Book review: The Wide Lens, by Ron Adner

The devil may be in the detail, but successful innovators keep their eye on the big picture, too. Charlie Dawson buys in.

by Charlie Dawson
Last Updated: 02 Apr 2012
I approached Ron Adner's The Wide Lens nervously. I have never reviewed a book before and one of my worries was about who I was doing this for. Most obviously, it's for you, the reader, although I don't know if you're an MT enthusiast, a Ron Adner fan or a casual browser. It's for MT, with a reputation to sustain. It's for Adner himself, who says he spent more than 10 years working on his book. Yikes - you don't lightly criticise a decade of thinking. And it's also, to be frank, for my business and me, as we look to demonstrate qualities that might help our own profile as we go about our innovation work.

This kind of muddled web is exactly what the book is about - an innovation ecosystem, to give it its more professional name.

It sets out to make a single point. Good companies can do excellent innovation work, identifying customer needs and responding with well-executed products and services, and yet still fail. The reason is that sometimes success depends on changing the way a market works, not launching into one that's ready and waiting.

We all know the VHS/Betamax story. The better technical solution lost because customers wanted to watch something good on telly. The winning team thought about film studios, which were out of their control but relevant. The losers perfected the bit that was theirs, essentially video reproduction.

Some people spend all their time thinking about these issues. They work at companies such as Visa or Zipcar, charities like the Pennies Foundation or Just Giving or organisations such as regulators. Success is managing an ecosystem, recognising all the players, understanding the way virtuous and vicious circles take hold, and nudging and tweaking to steer something only partly under their control. Most of us focus on our product or service. This book is for us. It aims to save us from narrowness.

The Wide Lens is in three parts and starts slowly, looking at one point as if it's all a bit obvious. Then it picks up pace and finishes with a brilliant flourish of a conclusion.

Part one sets up the idea that an innovation ecosystem matters and tells stories about failure. It describes Michelin's run-flat tyre invention. But tyre fitters didn't invest in the new equipment needed to mend them, so drivers found themselves having to buy new wheels to go with their replacement non-run-flat tyre.

It describes Nokia's wrestling match with 3G (another failure, for a long time at least) and the US digital film distribution industry (a failure until a clever financing breakthrough). It all feels a bit obvious and simplistic. Adner speculates that the management teams didn't think about the issues that took them down, but I suspect they did - they just made plausible but inaccurate assumptions.

Part two gives some ways to think about these issues. There are maps, frameworks, scoring systems and the like. Adner uses more examples - e-books, inhalable insulin, electronic health records and MP3 players - and this part feels interesting but still too easy.

Adner suggests value is in the broader conversation you have as a team, but I still felt you could group-think your way to a better-constructed wrong answer.

That's where part three comes in.

It shows that those standing in a better place can see how to unlock the market. They can be more Visa than VW, putting infrastructure, technology, finance and a business model in place to circumvent the red lights preventing the market taking off. Without (yet) knowing the answer, it's a compelling case, although hard to apply if you really are VW. As it's a client of ours, I know the company well. It would like the thinking but struggle with the cliff-face of action.

That is where the whole brilliant twist comes in, because Adner concludes by defining success in a way I hadn't expected. I assumed he intended to help VW-like businesses think in Visa-like ways and so improve the number of successful innovations they produce. But, instead, he argues that the value comes from avoiding failure.

If your organisation is self-centred, it's likely to remain so. But if half its ideas require ecosystem-wide changes to succeed, then seeing the world Adner's way would make it obvious they won't. As he says, a success rate of 10/100 moving to 10/50 is a great leap forward, and the conversations are ones I can imagine people having.

- Charlie Dawson is a partner at innovation consultancy The Foundation.

The Wide Lens: A new strategy for innovation

Ron Adner

Penguin Portfolio, £14.99

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