I recently heard this incredible story about leatherback turtles.
There are certain leatherbacks in Gabon, Africa that swim all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to feed off the coast of Brazil. Then, they swim all the way back to breed and nest in Africa. It’s a round-trip journey of over 6,500 kilometers, or 10,000 miles. These turtles make this trek many times over their 50-year lifespan.
It’s truly one of nature’s most amazing feats. But there are plenty of food sources right off of the coast of Africa; the leatherbacks don’t have to make this long, painful trip. In fact, studies show that the journey is putting the Atlantic leatherback population in danger of extinction. More and more leatherbacks are getting caught in fishing nets and falling victims to human commerce.
So why do they do it? Why does the leatherback swim 6,500 kilometers time and time again to feed and breed — when it could swim a few kilometers, minimize its risk of danger and thrive as a species?
Scientists believe they began doing it eons ago, when South America and Africa were locked together. Back then, only a river might have separated the continents, and the turtles could easily swim back and forth between banks.
As the continents began drifting apart, the river widened by about an inch per year. The distance was imperceptible to the turtles. So, they kept going to the same spot at the far bank of the river, each generation swimming a tiny bit farther than the last.
Fast forward a hundred million years, and the river had become an ocean. The turtles never noticed.
That theory is almost more amazing to me than the journey of the leatherbacks themselves. It got me wondering: would the turtles have decided not to make the swim if the change was more dramatic? How big would that change need to be? A meter? 10 meters? A kilometer?
At some distance, presumably, the change between one year and the next would’ve been so wide that—even as hard-wired as they were to reach the other side of that ancient river—they might’ve paused and considered another way.
Disruptive innovation and technology
I realized this story applies to our work as innovators. I wonder how many companies are out there today, facing the same circumstances with disruptive innovation or disruptive technology.
Business is moving faster than the continents that drifted apart. We’ve known for decades that the pace of change is rapidly increasing. Still, companies seem to get caught flat-footed by change—and they continue approaching problems the same way…all the way to extinction. Think about Kodak in the camera business, or bookstores around the world.
Even major automakers are starting to feel the creeping dangers of change. Many automakers, like GM with its Lyft business, are starting to do something about it. But just as many aren’t doing enough.
It’s not that these companies are standing still: they’re making small, incremental changes to adapt. They’re probably doing all of their design with CAD tools and leveraging simulation and manufacturing software, and they have some system to manage all their product data.
I’m sure leatherbacks evolved in small ways too—they got bigger and stronger, and they changed anatomically to swim farther. But they never truly changed their behavior. They never disrupted their routine. How many companies are in this same boat?
Embracing disruptive innovation
In the last year or so, we’ve seen more and more companies trying to break out of this mold, consciously working to change their innovation culture and to learn from that disruptive technology. And it’s all because of digitalization.
Digitalization is changing everything, and in every industry. Companies are getting a sense of urgency to change. They know, they either digitalize their businesses, or—like the leatherback—it will be harder and harder to make the disruptive innovation journey. If companies want to survive the market upheaval digitalization is causing, they must begin embracing disruptive innovation.
Accenture observed that since 2000, 52 percent of the companies in the Fortune 500 have either gone bankrupt, been acquired, vanished or dropped out of the Fortune 500 – quite the dramatic change for two decades. Digital transformation is a primary factor in this outcome.
We have already seen entire industries transform or disappear. Think about music, photography, on-line shopping or even transportation. The primary reason these companies fail is that they are not leveraging digital, disruptive technology across the business and focusing on siloed upgrades. They think that by digitizing existing processes and squeezing small efficiencies out of them, they’ll keep pace with change.
This type of digitization is not the same as digitalization. The big benefit comes when you look at your entire process, create a digitalization strategy and remove the weakest links so you can begin your disruptive innovation.
In every phase of innovation—from the creation of the idea to its production and then the customer’s experience– there are digital forces that are transforming the way companies do business.
About the author Bob Jonesis the Executive Vice President of Global Sales, Marketing and Services for Siemens PLM Software. He and his team are responsible for the company’s sales, marketing and service delivery on a global basis. He partners with Siemens PLM Software’s zone sales leaders to target geographic, industry and strategic corporate opportunities. Throughout his Siemens career, Jones has held a number of leadership roles in sales and marketing. Before his current position, Jones was the senior vice president and managing director of the Americas and was responsible for sales, sales support and services delivery in North and South America. He has also led sales, sales support and services delivery for the company’s U.S. organization and the company’s global General Motors account. His responsibilities have also included direct and indirect sales and marketing strategies for the PLM portfolio to the automotive OEM and supplier industry. Before joining Siemens PLM as an account executive, Robert began his career in product development at Johnson Controls, Automotive Systems Group (JCI/ASG), where he was a chief engineer responsible for mechanism programs to OEMs in America, Asia and Europe. Jones has a master's degree in Mechanical Engineering from Virginia Polytechnic University and a bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering from Western Michigan University.