Brandon Barnett – Director of Business Innovation, Intel
Q: As the Director of Business Innovation at Intel, how do you adapt and stay relevant?
Brandon Barnett: The first step is understanding complex system dynamics, and how your organization adapts. This goes beyond simply tracking linear trends. As a team, we study social, cultural, economic, and technological forces behind emerging markets. We see markets as an ordered network that emerges from a complex adaptive system, with a large number of components that interact and adapt to each other, that isn’t easy to predict with an isolated understanding of the components. This view means we focus less on trends, and more on transformations–the instabilities and discontinuities in a market.
For example, as music has become digitized, the idea of ‘ownership’ has changed. I no longer own my music in the same way I did, because it can now be shared without limits. This isn’t really a trend, it’s a social and economic shift in the music industry that’s transformed our value network and business models. While we might not know what new system will emerge next, we can usually detect signals that the current one will radically change.
Q: What’s your advice for getting ahead in an increasingly uncertain world?
BB: Embrace uncertainty. Put more accurately, embrace complexity. Companies to expend great effort, time, and treasure, to try to gather data and model scenarios to help mitigate uncertainty. But it only works if the market is quantifiable and competition is known.
In today’s internet economy, platforms are established much more quickly than in the past, so it’s a risky strategy to simply watch and wait, and hope to be a ‘fast follower’. The key is to have programs that give real-time feedback about market dynamics, and diverse options to tap into if opportunities emerge. Nassim Nicholas Taleb touches on this in Antifragile, and asserts that the most successful companies structure themselves to benefit from conditions of high uncertainty.
In a complex world, uncertainty simply can’t be eliminated. A good metaphor for this is “the butterfly effect”, in which a butterfly flapping its wings initiates changes that eventually help to produce a hurricane on the other side of the world. It may seem hyperbolic, but the world is so interconnected and able to evolve in ways so sensitive to conditions that this metaphor is helpful to keep in mind.
Q: What’s one change you can make (as an individual or business) to be more successful?
BB: A change in perspective. Rather than thinking about innovation as a means to grow into adjacent markets, think about it as a strategy to probe the complex business ecosystem that determines success. This simple distinction creates two categories of innovation strategy: execution, when the business model and market are known, and search, when the market and business model are uncertain.
Startups and early-stage companies are embracing this shift with “The Lean Startup” movement, creating minimum viable products (MVP) to test a market first, instead of going to market. By thinking of themselves as a temporary organization in search of new value, many startups following the Lean Startup approach use metrics tailored for rapid learning in uncertain environments.
Q: What should businesses know in order to stay relevant in today’s competitive marketplace?
BB: Foster and Kaplan’s ~2001 work on Creative Destruction is a great catalyst for thinking about new strategies to stay relevant. They show that the length of time a company stays on a major stock index has declined, from 65 years in 1920, to 10 years in 1998. This has become known as the Myth of Perpetuity – the expectation that large corporations can enjoy long-term stability and viability is an illusion.
We all know large companies that have failed to adapt and lost their relevance, if not the entire business itself. It’s critical to pay attention to the market and competitors, but failing to navigate less visible, yet more threatening market transformations can be devastating.
Q: What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received?
BB: Back when I was running an internal bio-silicon venture, we were trying to grow into a new market and a traditional market segmentation analysis or product roadmap was impossible. My colleague turned to me and said, “With confusion comes opportunity.” It helped turn my anxiety into optimism. If I find myself in a difficult situation or I don’t know where to start, I always reflect on that wisdom.
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