Great ideas aren’t enough: the inside story of how Kodak missed the digital boat
As you sow, so shall you reap.
You’ve heard this proverb before, and you’ve undoubtedly had the experience of realizing its simple truth: the initial conditions of a process will have a dramatic impact on the outcome. To build further on the metaphor, there are parameters that farmers must consider when sowing for next year’s crops: what to sow, when to sow, and how to spread the seeds.
However, one of the critical elements of successful cultivation is too often overlooked: where you sow. You can spend all of your money and time trying to sow innovation into your company, but if the company soil isn’t also enriched — that is, if you haven’t done the work to transform your mindset and culture — don’t expect to reap the fruits of your efforts.
I’m an innovation psychologist. I help companies create new and better experiences for their customers by leading teams to grow their creative confidence and collaborative output. As a consultant, I’ve worked with many organizations around the world on a wide array of projects, and while all enter the engagement with a sincere desire to “be innovative” — some have missed the target because their company culture was not ready to break away from old habits and accept change.
In those instances, it was hard to watch the opportunities missed. Perhaps the most frustrating of these examples occurred with one company that was, in many respects, a dream client: Kodak.
Capitalizing on the shift to digital technology
It was 1994, and I’d just left my position at NASA’s Aerospace Human Factors Research and Design group to join IDEO in Palo Alto. I was fortunate to be part of an all-star team assembled to help Kodak enter the digital revolution heading towards us at breakneck speed.
What a team! On the design side, we had Arnold Wasserman, who was the former vice president of corporate industrial design at Xerox, a senior fellow at IDEO, and later named by Fast Company a “Master of Design.”
On the experience side, there was Jane Fulton Suri, who helped pioneer the human-centered design focus at IDEO, became Executive Design Director and is now Partner Emeritus.
Behind these two prolific leaders, we had some extremely talented engineers, designers, and marketing specialists, including Product Designer Larry Shubert (now a partner at our own company Innovationship), and Mat Hunter, who recently served as Chief Design Officer at the British Design Council.
Needless to say, IDEO did not hold back on this project. Kodak was, after all, one of the best-positioned companies to capitalize on the shift to digital. And we were already seeing some early examples of what digital imaging might offer. I remember carrying around a Casio QV-10, the world’s first consumer digital camera with an LCD screen and live view, and immersing myself in this new experience of instant capture-and-review.
I’d always played around with photography, even had some of my photos published as album covers (yes, LP albums…), and here I was discovering a whole new way to relate to image capture and sharing. And beyond my own excitement and sense of wonder, wherever I went, people would gather around me to glimpse this new gadget I was holding in my hands.
The Revolution will be digitized
Based out of IDEO’s studio in San Francisco, the Kodak project included weeks of observations and research to fully immerse ourselves in the world of photography. We ideated on:
- The analysis and synthesis of what it means to “take” pictures
- The social aspect of images
- Design and prototyping of cameras
- Conceptualization of the interface between photographers and digital images
- The implications of “photography” in the context of no-cost digital imaging
- Potential social impact of sharing images
There was seemingly no end to this new territory we were exploring. And the immediacy of meaningful insights opened up a whole new world of affordances, providing the perfect platform from which to launch the creativity of a red-hot team of IDEOers.
In painting a picture of Kodak’s role in the coming digital revolution, it was clear the only limitation on our thinking was of our own making, and we pushed each other every day to take our vision for the future another step further.
Transforming how people approach their work
We were using a “design thinking” mindset before the term was formally introduced into the mainstream. And along with the development of product concepts came the rapid evolution of the innovation process.
With the goal of building on their technological expertise, we invited an “innovation team” comprised of executives and managers from Kodak’s headquarters in Rochester, New York, to spend weeks with us in San Francisco, immersing them in the new experience of true exploration and playful invention.
Together, we interviewed high-end photographers, part-time amateurs, and Japanese tourists using single-use cameras at popular SF tourist stop Fisherman’s Wharf. We built quick-and-dirty prototypes, and we sketched a variety of scenarios. By the end of the team’s first visit, we had them thinking “what if?” and using Post-it Notes with confidence and abandon!
On their second visit to SF, we noticed a change in them: our buttoned-up East Coast guests had drunk the Kool-Aid. Upon arrival, they shed their suits and ties, rolled up their sleeves, and dove head first into the uncertainty of innovation.
One of the most memorable moments in this creative journey came while testing some early concepts and prototypes. We decided the best test would be in acting out scripted scenarios that would allow us to simulate the experience of using our early conceptual prototypes — and it seemed clear that the Kodak team should be the ones doing the acting.
One of those prototypes was a digital camera that could share images with other cameras by simply touching the two together. Remember, this was 1994: the only way to share an image was to physically hand someone a printed copy of the original. The scenario we’d come up with was of a college-level girls’ volleyball team taking a road trip to play another school.
I remember watching a cast of Kodak executives and managers jumping around, acting like a bunch of college girls on the bus — taking pictures of each other, sharing them, screaming in excitement — and thinking to myself: “This is amazing! Not only are we getting a glimpse of the future of photography — we’ve been able to teach a group of conservative engineers and administrators how to transform the way they think about their work.”
Sign-off doesn’t guarantee buy-in
There are many stories of innovations that broke new grounds and propelled companies to incredible heights. This isn’t one of them.
