is changing the world faster than ever before, but technology is not the only game-changer. Building productive partnerships and innovation ecosystems that align with your company’s mission can help to 10x your progress and results, and foster growth far into the future.