Be careful what you wish for

It’s the great challenge of any career: do you tie your future to evolution, or revolution?

The risk:reward ratio for revolution — opening up whole new markets with new products — is profoundly interesting to many. It’s also a path fraught with dangers of failure, and, paradoxically, even more dangers if successful.

Here’s why: succeeding at revolution makes others want you to reprise that success.

Yet successful revolutions generally can’t get too far in front of the potential buyers. You may recall the old Panasonic tag line: “just slightly ahead of our times”. Getting too far out in front of the buyers can mean being very lonely, indeed.

That’s why, in fact, it’s not generally the pioneer who reaps the big rewards, but the one who comes along and refines the product once the pioneering effort creates awareness of a need.

Yet companies do, from time to time, need revolutions (whether anyone likes that or not).

Markets follow classic S-curves: at the tail end of the S, the market is effectively saturated. The number of players left standing shrinks due to market consolidation even as the “long tail” effect creates many product “slices” designed to mop up what buying is left, before stabilizing in a classic “mature” framework of a dominant player, an also-ran “second choice” and a sedate continuing product cycle based on replacements, with “just enough innovation” to create the urge to replace on the depreciation cycle.

Think about music players. That’s where they’re at, and it’s why the Microsoft Zune failed to take off: it neither redefined a mature market to start a new S-curve nor gave enough reason to buy early in the replacement cycle. (Zune, on the other hand, has strongly influenced other Microsoft products, like the new Windows phone and Windows 8 operating system and Surface tablet. They may yet make a dollar on it with those.)

Even in a market that hasn’t matured — smart phones are still climbing the S-curve, although they’re well up it now — a revolution may be required where the market actually requires an ecosystem (ecosystem demands drive the S-curve faster toward its conclusion) and your ecosystem isn’t keeping up. (This is the challenge for Windows phones and Blackberry phones going forward.) Either the market has to be redefined, or the fundamentals of the ecosystem have to change, or consolidation around players one and two in the market will continue, no matter how good a new product is.

So staying with an employer can periodically require the risk of taking on a revolution rather than staying with a career plan that evolves one product generation at a time.

For those who successfully do pull off a revolution, the challenge becomes resisting the blandishments of organizations that want the results of revolution without the internal work required to make one possible. The kind of organization that, for instance, wants to keep all its processes and procedures in place, maintain its existing product lines and the power of their leaders, etc., yet get the “leap forward” as well — so they wave a boatload of money at a successful “revolutionary” then leave them to spin in place and fail.

There are those of us who are naturally revolutionary in nature, who see opportunities and know how to “cook” exposure, design, good enterpreneurial management and opinion together to jump into a new market and take off. The really good ones here often become “serial entrepreneurs”, if they recognize that the shift to evolution isn’t for them.

There are also those of us who do better in evolutionary environments, and find revolutions frightening. If you’re one of them, watch your S-curve: it may make sense to move to a different market category that’s earlier on its curve than to stay where you are and ride up into revolution country.

These are the sorts of considerations that should be part of your own personal due diligence to know if you should be looking for opportunity inside — or out — and what fits you best when you do.

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