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How Can Companies Avoid Fumbling the Future?

Why do companies, whose innovations were once poised to drive cultural shifts, eventually become obsolete? History will show that it was due to their failure to adapt to evolving consumer preferences and market trends. We explore how clinging to a “business as usual” approach inevitably leads to obsolescence, underscoring the necessity for organizations to embrace change and connect the dots between invention and innovation.

Navigating AI Against Brand Purpose

The book, “Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects,” provides a historical exploration of products, designs and technologies spanning more than a century—items once heralded as innovative yet are now regarded as obsolete. This text delves into the life cycles of these so-called “extinct objects,” which range from visionary concepts never realized to once-popular items now superseded, deemed unfashionable, or forgotten.

With over 80 visual case studies, the compendium organizes these objects into categories based on the reasons for their failure: some were financially unfeasible or impractical; others were ahead of their time or lacked sustainability. Furthermore, some objects were overtaken by subsequent advancements or shifts in cultural norms.

The reasons outlined in the book for categorizing objects as extinct are strikingly similar to the causes of decline for several companies over the past two decades. Blockbuster, for example, became obsolete due to the rise of on-demand video services like Netflix. Similarly, BlackBerry was overshadowed by more advanced smartphones, notably the iPhone. Retail giants such as Toys “R” Us and Sears failed to maintain a sustainable footprint as Amazon began to dominate the online marketplace, and specialized retailers like Best Buy thrived by capitalizing on Sears’ inability to innovate and adapt to digital trends. All of these brands, once leaders in their fields, failed to anticipate and respond to evolving market demands and consumer preferences, which increasingly favor personalized, on-demand digital experiences.

“All of these brands, once leaders in their fields, failed to anticipate and respond to evolving market demands and consumer preferences, which increasingly favor personalized, on-demand digital experiences.”

All of this brought to mind this story in The New York Times about Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which is attempting to reestablish itself as a technology innovator, along with another company, SRI (formally the Stanford Research Institute before changing its name to SRI International).

It’s worth noting that PARC played a pivotal role in shaping modern computing when Steve Jobs visited in 1979, gleaning insights that would later influence user experience and visual interface designs in several Macintosh computers—a development widely reported by outlets, including The New York Times. Xerox PARC was not only innovative, but its inventions had the foresight to revolutionize the laser printer, personal computing and ethernet connectivity.

While Siri’s development traces back to a long history of innovation, starting with the establishment of the SRI in 1946. Initially, Siri was a military project named PAL (short for Personalized Assistant that Learns), funded by DARPA. As the project evolved, it was renamed CALO (short for Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes). SRI International, one of 25 groups involved, decided to develop a standalone voice assistant as well as the development of the computer mouse and hypertext. This led to the creation of Siri, Inc., which was eventually acquired by Apple. Apple launched Siri as a feature on the iPhone 4S, while SRI International continued its research as a nonprofit organization.

“PARC’s inventiveness has always been a source of contention. Xerox was accused of “fumbling the future,” by not effectively commercializing the technology it invented to become a major player in the computer industry.”

The New York Times article points to why “PARC’s inventiveness has always been a source of contention. Xerox was accused of “fumbling the future,” by not effectively commercializing the technology it invented to become a major player in the computer industry. Mr. Jobs took away the technology that still defines Apple’s products, and Charles Simonyi, a young PARC software designer who left to work for Microsoft, took the ideas that would become the heart of both Office and Windows.”

Currently, Xerox PARC is endeavoring to reinvent itself as a nonprofit research organization under the banner of the Future Concepts division. With about 100 researchers, the organization aims to regain its reputation for innovation, positioning itself in competition with venture-backed startups and universities.

Presenting a Vision of Culture and the Future

This insight strikes a chord: “It’s crucial to foster a culture that bridges the gap between invention and innovation, which involves transforming inventions into market-ready products with viable business models.” This underscores the challenges faced by some of the previously mentioned companies. They faltered because they lacked foresight in ensuring that their business models were not only viable, but also culturally relevant.

This raises a pivotal question: Why did Xerox PARC, despite its sizable team of over 400 computer scientists and researchers who developed groundbreaking technologies—such as the first modern personal computer with a graphical user interface—fail to recognize the seismic potential of its innovations? This question underscores a frequent misstep in understanding the transformative impact of such technologies on innovation and the company culture driving it or, in this case, holding it back.

“It’s crucial to foster a culture that bridges the gap between invention and innovation, which involves transforming inventions into market-ready products with viable business models.”

Steve Jobs recognized the potential impact of these technologies on the future. While Xerox PARC certainly housed brilliant minds, it seemingly lacked a champion for innovation. Innovation is not merely about hardware or software; it embodies a mindset committed to inspiring change and possessing the foresight to anticipate future trends. It appears—and I could be mistaken—that both Xerox PARC and SRI were in possession of revolutionary technologies, but lacked the strategic vision to go from research and development to the commercialization of their innovations.

In the case of Blockbuster, BlackBerry and Sears, they ignored consumer trends and market shifts, mistakenly believing their business models were viable for the long term. This article offers a deeper explanation: “Companies fail to innovate because their business models, organizational structures, and leadership teams find it ‘difficult’ to adjust to new ways of thinking and doing. The fear is driven by uncertainty. Will the new ideas really work? If they don’t, will I get egg on my face? And why am I risking anything when things are just fine the way they are?”

However, history has demonstrated that doggedly maintaining “business as usual’” will inevitably lead to obsolescence, regardless of whether it was superseded, deemed unfashionable, or forgotten.

Questions? Please email me here. As always, thank you for reading.