mainimageIn the last few days I’ve had a few great examples of why companies both big and small can’t see the competition coming, can’t innovate and frequently get bested by much smaller firms. The point was really driven home by a meeting I had recently with a company which shall remain nameless.

This company is loosely in the media industry. They have had declining revenue for ten years now. In fact revenue has been declining in double digits for that period. As you can imagine, after 10 years of double digit decline, there isn’t much left.

Meanwhile, new upstarts in the same area of the media industry have had double and even triple digit growth, have become the companies that everyone talks about and have been invested in by the world’s best venture capitalists.

So what is it that makes the difference? Two things. The older companies have been around for a while and are populated by people who fundamentally don’t like two things: change and ambiguity.

When a new form of competition enters the market, the first thing an established company has to do is to change. But if it has employees who don’t like change then without replacing all its employees, it is hard to create the type of change that is necessary.

The next problem is ambiguity. Even if people like to change, you have to like changing from a clear situation to one with a great deal of ambiguity. The challenging upstarts are exploring new ways of doing business, new business models, and new products. Creating these things is a highly ambiguous exercise. When you start out, you don’t know where you’re going to end up.

Many people who would embrace change are reluctant to embrace anything ambiguous. They want to know what’s at the end of the change process if they commit to it. They are reluctant to change to an ambiguous situation and with that, entropy sets in.

The lesson to me is that if you’re starting a company or are in one that is being pummelled by new upstarts, look for people who like change and ambiguity or you’ll end up running the equivalent of a buggy whip maker in the automotive age.