Visionary Businesses Must Play to Their Strengths

Question: What was your biggest business mistake?

Dev Patnaik: When I was working in India I worked on a project there famously called Project Athena and was all about coming out with a handheld devices like a handheld meter--and it was just terrible.

It was supposed to take 6 months and it took the better part of three and a half years to make.

It was supposed to be waterproof. I don’t think we ever got the thing to be truly waterproof.

It was supposed to sell tens of thousands. I think we sold five.

And it taught me everything I know about innovation and strategy today because every mistake that I made then has somewhat played out as a big lesson today in terms of this was the product that didn’t play to the strengths of the organization. This was not the right product to be made. This was something that, if I had to go back and do it all over again, if someone asks me “How would you that differently?” I’d say, “It’s easy. I wouldn’t do it. I’d kill that product right away.”

It was exactly the wrong thing to make and I think that’s what people are starting to realize, is coming up with new things is really hard, but figuring out what you are to come up with is even harder. 

Topic: Innovation in business.

Dev Patnaik: You need to find a model of innovation that works for who you are as a company and what makes you great. Both Procter and Gamble and IBM realize that what they’re really good at doing is getting ideas and rolling them out. They’re not even really as good with coming out with the idea to begin with. They’re okay at that, but they’re really great at rolling those ideas out. So when they come up with the idea of open innovation, they’ve come up with the way to say, “Okay, we’ll get the idea from anywhere. It doesn’t matter where we got it from, but let’s make sure we grab those ideas and roll them out.”

They’re doing something that will play to their strengths. That doesn’t necessarily mean it plays to the strengths of their competitors. And so when their competitors start to say, “Well, we need open innovation approach too, right?” They’re actually setting themselves up for failure because they are now trying to do something that plays to their competitors’ strengths, right?

So, the key thing isn’t about doing open innovation or closed innovation or internal innovation. It’s about playing to your strengths, doing the things that you already do great and doing more of it and less of the stuff that you do poorly.


Conducted on: June 24, 2009.

Strategic planner Dev Patnaik cautions companies about adopting an open innovation strategy.

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