Finding the Sweet Spot for Disruptive Innovation

I was having a healthy debate with my CTO for IT Chris C. Kemp (those who know both of us of course realize that “healthy debate” is an oxymoron).  At the core of our discourse was the notion of how innovation needed to be disruptive in nature.  The need for disruptive innovation is described by Clayton Christensen in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma. GSFC CIO Adrian Gardner and ARC CIO James Williams discussing NASA Cloud Services with NASA Administrator Bolden

Christensen’s discussion focuses on the premise that great companies don’t necessarily fail because they do things bad.  Some of the reasons they fail are because they (1) listen to their key customers; (2) invest in things with the highest return on investment; and (3) improve product quality.  The dilemma happens because these are all right things to do, but disruptive innovation can come from listening to the unimportant customers, investing where there’s little ROI, and sacrificing quality. He goes on to say that there is a point where these “right” things become the wrong thing to do.  Finding that point – the sweet spot – is where disruptive innovation has the greatest value.

Our healthy debate was on the topic of Cloud Services for NASA. 

The customers for cloud services are not the typical key customers for IT services with known requirements, set budgets, and tight schedules; they are the customers with no money and an uncertain budget.  They are working in labs and doing work with a significant amount of uncertainty.  Proving a return on investment is difficult if not impossible because the funding availability that it is in the institution that supports them consists of very small amounts of opportunity more than a fixed budget line item.  Finally, these poor struggling customers would sacrifice quality because they don’t need it at this point in the life cycle of their work. 

For many organizations and perhaps ours, it barely makes sense to put aside that which made us successful to do the things that seem wrong just for the sake of disruptive innovation.  The tenets of quality, safety, and program execution are often at odds with the very nature of disruptive innovation.  Yet, failure to seek the sweet spot for this innovation will ultimately lead to organizational demise.

I’m not sure who won the CTO v. CIO debate.  But, the true winner can be found somewhere in the sweet spot for disruptive innovation. 

Linda Cureton, CIO, NASA

7 thoughts on “Finding the Sweet Spot for Disruptive Innovation”

  1. Linda,

    I hate to say it, but I believe that you have things a bit backwards.
    Your statement:

    “…great companies don’t necessarily fail because they do things bad. Some of the reasons they fail are because they (1) listen to their key customers; (2) invest in things with the highest return on investment; and (3) improve product quality.”

    …should read “…some of the reasons they *don’t* fail…”, I believe. Correct me if I’m wrong.

    I once worked for Westinghouse. They became a great company by listening to their key customers, investing in things that pushed the frontiers of technology (if you worked at their R&D facility, you were the best!), and worked hard to improve product quality.
    But there is one very important item that you overlooked, and that is providing competant tech support for those products.

    25 years ago, I was a field service engineer for Westinghouse. Some of the products I worked on came from the Combustion Control division. The company trained many people, but as time went by, the knowledge became lost until our group in Pittsburgh became the only field engineering group with the knowledge to service these products. I had a service call to the NASA Plum Brook facility because I am one of the very few people who know how to properly service a Hagan Ring Balance instrument.

    Things are simple in engineering: the new makes the old obsolete. Mechanicals gave way to pneumatics, which gave way to electronics. In the world of process instrumentation and control, an entire plant whose controls required hundreds of instruments is commonly run by one PC.

    Innovation, when done properly, is only disruptive to the established order and the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset.

    Finally, “…these poor struggling customers would sacrifice quality because they don’t need it at this point in the life cycle of their work.”

    That’s strange, because if they’re willing to accept wide deviations from optimal, how can they conclude that their results are valid? It almost sounds as if they are in the business of mixing gray paint…

  2. Dave H:

    I did have a challenge constructing that sentence, but it’s correct. However, it’s a paradox. The disruptive innovation can come from listening to the unimportant customers, investing where there’s little ROI, and sacrificing quality.

    Perhaps I can say that a little better. It was meant to be irreverent.


  3. Excellent blog! It’s so important to a.) debate and b.) scrap old thinking and consider other strategies for long-term success…thank you for sharing!

  4. Since your text “Smell of Future”, the first text I read yours, Linda Cureton, I appreciate your way to say beyond what is written. If one part bothers not to receive the complete message, and objectively, on the other hand it comes off subjectivism, which for a good listener, extends the range of assumptions for the forecasts of the future, and today. I like the style of messages in “clouds”, as you do well, being a CIO. The badge of entry into the world of his own thoughts is the ability to understand your thinking. The words are short to express our views and thoughts, and ideas expressed are usually very short of what we really think and feel. Words are reductions. You make good synthesis of ideas, in order to provide a complete picture of a lot. I appreciate your dedication of this text almost to myself and I answer yes, I understand. I am grateful for the information.

