Finding Inflection Points For Innovation

Your organization’s success at innovation defines you as a leader. Learn to drive your innovation by the inflection points you find or create, and you will soon master the three simple innovation moves that drive market success.

An inflection point is a game change that shifts circumstances decisively. They can be either negative, indicating a decline in market success, or positive, signifying a rise.




Two negative inflection points can be leveraged to advantage, if met with wise leadership. The Vertical Drop occurs when a downward fall levels off temporarily and then falls decisively. A Step Down takes place when a shallow downward course drops precipitously and then returns to a shallow but persistent decline.

Positive inflection points are pleasanter to negotiate. In the Vertical Climb a steep rise shifts to a plateau followed by a near vertical ascent. The Step Up occurs when a shallow ascent accelerates up for a short time and then levels out into a plateau.

But these too can present challenges. As a leader, you may welcome a Step Up, but prefer to slow a Vertical Climb in order to secure your position and refuel, to wait for optimal timing, or to shift resources toward other goals.

When you learn to recognize inflection points, you start to see the world in a different way. You develop a sense for the innovations that will both serve your strategic targets and succeed in market conditions ahead.

Discovering inflection points requires attention to emerging market movements, ability to question basic assumptions, and skill at turning disruption to your advantage. Master those, and you can position your organization to meet an inflection point with a response that pivots its trajectory in your favor.

Three Inflection Point Tactics

Three simple moves can accelerate or stabilize your success in the market: Stop the Drop, Shift to Ascent, and Soar.

Stop the Drop: This tactic rescues you from impending disaster by creating a plateau that stops a Vertical Drop inflection point in its tracks.

One of my CEO clients knew his profits were tanking. He commanded an old-school organization serving an industry undergoing a significant cultural transition. The longstanding customers were all white males. Many more of the new clients were Asian, African American, and Hispanic, including women as well as men. Many were young, helping their families run operations.

The old guard did their knowledge-sharing over drinks after a day’s work. The new crowd worked long hours and could not take time away from responsibilities to join the old guard at the bar. They were very interested in learning from others, but preferred a more flexible approach.

My CEO client created a migration path from traditional strategies to a suite of online communities that could be accessed 24/7 from anywhere. By shifting decisively away from leading the old boy’s club toward virtual value delivery, he stopped the drop.

Shift to Ascent: This tactic yields a gentle upward incline that makes the most of a Step Down or Step Up inflection point. It is preparation for more aggressive growth, depicted in the Soar below.

But, aggressive growth is not always the aim, even when growth is sought. Sometimes a leader realizes that establishing a slow growth presence in the market will better serve the organization.

Soar: This tactic leverages the potential in a Step Up or Vertical Climb inflection point. The Soar works when an organization is already on the way up, kicking its success to a higher another level.

This is a demanding transition, requiring excellence in execution to sustain. Although it appears desirable—who doesn’t dream of double- or triple-digit growth? Many organizations are not prepared to sustain a Soar. Your infrastructure must be ready to handle a large spike in activity.

The Animoto website launched in 2007 with a creative tool that allowed users to combine visual and audio files into short videos. It’s an easy way to generate home movies and business presentations. Animoto quickly attracted funding and users. In 2008 they launched an application on Facebook. In just four days they went from 25,000 customers to 750,000. Massive computing power was required--fast.

Luckily for Animoto, Amazon had begun offering cloud computing that scaled with its needs, both spikes and drops, without affecting the customer experience. Animoto never needed to invest in infrastructure, which allowed the company to pull off the Soar tactic while maximizing profits.

Looking for inflection points gives leaders a way to see around the curve ahead, and then use them to advantage. Without developing this sense, it is extremely difficult to get innovation right. With it you can deploy these three simple moves, or combine them into more complex strategies, to great effect. I describe these organizational tactics and more in my new book, Getting Innovation Right: How Leaders Leverage Inflection Points to Drive Success, to be published by Jossey-Bass March 2013.

--Seth Kahan (Seth@VisionaryLeadership.com) helps leaders identify, influence, and leverage emerging trends for business growth. He has consulted with CEOs and executives in over 50 world-class organizations that include Shell, World Bank, Peace Corps, Marriott, Prudential, American Society of Association Executives, American Geophyscial Union, Project Management Institute, and NASA. His book, Getting Change Right: How Leaders Transform Organizations from the Inside Out, is a Washington Post bestseller. Learn more about Seth's work at VisionaryLeadership.com.

[Image: Flickr user D. Sharon Pruitt]

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