Why Evolutionary Change Is No Longer Enough

Jan 9, 2020 | At Work

By: Michael McQueen

“The electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles.”

I love the pertinence of this statement of Oren Harari for our culture. As a former business professor at the University of San Francisco, he is sure to know a thing or two about the trends and changes in the business world over the last few decades, and with this one, I believe he is exactly right.

Evolutionary change is appealing; it is easy, and it requires little of the people it affects. It is tempting for business leaders to adopt this model of progress, allowing change to come to them and adapting to it when it is absolutely necessary. But this model simply is not strong enough if keeping at the cutting edge of innovation is a goal.

In the product innovation journey of lighting, there came a point where incremental innovation was no longer going to cut it. Failing frugally is sensible and necessary but there comes a point where revolutionary innovation is necessary. To Harari’s point, creating the electric light globe was always going require a fundamental re-think of how light is produced. Simply refining and evolving what had worked in the past wasn’t going to lead to significant progress and innovation.

History is punctuated by great thinkers ranging from Galileo to Thomas Edison who posed questions others were unwilling to ask and saw things others failed to see. These great men and women were able to think beyond the paradigms of their times – and dramatically change the world as a result! Had these giants of history relied on the established practices of their time, humankind would not have made the leaps into the future that brought us here today.

A pinnacle example of a company that perpetuated a dying paradigm is Kodak in its failure to keep up with the digital era. Ironically, the photographic giant was actually well aware of the threat and opportunity that digital posed and was implementing ways to use digital technology to ‘enhance’ its traditional film business as early as 1981. While each of the film-digital hybrid initiatives Kodak devised was admirable, they were ultimately doomed to fail.[1]

A good example of this blended digital-analogue approach was the Advantix Preview Camera released in the late 1990s. Featuring hybrid film-digital technology, Advantix users would still take pictures the way they always had but now had a digital display on the back of the camera showing them the images they’d just taken. The user could then decide which photos they wanted to print and how many copies they would require.

While this seemed like a genius middle-of-the-road option to entering the digital age and despite their investment of $500 million into the project, it was a spectacular failure. The Advantix was an evolutionary change in a world of overnight transformations. Kodak also made attempts to bring their traditional photo processing systems into the digital age through the Image Magic kiosks. They even formed a partnership with AOL called ‘You’ve Got Pictures’ which allowed customers to pay to have their printed photos available online for family and friends to view. However, when customers could do essentially the same things for free with Snapfish, this initiative also failed as it was simply too late to market.[2]

Another little-known foray into the digital age for Kodak was when the company acquired Ofoto in 2001. Ofoto was one of the leading online album providers at the time and had the brand tagline ‘Share Memories, Share Lives.’ Kodak’s goal was to let people share their photos and memories online with friends and family – in reality, a notion that could well have become the first iteration of social media if Kodak had wholeheartedly embraced the new paradigm. Reflecting on this missed opportunity, Ofoto’s founder James Joaquin noted that whereas social media always started with the person’s life (with photos just being a part of it), Kodak’s paradigm always started and finished with the photo and they couldn’t make the mental shift required to see Ofoto gain traction.[3] 3

The reality is that if Kodak had been a start-up company at the onset of the digital age rather than a publicly listed bureaucratic behemoth, it would have immediately jumped at the opportunities and possibilities that digital photography offered. However, compared with the fat margins that the traditional film business afforded Kodak, embracing digital photography could never compete financially.[4]

It is hard to overstate the missed opportunity for the company that turned memorable moments into Kodak moments. Today, more photos are taken every two minutes than in all of the nineteenth century.[5] Kodak could have driven the modern age of digital memory preservation but instead it was decimated by it because its paradigm was so anchored in the past.

Its evolutionary mindset and model of change was inadequate in the face of dramatic disruption. Today, this disruption is more dramatic than ever. The past and its paradigms and practices are not reliable if businesses and brands are to guarantee their future relevance. Leaders must think creatively, act boldly and change quickly. Evolving over time is simply no longer enough.


[1] Carroll, P & Mui, C. 2008, Billion Dollar Lessons, Penguin, New York, p. 5

[2] Ibid, pp. 94-95

[3] Anthony, S. 2017, The Little Black Book of Innovation, Harvard Business School Publishing, p. 69

[4] Carroll, P & Mui, C. 2008, Billion Dollar Lessons, Penguin, New York, p. 103

[5] Brynjolfsson, E & McAfee, A. 2014, The Second Machine Age, Norton, New York, p. 126

Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.

About the Author: Michael is an award-winning speaker, social researcher and best-selling author.