Innovation Nokia style – How did Nokia become the leader in mobile phones?

How did Nokia become a leader of the mobile phone industry in the 90s ?

It’s really hard to see favorable predispositions for a Finnish group initially specialized in mining and forest exploitation, although Nokia already had activities in the radio phones back in the 60s.

It seems that one of the thing which triggered its astonishing success as a mass-market mobile phone producer goes back to a mission carried out by Gary Hamel, the famous strategy guru. To boost the Finnish company creativity,  Hamel suggested that teams of Nokia senior managers be sent in three rather special places : Venice Beach in California, King’s Road in London, and the Tokyo night club area…(probably for the greatest delight of the managers, who we rather think of as more used to the polar circle…) Why? Because it was thought that in these areas, trend setters in the use of high technology could be found. The creative spark is not always hidden in a 250 page Gartner Group report, nor in series of endless internal brainstorming meetings… Sometimes, it’s more productive to live as real customers, in remote places ; the creative spark is there, right under your nose. It’s after these “learning expeditions” that Nokia understood that mobile phones had gone beyond their utilitarian purpose, and that they had become “fashion accessories”.

Kodak, a failure to innovate?

It’s becoming common to use Kodak as a showcase for failing to innovate: the company is described as having missed the digital revolution because it was focused on protecting its core business, traditional photographic film. The reality is different, though. Kodak is in fact one of the first companies to have worked on digital imaging. In 1992, for one of my clients’ projects, we bought a digital camera. It was a Kodak, the DCS 200, and it costed about $200K. Yes, that’s two hundred thousand US dollars. One can not say Kodak was ignoring the digital revolution! Today, Kodak is still leading digital imaging, as the company holds many patents in this field that are used in products such as HP printers. The painful Kodak factory closures that one can see nowdays are nothing but the price to pay to transition from one era to the other, from the era when Kodak was a chemist to an era when it is a software company. For all its mistakes, Kodak is doing what few companies have been able to do.
No doubt, Kodak was victim of the innovator’s dilemma as described by Christensen: the company tried to "cram" digital photography into traditional photography with the pathetic APS system. But that didn’t stop the them from pressing ahead and ending up, today, in the leading group of digital camera manufacturers. Not bad for a chemist! The initial dilemma, however, probably costed them their leadership, maybe forever, as forecasted by Christensen’s theory.