Are Sustaining Innovations Expensive?

by Adam Hartung

The cost of Defend & Extend – Microsoft, Apple, Google, IBM, Cisco, Dell, HP

by Adam Hartung

In theory, Sustaining Innovations that help a company Defend & Extend its products are supposed to be cheap. The breakthrough is done, and the investments on variations, derivatives and enhancements are “engineering” as opposed to “science” so the development is supposedly more easily planned, the costs better understood and the returns more predictable. That’s the theory, anyway, and as a result most managers constantly defend their decision to keep investing more in Defending & Extending past products rather than investing in new things which would develop new markets and new revenue streams.

But, like a lot of business myths, there’s really no proof for this theory. It just sounds good. It seems “to make sense”, and the big issue is that “it simply has to be less risky to spend on what you know rather than what you don’t know.” And “after all, this is investing in our own market and what could have a higher rate of return than defending our mother ship?” I’m sure everyone has heard these kind of comments when it comes time to allocate resources. Management supports doing more of what’s been done, reinforcing Defend & Extend behavior. It just HAS to make sense to do more of what we know rather than invest in something new that we don’t know as well – right?

But look at this chart from Business Insider:

Are Sustaining Innovations More Expensive?

Microsoft has spent billions of dollars in R&D Defending its desktop PC near-monopoly with enhancements to Office (Office 2007 and now Office 2010) and the operating System (Vista and System 7). It has spent heavily on other things as well, but in the end its entertainment division and mobile O/S products as well as others have not successfully grown revenues. As a result, Microsoft’s value has not risen and Apple is about to eclipse Microsoft’s value despite being a smaller company.

Now we can see that all this spending on R&D to Defend & Extend is in no way cheap. In dollars, Microsoft spent 3.5 times as much as Google and 8 times as much as Apple in 2009 – companies which as a result of their spending generated considerably more growth than Microsoft. Microsoft even spent more dollars, and more money as a percent of revenue, than IBM and Cisco (companies that rely heavily on hardware as well as software sales)! By any measure, Microsoft’s efforts to Defend & Extend its “base,” or its “core” has come at a very, very high price – in dollars or as a percent of revenue.

Consider that a good measure of R&D should be its ability to generate incremental revenue. Using that yardstick, Microsoft is a disaster, while Apple is a star.

Far too many companies Lock-in R&D and New Product Development to the existing business. The decision-making systems are geared to invest more in what is known. New investments are tagged with “risk adjustments” and “cannibalization charges” and a host of other costs to make them look less positive than doing more of what has historically been done. Lock-in to the Success Formula means that the financial review system, along with the technology assessments, are designed to give a major benefit to doing more of the same, while dramatically penalizing anything new!

In almost all companies’ decision-making systems are designed to reinforce the Success Formula, not give an “independent” answer based upon markets. The processes are designed to do more, not do something new. And in the case of Microsoft, we can see how that has led to huge investments in simply defending the PC business while the technology marketplace is now rapidly shifting to new platforms – like mobile devices (smartphones and tablets), cloud-based applications and data access, and even gaming consoles. Competitors are developing a huge advantage by investing R&D and New Product Development dollars in new markets which provide greater growth opportunities – and higher rates of return over any time period other than the very short term.

Even if you’re not in the computer/tech business, you don’t want to end up like Microsoft. You don’t want to over-invest in yesterday’s solution trying to Defend it in the face of market shifts. That did not work out well for Polaroid, Kodak or Xerox which lost their luster as customers switched to new solutions and new competitors. Be sure to look not just at how much you spend, but that your spending is linked to markets and their growth, not simply doing more of what you already know!

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Adam HartungAdam Hartung, author of “Create Marketplace Disruption“, is a Faculty and Board member of the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management, Managing Partner of Spark Partners, and writes for “Forbes” and the “Journal for Innovation Science.”

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