Innovation cannibalism

The Venus Fly Trap differentiates itself by turning itself into a meat eating plant. What is your difference?

In this interview, I’m talking with Mark Lambert.  With a background in HSBC global markets, Mark is a Deep Purple fanatic and a jazz drummer to boot, having performed with Bernie Tormé at our Monsters of Rock event.  I must say he put out a mean challenge to Purple’s Ian Gillan and Bernie said he was a pleasure to work with.

Mark’s controversial thesis is that innovation eats itself.  I asked him to explain more:

“The business writer Michael Porter tells us that organisations seek competitive advantage by offering consumers new products and services.  Merely cost-cutting and re-engineering are insufficient for a company to survive. Instead, constant innovation is required to stay ahead in the battle for consumers.”

Is there a limit to how far this idea applies?

“Although the number of potential consumers is large and growing, an optimistic view (putting aside famines, droughts, diseases and wars for a moment) is that there will eventually, one would hope, come a time when, to borrow the ideas of Maslow, all of their needs at all levels will be met.  Moreover, given the relative pace of technological change compared to the rate of human evolution, that time may be soon approaching.  Once consumers have all their perceived needs met, where is the pressure to innovate?

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that innovation is everywhere: mobile phones, e-mail and the Internet have all transformed business and social life in the last 30 years.  The world of today is very different from the world of only a few decades ago.  People in the developed world, especially young people, are switched-on, on-line and linked-in, with supercomputer-like processing power at their finger-tips, unprecedented access to information and extensive social networks.

Yet in one area, there is less change.

Popular music in the 1970’s was awash with a rich variety of styles. Alongside well-established genres that included ‘easy listening’ and jazz, new genres emerged such as jazz-funk, disco and several variations of rock that included ‘heavy’, ‘progressive’ and ‘punk’.  In Darwinian terms, some of these more-or-less random musical mutations can be, with hindsight, considered failures while others succeeded and spawned other new styles such as ‘new age’ and ‘electronica’.  The target consumer group was generally people under the age of about 30 and music was one of the major entertainment/leisure time activities available, the main competitor being television (which had the disadvantages of limited choice, lack of record/replay facilities and relatively poor sound quality).  A trip to the local record shop and a new LP purchase would typically be followed by an evening of contemplative listening, maybe a with couple of friends and a mug of instant coffee.

Would Deep Purple’s album Machine Head have now been reduced to a 3 track single in an age of grazing?

Now press the fast-forward button on your portable cassette player.  In 2012, the typical western teenager’s entertainment needs are met by a greater number of product offerings that are facilitated by more sophisticated technologies, especially the Internet.  Music now struggles to compete with high-quality (in the technological if not the creative sense) audio-visual content from the likes of YouTube.  Social networking sites are popular and smart phones have a vast range of appealing apps. Young consumers tend to have less spare time, lower boredom thresholds, and are more adept than their parents at multi-tasking – listening to background television while twittering friends and doing their homework.  They generally prefer to download individual tracks from a favourite artist rather than listening to a whole album and buy fewer CD’s than their parents.  Editor’s note – there is more on this point in the interviews with Richard Strange and Bernie Tormé.

Without the perceived need, Joseph Engelberger, the father of robotics, tells us, the reason to innovate diminishes.”

So what would we expect to hear under such conditions?

“Songs which are musically predictable with lyrics that don’t demand attention from the listener and that are performed by artists who all conform to a generic appearance.  The music industry becomes a cash-cow where commercial returns diminish and companies are unlikely to invest in new, riskier projects.  Eventually, it no longer becomes financially viable to release genuinely new music with old songs being repeatedly re-hashed by an ever-rotating roster of new faces that look and sound just like the previous generation.”

Does it matter?

“Maybe it doesn’t really matter.  Music is not the most important thing for a large proportion of the world’s population who have greater concerns (at Maslow’s lower levels).  But a world bereft of innovative music is, ultimately, a less creative and emotionally uplifting place for us all.”

I could not agree more.  Let’s take a piece of Mark’s favourite music to prove the point. Deep Purple in full flow jamming with their song Lazy from their album Machine Head, featuring the stunning keyboard work of John Lord:

Amanda Carter from Seattle sums up on disruptive innovation:

1) Rules are meant to be broken

2) Reality is consciously changeable

3) Expect the unexpected 🙂

About Mark Lambert:

Mark Lambert is a Business Manager who has worked for several leading financial institutions in London and the Netherlands.  He has a couple of physics degrees and an MBA and his areas of specialism include:

Analysing and solving business and IT problems
Creating and managing global teams
Writing : reports, magazine articles
Playing and recording music


About the Blogger:  Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching.  Contact via  For a copy of our book on disruptive innovation in HR, mail us with PUNK in the title:

HR will eat itself - Disruptive Innovation in HR

Punk Rock People Management – Disruptive Innovation in HR

4 responses to “Innovation cannibalism

  1. Peter

    Good morning.

    On other things, just to let you know I have received your email regarding the mentoring/coaching, but I’m currently working on trying to get new employment here or abroad. Think it would be a fresh start and good idea to start the new year with one to go with your idea.

    You still up for a catch in the festive period when I’m down your end?


    Sent from my iPhone


  2. This from Linkedin from Robert Clark:

    Robert Clark • An interesting word “disruptive”. As it implies an established acceptable form and a potentially undesirable influence to change the status quo. Using a different analogy to the music industry; so the stage coach firm does not like the fact that the railroad is nearly finished. It had already invested and increased its speed of delivery and efficiency by building in a logistics supply chain with fresh horses en route and meal stops for the passengers. What options are available, some ideas follow:

    1. Ostrich like behaviour, maybe reduce their prices – pretend it will go away and then when it arrives slide into oblivion.
    2. Sell quickly to a bigger and more entrenched stage coach competitor in the hope that they are ostrich like and with lower base costs can see advantage for a little longer.
    3. Innovate the proposition to the customer, e.g. pampered service to recall a retro-experience, exciting stage coach races for young bucks, trips to the local ghost town etc.
    4. If their vision is in transportation rather than a product orientated stage coach Invest in the railroad.
    5. Think in vertical market terms and cut some deals with already networked suppliers – become a middle-man distributor.

    So are innovations ever “disruptive” I would suggest only in an emotional sense together with the desire for lack of change and a denial of reality. Returning to the music business analogy which I agree with; although I nostalgically believe the sixties also had great breadth and depth of music. The issue here is that society has changed and with it what customers value in music (for better and/ or for worse); mixing my metaphors, Pandora’s box has been opened. Difficult to fix that one.


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