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Published: November 30, 2006


The Weakest Link

How do you prevent such blindness? The best way is simply to maintain an open mind. But that, as Edison came to realize, is much easier said than done. Psychologists have shown that people have a natural bias to assume that the status quo will continue, particularly if they helped construct it. Most people are not naturally inclined to look for indicators of disruption in systems they consider adequate. There are some straightforward ways to counter this bias, though, and they all involve seeking out and paying attention to independent sources of information. Because reverse salients represent the most puzzling technological challenges, they tend to attract the interest of scientists and inventors. By keeping track of academic research and patent filings related to your area of business, and watching for patterns in the work, you can often spot reverse salients and begin to see different ways they might be solved.

Market research can also help. If buyers begin to express frustration or disappointment with a particular component or feature of a product or service, it’s often a good indication that a reverse salient is forming. Consider the powerful server computers that run corporate software programs. Traditionally, the primary concern about these machines was their sheer data-crunching power. Buyers wanted the highest possible performance, so manufacturers concentrated on solving reverse salients related to processor clock speed and data caching. A couple of years ago, though, a handful of companies began to express concerns about the growing amount of money they were spending on electricity to keep their servers running. Those initial complaints provided an early warning for what has now emerged as a major reverse salient in server technology: power management.

Important insights can be gleaned from cost data as well. As Thomas Hughes observed, “Economy and efficiency — the first cherished by managers; the second, especially by engineers — also give direction to the movement of a system.” By analyzing the economics of a product or a process, one can often pinpoint components or connections with disproportionately high costs. They may well turn out to be reverse salients.

Open or Closed?
Identifying a reverse salient is half the challenge. Fixing it is the other half. Here, companies can take one of two completely different approaches, which can be characterized as “closed” and “open.”

In the closed, or proprietary, approach, a single company or individual takes responsibility for overcoming the reverse salients in a system and perfecting its operation (at least until new reverse salients appear). Edison took this route with the creation of the electric utility. He constructed the entire system, from dynamo to lightbulb, in his Menlo Park laboratory, assigning staff scientists and engineers the task of solving various reverse salients. More recently, Apple Computer Inc.’s Steve Jobs used this approach in creating a system for distributing and playing digital music. Although Apple drew on many outside suppliers for components, it maintained tight control over the entire system of software and hardware. In the process, it addressed numerous reverse salients in such areas as miniaturization, user interface design, file compression, and digital rights management.

The closed approach works particularly well for creating a new system from scratch. By keeping the construction of the entire system in-house, a company learns from direct experience where all the reverse salients lie. And because the solution to a reverse salient in one area of a system often requires changes to many other components, a single company can perfect the system much more quickly and efficiently than could a diverse set of actors working on individual components in a piecemeal fashion.

The closed approach does have drawbacks, however. For one thing, it’s very hard to pull off. Because it requires unusual levels of organizational discipline, it’s the kind of effort that rarely succeeds without a strong, visionary, and even monomaniacal leader — without, in other words, a Thomas Edison or a Steve Jobs.

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