Here’s what happened, in a nutshell: despite the conviction of their own innovation team, Kodak’s leadership back in New York wasn’t ready to embrace the new approach we created together in those many weeks spent in our studio in San Francisco. They were comfortable holding onto their celluloid film and confident sticking with their approach they called “Digital Science,” which reflected their focus on technology rather than on human-centered experience. Their message spoke to the narrow niche of professional photographers who were their captive market. Those early adopters were looking to Kodak to lead them into the digital age, and the concept of “science” might have been a compelling magnet for their needs.[clickToTweet tweet=”There are many stories of innovations that broke new grounds. This isn’t one of them.” quote=”There are many stories of innovations that broke new grounds. This isn’t one of them.” theme=”style6″]
As we dove deeper into the potential inherent in digital, however, and as we all now see around us, the biggest impact of the digital transformation was to open up the world of image capture and use to everyone: today, anyone with a phone in hand is a photographer.
As a result of their insistence on appealing to the head rather than the heart, Kodak was caught standing on the platform as the digital imagery train went whizzing by on its way to the new world of shared images and ubiquitous capture devices.
Within a couple of years, some of the key functions from the innovative concepts we’d created for them began showing up in digital cameras (of competitors). In 1994, Kodak held the future in their hands, and they failed to take the necessary — and scary — bold step forward.
According to Clayton Christensen, current Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, and author best known for his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, which introduced his theory of “disruptive innovation” into the field of business: each year 30,000 new consumer products are launched—and 95 percent of them fail. So, while perhaps, statistically, Kodak’s failure to even develop our concepts is unsurprising, it was no less disappointing for those who put many hours, dollars, and good intentions into making the most of this incredible opportunity.
Even still, whenever I catch up with old team members, we can’t help but remember the Kodak project as one of our favorites. We were fully engaged in exploration and pushing the envelope. We were bold, playful, inspired, and inspiring. And we all learned lessons we continue to refer to today. What else can you ask for in a project?
I happened to see Jane a few weeks ago, and the Kodak project came up. I told her I still think of those days, and she replied, “Funny, I just spoke about that project this morning!”
“What could we have done differently?” she asked. I didn’t have an answer for her at the time. But after a bit more reflection, I realized there is one thing we might have done differently.
We were able to inspire the visiting innovation team to leap with us into the undefined future of digital imaging — as well as into an entirely new innovation mindset. At IDEO’s studio in San Francisco, together we held in our hands concepts that would have revolutionized the unfolding of digital imaging and could have propelled Kodak to heights it was never able to achieve.
What we were not able to do, however, was to make an impact on the conservative culture of Kodak in Rochester, New York. We simply trusted that the innovation team of Kodak executives and managers who partnered with us in California would be able to carry the torch and light the fires back on the East Coast, and we were wrong. That company culture, established in 1888, and built solidly on the foundations of photographic film, was just not ready to adopt the kind of mindset necessary for digital innovation.
Culture will eat innovation for breakfast
We should never underestimate the momentum of an existing culture and its inherent resistance to change — nor the fear that innovation awakens in those who have not experienced the extreme and uncertain nature of creative exploration.
The French philosopher André Gide said: “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” In 1995, Kodak leadership looked into the vast ocean ahead, and could not muster the courage necessary to lose sight of the safe shores of film photography. And so they missed the opportunity to sail new oceans.
Given this seeming “immunity to change,” how might we go about tilting and shifting a company’s course towards a more open mindset and creative practice? Here are some important points to consider:
- Leadership is key. As expected, without inspiration and permission from the top, the change necessary for ongoing innovation is nearly impossible. Leadership must be part of the experience: rubberstamping innovation by delegating it to others does not work. Companies who want to blaze new trails are far more successful when leaders work to instill a desire for innovation — and the courage to fail — at their business’ core.
- Change is a journey, not an event. Throughout the process, it’s important to create strategic opportunities along the way for those who are not on the innovation team — from leadership, through management, and down to individual well-wishers —to shift their perspective, get inspired, and join this journey into new territory.
- Timing is critical. When a team goes off and engages in a dynamic innovation process, the team may travel so far that the ideas it brings back don’t make sense to those who stayed behind. It’s as if a group of people traveled to the future and came back with stories that baffle current thinking. So, presenting these new ideas to the uninitiated is a delicate business. Present an idea too early in its development, and it could be rejected before its full potential has been explored. On the other hand, if the team disappears for too long and develops the idea too much, its sophistication might make it seem too complex, and hard to accept. It’s important to remain mindful of this delicate balance and to grease the wheels of innovation by maintaining good communication between the team and key decision makers.
I am sorry to have missed the opportunity to see those concepts and prototypes grow into revolutionary products. At the same time, I am grateful for having shared that wonderful journey with an amazing cast of characters: it opened my eyes to what it takes to create lasting cultural change and I’m a better innovator for it.[clickToTweet tweet=”Why design thinking is such an effective approach to innovation” quote=”Why design thinking is such an effective approach to innovation” theme=”style6″]
The key to innovating every day?
After over thirty years in human factors, product innovation, and experience design, I co-founded Innovationship in 2012, to focus our efforts on how best to guide companies through the process of discovering and integrating design thinking.
Since then, we have helped startups, midsize firms, multinationals, and academic institutions around the world bring this essential process into their organizations.
We’ve written a free eBook called The 3 Keys to Innovating Every Day to help illustrate why design thinking is such an effective approach to innovation. The 16-page guide explains how it can help solve complex problems and uncover unique new solutions, and why more companies are embracing design thinking as a way to inspire individuals and teams, and build a creative culture.
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