Profiting from incumbents' sustaining innovations

During the dozen years I taught college, I witnessed a large number of sustaining innovations adopted campus-wide. The blackboards changed over to white boards while the overhead projectors got replaced by ceiling mounted video projectors. Numerous classrooms were retrofitted as computer labs. The library installed a broadband WiFi signal. Registration moved from long lines in the student union to online registration, wait lists and cashiering. Faculty created websites for each class taught outside the newly acquired LMS. Departments launched threaded discussion lists for internal bickering and resolution of contentious issues. Students were issued passes for the light rail trains that stopped at the campus every 10 minutes during the day and early evening. The list goes on.

Sustaining innovations like these keep the customers satisfied and the exceptional talent on the payroll. It appears to both constituencies that their personal commitments are not misguided by their own naivete or misled by deceptive claims. The institution is keeping up with the changing times and responding to opportunities to provide better experiences for the faculty and students. Adopting these innovations contributes to the longevity of the institution.  It makes lots of sense for colleges and universities to invest in sustaining innovations and scan the horizon for additional ones to pursue.

Sustaining innovations can be go either way as I've explored in MIT's OCW program done right and their TEAL program done wrong. When sustaining innovations are done wrong by an incumbent, the opportunities to innovate outside the academic box gain traction. The customers complain loudly and feel dis-served. The value proposition no longer works for them. The front line providers of the service take the brunt of the gripes and lose their own job satisfaction in the process. It suddenly looks misguided to remain loyal to the innovative institution. The demand for something new and really better grows from these seeds.

I'm familiar with four ways that incumbent enterprises bungle their precious opportunities to adopt sustaining innovations:
  1. Picking the low hanging fruit, making the thing that's too good already even better
  2. Over-selling the benefits, pedaling vaporware, over-promising and under-delivering
  3. Providing the form of an improvement without the follow thru, making a show of the acquisition
  4. Fueling the growing frustrations, neglecting major sore points, creating scandals by insensitivity to the level of pain
Any of these missteps are signs of the time to innovate outside the academic box. The market is ripe and the institutions are shooting themselves in the foot.

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