    I got some information, but still need many more. I still do not understand much. In fact, disruptive innovation, especially those who find shelter in physical reality, the living and real, is caused by a disruptive at the thought of a person, and the disruptive influence of those receiving the new one. The disruptive innovation because a misunderstanding, even temporarily, of reality. It’s reality, but it was not really a view to innovation. And because fear the uncertainty of the future. It is true that immediately cause an injury, as things become old, obsolete, expensive and inefficient. And the shift pattern always has a cost. Worth it? Actually it’s natural thought disruptive create a ‘life’, its own momentum. Many did not accept the idea that the earth is round, but it is a fact that speaks for itself. The new thing, if it qualifies for the helpfulness, is done well, can be difficult, complicated, but takes his place in the world that human beings enjoy the obvious and objective reality, enjoy the beautiful and perfect, enjoy efficient. Life requires disruptive.

    Disruptive innovation really can, and perhaps this is the case, happen in an ugly way. As a tearful delivery, or as a dusty construction site. I think the whole perfect work is the result of a previous big mess. The important thing is that later, with the work of all, all is good, very good.

    We look forward to the “Sweet Spot” for much. Up to smile sadly.

  5. After reading Dave H’s post, I have to agree with Ms Cureton. (Sorry, Dave.)

    Someone recently likened the IT boom with the Industrial Revolution in the way it’s transforming society. That may be overreaching. I haven’t seen big population migrations yet, for example (although we’re still hammering out Telework, so there’s hope).

    I don’t think anyone will disagree that the IT revolution has been disruptive, though. We didn’t improve what we had; we actively and intentionally discarded whole technologies, and huge investments, in order to adopt new, unproven, and higher-risk approaches. PCs, email, spreadsheets, websites, online data, blogs, wikis, cloud-computing – each was untested, unreliable, and the full consequences were unknown. Moving to them meant leaving behind a host of solid, stable, reliable, broadly accepted techniques for a stagger across a slippery, moving ice flow. The three-ring binder market will never be the same.

    And we went there anyway – pushing past the active resistance of our leaders – because the new stuff had the potential for transformative leaps that careful, incremental engineering would never have coughed up.

    You questioned why someone might sacrifice quality, asking, “…If they’re willing to accept wide deviations from optimal, how can they conclude that their results are valid?” OK, think back to when people wrote documents, pen on paper, and had secretaries type the results. (I can, and I swear I’m not that old.) IBM had a great answer to typing errors: a typewriter that could record keystrokes on a magnetic card, which could then be edited and replayed. Low risk, much better quality, and non-disruptive. Maybe not optimal, but relatively speaking, it was clearly a big step in that direction.

    And, once you got a computer with a printer, that fancy Selectric was worthless. Couldn’t give ‘em away. And yes, lots of people questioned the validity of that answer, but only by discarding the evidence of their senses.

    Sometimes, ‘optimal’ is the right answer to the wrong question.

    Higher return is associated with higher risk, whether you’re in the financial markets or in the marketplace of ideas. The more basic the changes, the more disruptive. (Although the reverse, sadly, is not true.) First you ferret out what’s possible, and of those, what’s vaguely practical. After that, you can hammer out the finer points of risk and reliability.

    And mostly you fail anyway. But when you win, ahh….

    [As always, I only represent myself, and not my employer.]

  6. Linda, I today read this blog entry and was delighted to see you and Chris were having a healthy debate on Cloud Services. This year we have seen an explosion of companies embracing the Cloud. I have personally spent a lot of time analyzing and dissecting the pros and cons of Cloud Computing/Services. I have come to the conclusion that although the technology may be disruptive to some it is the right solution, in many cases, to addressing the increasing pace of change.

    In the NASA Authorization Bill for 2010, KSC was authorized funding for a 21st Century Space Complex. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle the Center must position itself to support multiple tenants. Supporting multitenancy and on-demand provisioning using a traditional IT approach is slow and costly. Cloud technologies allow you to lower the costs associated with the provisioning. IT in the 21st Century has to embrace the Cloud. I think Chris accepted the challenge of embracing the cloud as evidenced by the Nebula Project.

    I hope the winner of the CTO v. CIO debate was the person that is advocating the Cloud as a disruptive technology that NASA must embrace. Jonathan Erickson, Editor of Dr. Dobbs Journal, stated:

    “With cloud computing, virtually any researcher can use simple tools to get answers to complex, data-intensive questions. For example, a scientist might use a spreadsheet to tap into a genomic-analysis service running on 600 servers or use a simple script to do data mining across 10,000 MRI images in mere minutes. A researcher could access data from remote instruments such as sensors in a rain forest and pull the data to a desktop for visualization and analysis.”

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