Who let the cat in?

Who let the cat in? - image for article by Greg Alder

Could the hotel industry have created Airbnb?

Could Macy’s have created Amazon?

Could Penguin have created the Kindle?

Could the taxi industry have created Uber?

Could IBM have created the Apple 1 desktop computer?

Could Britannica have created Wikipedia?

Could 20th Century Fox have created YouTube?

Could Sony Music have created iTunes?

Could Bell Telephone have created Skype?

Could British Rail have created the hyperloop?

Could Sotherby’s have created eBay?

Could the US Postal Service have created email?

Could Wells Fargo have created the truck?

The answer is no. But why? Here are the most common reasons.

The arrogance of insiders

Insiders don’t mean to be arrogant. But they live in cosy worlds that worship their insider expertise. When everyone around you tells you you’re brilliant, you believe you’re brilliant. That’s not so bad.

What is bad, though, is that you dismiss people who don’t share your level of expertise in your chosen field.

“An interesting idea, Mr Bezos, but the retail business is all about the store experience.”

“Thank you for your idea, Mr Musk, but we think you should leave high speed rail travel to us experts.”

The blinkered minds of insiders

When you’re surrounded by people who share your knowledge, have similar career paths, and share social lives, you cannot get breakthrough ideas left to yourselves.

Why? I call it same-drawer syndrome. 8 telecommunications insiders looking for a breakthrough won’t find it because they’ll search that part of their brains where their vast telecommunications knowledge is stored. They’re looking for something fresh and original where none exists. They have searched their knowledge archive hundreds of times in the past. The mine is exhausted.

Steve Jobs said creativity is just connecting things. Original ideas happen when the connection occurs between two previously unconnected things. Insiders will try to find new ideas by connecting the same pieces of knowledge over and over.

But, add one outsider to the mix who brings a wildly random stimulus to the party and things get interesting. The value that person brings isn’t telecommunications expertise, but the tools to encourage the telecommunications insiders think outside their field of expertise.

The complacency of insiders

When you’re a leader in your closed field, you believe you’re leading that field into the future. You believe you set the agenda, set the best example of service, set the market price, and set the model for the sector. Hello, Kodak.

Whilst Kodak worked on developing (pardon the pun) film with finer grain, and with better performance in low light, they weren’t ready for the digital revolution. They had a chance, but the quality of early digital images was no match for Kodak’s film, so Kodak chose to ignore digital. A big mistake.

Kodak didn’t see digital as a threat. However, if they’d taken a look at the history of film, alarms should have gone off. The film Kodak was making late in the 20th century was vastly superior to film a hundred years earlier. What if digital quality improves?

The hotel industry was so internally focused, it didn’t see Airbnb coming. It took a couple of outsiders to break the first rule of the hotel industry: to offer accommodation, you first need to own accommodation.

The cat outside

Right now, outsiders are working on an idea that will disrupt your business sector so dramatically that all of the current rules, reputations, pricing models, production methods, service delivery and expertise will be meaningless.

Insiders are the pigeons. Outsiders are the cat.

Invite an outsider in. Invite someone who knows nothing about telecommunications, someone who doesn’t know an SD-WAN from a chocolate chip cookie. What that outsider will bring is the naivety to ask “What if?” and “Why not?” and “Says who?”.

What that outsider will bring is a bunch of techniques to make your insiders forget their telecommunications expertise for a moment – long enough to explore new ways of thinking, new ways of applying existing technology, new ways of pricing your services, or unimagined new ways to arrive at your desired destination.

Those ideas will come from your telecommunications team, but they won’t come from their telecommunications knowledge. They might be triggered by Henry Ford, by an anvil, by Jesse James, by dehydrated water, by Mahatma Gandhi, by a butterfly, or by a child’s crayon drawing.

I have been that outsider often enough to know that insiders are initially sceptical and wary. I hear their minds. “How can you, an outsider, possibly understand our business?”

They are somewhat less wary when I tell them that I’m not going to come up with the breakthrough idea, they are.

They are shocked and delighted when they come up with a hundred game-changing ideas in an hour – ideas they got from Henry Ford or an anvil or Jesse James.

An outsider will disrupt your world. That’s inevitable. Better an outsider of your choosing, one who’s working to help you be the cat in your sector than one who isn’t.

Who created what?

Out of interest, here’s who came up with the ideas listed above.

Airbnb was created by 2 students unable to pay their rent.

Amazon was created by a technology entrepreneur & investor.

Kindle was created by Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos.

Uber was created by 2 Internet entrepreneurs.

The Apple 1 desktop computer was created by 2 college dropouts.

Wikipedia was created by 2 Internet entrepreneurs.

YouTube was created by 3 former PayPal employees.

iTunes was created by Apple, a personal computer company.

Skype was created by 2 Swedish and Danish Internet entrepreneurs.

Hyperloop was created by Elon Musk, creator of the Tesla electric car.

eBay was created by a French/American entrepreneur.

Email was created by a computer programmer.

Trucks were created by automotive innovator Karl Benz.

Photo by Antonio Lapa via Unsplash

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