A colleague recently minted a new word by accident — “incumbation”. It won’t catch on but its fleeting appearance made me wonder what such a term, if it existed, might define: the opposite of innovation.
As grimy layers of admin accrete on the original bright ideals of their founders, incumbent companies become prone to inertia and what Gary Hamel, the management thinker, has called “bureausclerosis”. Such complacency is bad. But some of the methods that established companies use to protect themselves are worse.
My list would include: spending as much on lobbying and public relations as on research and development; fighting to prolong patent cover to the detriment of legitimate new entrants, and destroying potential competitors by undercutting them or buying them out, only to kill off their innovative alternative products.
Leaders of incumbents also defend the status quo internally. They suffocate diversity or hold back change at the top, ramp up executive pay and construct hierarchies that blight creativity and encourage barons to build fief-like mini-incumbents inside the bigger company.
At the extreme, a dominant company may shore up its position through anti-competitive acts, such as dumping, predatory pricing or the massage or misstatement of earnings.
Tesco’s mistreatment of suppliers between 2013 and 2015 following an accounting scandal is typical of such behaviour. According to its regulator, the dominant UK supermarket deliberately delayed payment as it sought to meet targets. Tesco, which is still under investigation from the Serious Fraud Office for accounting irregularities, has said it is now “a very different company”. The fine imposed last week on GlaxoSmithKIine for illegally stifling the launch of a cheap rival antidepressant is another example. (The UK pharmaceuticals group may appeal against the ruling.)
No company wants to give up a profitable position in its market. Leadership is often hard-won. But maintaining it without adopting the dark arts of incumbation is difficult.
Google illuminates an alternative route. Larry Page set up Alphabet, its new holding company, to make the “moonshot” subsidiaries that sit alongside the core search business more transparent. Mr Page believes most ventures fail because they keep doing the same thing. They need to cultivate “zero billion dollar companies” — radically innovative enterprises that could eventually command unicorn-sized valuations.
Alphabet aspires to a balanced approach, as outlined by Vijay Govindarajan of Dartmouth’s Tuck business school in a new book, The Three Box Solution. Inspired by the Hindu gods Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, who stand respectively for preservation, destruction and creation, he says companies must assign core operations to box one, put stuff they need to forget, sell or close in box two, and develop the future in box three.
Google, for instance, still generates 99.4 per cent of Alphabet revenues and the profits from internet search can easily fuel its moonshots. “They’ve created teams around virtual reality, self-driving cars and so on, which are separate from box one, allowing box three [activities] to take root,” Prof Govindarajan says.
A box one obsession, however, can lead to short-termism, barge aside other strategic priorities and tempt companies into time-consuming defensive battles. Technology groups are not immune. Anti-poaching deals between Silicon Valley companies, including Google and Apple, were rife before the US Department of Justice clamped down on them in 2010. Uber and Amazon have armed up in recent years by hiring political lobbyists to deal with regulatory pressure.
Meanwhile, they neglect Shiva’s appetite for destruction at their peril: if Mr Page does not have the self-discipline to ditch underperforming ventures, they will clutter the route to the launch pad for his more promising projects.
Recumbent incumbents are almost always doomed. The good news is that technology and transparency have already cut away at the distribution and information monopolies that used to shelter large, lazy companies. The bad news is that survivors will continue to use foul means as well as fair to protect themselves. Their misguided attempts at self-preservation can hobble the advance of more original, more innovative competitors.
2013年至2015年，在一桩会计丑闻后，乐购(Tesco)对供应商的不公正对待就是典型的类似行为。据监管机构称，这家占据主导地位的英国超市运营商为了达到业绩目标，故意拖延付款。乐购现在仍在因会计违规行为接受英国严重欺诈办公室(Serious Fraud Office)的调查。该公司表示，它现在已“完全不同”以前。最近，葛兰素史克(GlaxoSmithKline)因非法阻止竞争对手的廉价抗抑郁药品的推出而受到罚款，这是另一个例子。（这家英国制药集团可能会就这项裁决提出上诉。）
谷歌(Google)阐释了另一种路线。拉里?佩奇(Larry Page)创建了新的控股公司Alphabet，旨在让与核心搜索业务并驾齐驱的“登月计划”(moonshot)子公司更透明。佩奇认为，多数公司破产的原因是他们持续做同一件事。他们需要培育“零十亿美元公司”(zero billion dollar companies)——具有真正的创新性、最终可能会取得“独角兽”企业规模估值的公司。
正如塔克商学院(Tuck School of Business)教授维贾伊?戈文达拉扬(Vijay Govindarajan)在新书《三盒解决方案》(Three Box Solution)中所概述的那样，Alphabet希望采取一种均衡战略。受印度神毗湿奴、湿婆和梵天（分别代表保持、毁灭和创造）的启发，他表示，企业必须把核心业务归入第一个盒子，把他们需要忘记、出售或关闭的业务放入第二个盒子，在第三个盒子里发展未来。