The Invincible Company: a review from the digital innovation perspective
The Invincible Company by Alex Osterwalder, Yves Pigneur, Fred Etiemble, Alan Smith, Chris White and Trish Papadakos is the fourth book in the Strategyzer Series and integrates with Business Model Generation, Value Proposition Design and Testing Business Ideas. As taken from the synopsis:
“Invincible companies not only know how to design superior business models, but they constantly reinvent themselves.”
“In The Invincible Company, we demonstrate how any organization can become unstoppable by managing a portfolio of existing businesses and by simultaneously exploring a pipeline of potential new growth engines.” (source)
The innovation portfolio
What I love about the book is that it looks at innovation from a portfolio perspective. How to plot this portfolio is explained practically and supported with a visual tool; the Business Model Portfolio Map. This creates a clear understanding of the differences between explore and exploit. Actions to manage the portfolio are discussed as well as common business model shifts within the portfolio. The impact of organizational culture has not been forgotten either, which is supported by The Culture Map. As always, many real-life examples illustrate the theory described in the book.
Innovation doesn’t stand alone and it helps to look at it from the total portfolio of existing business and potential new growth engines. It’s not something a couple of nutty professor types like Gyro Gearloose (Willie Wortel) do in a dusty basement or a messy shed. Instead, it’s something that should be taken seriously and should be visible to the entire business.
Luckily most organizations are aware of that, given the many corporate environments that have innovation centers, labs or factories. These departments are responsible for exploring innovations, new technologies and business models and more often than not have implemented their own innovation process. Decision-making has become more data driven over the years and the idea that you need to explore multiple ideas to find one unicorn is supported by most organizations by now.
Read about the award winning corporate innovation program DARE here: The secret behind the successful innovation of ABN AMRO.
Transferring from Explore to Exploit
The next question is how to scale a successful innovation to the running business; or how to transfer from the Explore to the Exploit part of the portfolio?
The Invincible Company mentions many possible actions like investing, pivoting, and merging, for both the Explore and the Exploit part of the portfolio. These possible actions are described briefly but adequately and probably clear enough for anyone with a background in innovation.
However, as “Transfer” is one of the main challenges for most organizations I’ve been speaking to, I was disappointed that within the clear structure of the Explore – Exploit portfolio this topic didn’t get more attention. I expected more insights into the ideas from the Strategyzer team, on top of the brief description that’s given on page 23:
“The decision to move a business model idea from exploration to exploitation is based on strong evidence. This typically happens once you’ve produced strong evidence of desirability, feasibility, viability, and adaptability. Transferring requires finding a good home in the exploit portfolio. This may be as part of an existing business or as a new stand-alone business
(Osterwalder et. al., 2020, The Invincible Company, page 23)
Having read this description, I can imagine that someone struggling with this topic still doesn’t know how to proceed.
How we approach transferring
At INFO we involve business stakeholders early in the Explore phase. We organize co-creation sessions, take the needs of stakeholders into account from day one and base every decision on (user) validation. This approach increases support, starting from the Explore phase, and makes transferring the innovation into the running business easier.
Compared to the approach described in The Invincible Company, we take a different perspective on innovation. We’re familiar with using The Business Model Canvas and The Value Proposition Canvas in our Track 0, but we innovate from the perspective of digital opportunities and not from the perspective of new innovative business models.
And while we both agree that adaptability is key, we look at this from the perspective of digital development instead of business models. While we both believe that innovation should be an integrated part of your business, in our work we focus on creating tangible solutions for specific digital opportunities within an organization.
From this digital solution perspective, it’s easier to get practical. My colleague Floris Nijdam wrote the handbook Take control of your digital innovation describing “a four-phase approach that turns your innovations-on-paper into tangible solutions that get results” (page 1).
The handbook explains the innovation process from Explore, to Prove, to Scale, to Normalize. Although the perspective is different and semantics in the phases do not match, I see parallels between our four-phase approach and transferring from Explore to Exploit.
This phase is about finding proof for your idea and reducing risk, just like the innovations in the Explore part of a portfolio in The Invincible Company.
In the Prove-phase you release your innovation into the market. The innovation becomes part of your running business; it is transferred from the Explore to the Exploit part of your innovation portfolio. Broad acceptance of your innovation is key, that’s why it’s so important that you’ve already involved key stakeholders early in the Explore phase.
The ultimate goal of the Scale-phase is controlled growth. You can only achieve this if the foundation of the innovation is strong enough. For example, you need a solid technical infrastructure, governance, and core systems.
The Normalize-phase is about normalizing the daily operation of your innovation. The goal is to turn every process into ‘business as usual’. You can generate additional profitability by increasing efficiency or adding extra value through small improvements. Your innovation has the strongest contribution to your business revenue in the Normalize-phase, creating a high return at low risk.
Some practical points to consider when exploiting your innovation:
- Do you have clear governance and guidelines in place for your team?
- Are your core systems ready to implement the new product or service and are you able to track its success on a large scale?
- Do you have technical and organizational resources in place to constantly optimize and keep an innovative mindset?
In our handbook Take control of your digital innovation you find more elaborate checklists for each phase of the innovation process. Of course, in reality this is an iterative process and you will have a portfolio of innovations in the different stages of the process.
That brings us back to The Invincible Company. The main distinguishing factor from most business books is the practical and visual character. This is one of the main characteristics that I find appealing. Based on my experience with the previous books Business Model Innovation and Value Proposition Design and applying the canvasses, I hoped that The Invincible Company would be equally practically applicable. As mentioned, especially in the topic of transferring from Explore to Exploit I expected more insights in how to approach this.
Would I still recommend reading The Invincible Company? Yes, I would certainly do so. Like the other books in the Strategyzer series, it’s clearly written, visual and supported with many examples. The framework is very clear and the division between Explore and Exploit is exactly what I’ve seen many organizations struggle with.
I think The Invincible Company can help innovation leaders and their teams in managing their innovations and getting organizational support for their approach, it can help business leaders create a culture for innovation and make sure to balance current and future business and it can help entrepreneurs grow their ideas into a sustainable business.
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