The Post is not in a pot of water, and we’re smarter than the
average frog. But we do find ourselves swimming in an electronic sea
where we could eventually be devoured -- or ignored as an unnecessary
anachronism. Our goal, obviously, is to avoid getting boiled as the
electronic revolution continues.
-- Bob Kaiser, Managing Editor of Washington Post, August 6 1992
Twenty years ago Washington Post Managing Editor Bob Kaiser wrote a letter to Post executives after visiting John Sculley at Apple and catching a glimpse of what the future of tech held for newspapers.
His letter started with that quote above (drafted on a legal pad of course) and continued, "The world is changing with amazing speed, and we need to pay close attention to what is happening. ... No one in our business has yet launched a really impressive or successful electronic product, but someone surely will. I’d bet it will happen rather soon. The Post ought to be in the forefront of this -- not for the adventure, but for important defensive purposes. We’ll only defeat electronic competitors by playing their game better than they can play it. And we can."
Kaiser's call to arms were taken seriously at the Post, and set in motion a chain of events that culminated in a prototype version of an online newspaper called PostCard in 1992 - and then in an actual online newspaper, WashingtonPost.com, in 1996.
And what happened next? We all know the answer.
other big media players "ran smack into more nimble, creative
challengers like Google, craigslist and many others." Adwords hapened.
Blogging happened. Twitter happened. YouTube happened.
The Washington Post was lucky and survived. Many newspapers did not.
All too often, visions of the disruptive tech future are dead-on years before their time. And all too often, having that vision does not actually help companies to fend off the disruption at all when it comes.
So what are the lessons to draw from this? That it's useless to look at the future? That we are all destined to be disrupted, and so should instead focus on doing what we already do best?
No - that's the approach of dinosaurs, and taking it will turn you into a dinosaur as well, fast.
Instead, there are some rules to live by in this age of disrupt-or-be-disrupted. While they wont guarantee your survival through future waves of innovation, together they represent a mindset that can put you in a much better position to excel in a world of constant change. They are:
- Take on the future proactively. It's not enough to "avoid getting boiled" in the waters of innovation and disruption. Avoiding disruption is not a defensive game, it's an offensive one. Reactive moves on a constantly changing field will leave you battered and with nothing to show for yourself. Proactive movement is the only way to go in a disruptive world. Disrupt others before others disrupt you - and live to tell the tale.
- Look beyond your current business when you look to the future. It's not enough to invent a new, digital version of your current self and call it a day. This is what newspapers tried to do when they moved online, and they thought they'd solved their problems. But when industries change, value chains change with them. The "new digital version" of your old self will likely not capture value in the same way as the old one did. Because of this, you need to not only imagine the future, but decide on the position you want to occupy in it. And it likely wont be exactly the same as your current position.
- Recognize your disruptors. It's not enough to understand the macro trends. You have to recognize the enemy when he (or she) confronts you. As Mark Potts says in his article about the Post (linked to above), "The Washington Post, for its part, callously passed on opportunities to be an early investor in the likes of AOL, Netscape, eBay and Google." In other words, they had opportunities to become part owners of the very companies that disrupted them. They passed, not recognizing their disruptors. Facebook, by contrast, recently recognized the possibility of its own disruption in the rapidly-growing Instagram, and bought the company. Who knows what misfortune they avoided by doing so?
The takeaway in all of this is that simply observing future trends is not enough. Organizations and entities of every kind have to take innovation and disruption seriously if they want to be around in another ten years. Disruption exists, it's out there, and by the time you see it coming for you it's probably too late.
Potts describes the past twenty years of the
newspaper industry like so: "Overly cautious newspaper managers,
convinced that the print golden goose was immortal and immutable, failed
to fully exploit most of the opportunities presented by the new medium.
They simply didn't innovate nearly as much as they should have, leaving
the field open to upstart competitors until it was too late."
Does that sound like your company and your industry?