• Thursday, July 25, 2024
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BusinessDay

Cisco’s flip flop and (mis)managing the obvious

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Cisco is a company worth paying attention to. Its successes command global respect; its failures deserve serious scrutiny.

But the technology giant’s most recent flop merits special focus. Earlier this month, Cisco announced it would shutter its Flip video-camera division just two years after buying Pure Digital, the company that originally developed the handheld device. Cisco’s move provides picture-perfect insight into a pervasive innovation pathology: Ignoring – or disrespecting – the obvious.

The company promised back in 2009 to bring out a Wi-Fi Flip in early 2010. It didn’t. What happened?

Put aside, for the moment, the fact that Cisco spent $590 million during a recession to buy into the camera business. Ignore the fact that Steve Jobs publicly declared he wanted his iPods to out-flip the Flip in features and functionality. The simple reason behind the Flip’s failure is that Cisco – arguably the world’s premier Internet network technology company – didn’t deliver a Wi-Fi enabled device. That’s akin to selling a high-definition TV without a remote control. You can’t ignore the obvious and succeed.

Cisco’s leadership is very smart, and Wi-Fi is part of the firm’s core competence. More important, it could clearly see its competitors’ offerings. The company knew digital devices were becoming telecommunications tools. Smart phones were becoming smarter. This was obvious. And yet Cisco didn’t respond.

Subtlety and nuance are all very well, but my innovation heart belongs to the obvious. The “innovation obvious” isn’t only where the action is, it’s where the action must be. For most organizations, the question shouldn’t be “What’s the most innovative thing we can do?” – it should be “What’s the most obvious innovation that matters?” A craving for surprise should never overwhelm the need for the obvious.

The world is increasingly filled with mobile devices with touch-sensitive, high-resolution screens exposed to the elements and stroked by filthy fingers. Why haven’t Proctor & Gamble or Kimberly-Clark come out with fingertip Swiffers or Kleenex customized to clean them? Similarly, why doesn’t Gmail automatically link incoming dates to your Google Calendar? When you get an invite or a time and date request, that information should be highlighted so that a simple click will take you to the appropriate location on your calendar.

Not only is there no shortage of innovative proposals, there’s no shortage of innovation-obvious proposals. What underinvestment in the obvious are you (not) making?

(Michael Schrage is a research fellow at the Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is also the author of “Serious Play” and the forthcoming “Getting Beyond Ideas.”)