adapting to disruptive change

Yesterday I wrote about how Western Union decided not to invest in telephone technology back in 1880. After posting, I sent this off over twitter:

An #innovation lesson from the story of Western Union & the telephone

About an hour later, that post got retweeted:

Good story, good lesson: RT @timkastelle: An #innovation lesson from the story of Western Union & the telephone

The author of that tweet? @WesternUnion! And that got me thinking about a couple of things. The first is that even though not investing in telephones back in 1880 probably wasn’t the smartest move, WU is still around, which is actually quite an accomplishment – none of the other 12 companies listed in the first Dow Jones Industrial Average are. How did they manage that?

As my friend Mike pointed out, they got at least a little bit better at forecasting what was coming. Probably more importantly, they have been an innovative firm right from the start. They produced the first stock ticker in 1869, the first consumer charge card in 1914, the first commercial satellite in 1974, and the first disposable prepaid phone card in 1993. One way to respond to disruptive change is to introduce plenty of potentially disruptive ideas yourself.

Another is to figure out ways to reinvent your business model. Western Union went out of the telegraph business in 2006. They’re still around because they are now the dominant firm in international money transfer – something they introduced as a secondary business line back in the 19th century.

This story is interesting. To stick around, you have to be able to adapt to changing environments. Sometimes, you can drive the change yourself, but other times change is thrust upon you. Innovation is essential to dealing with both situations.

The second thing that struck me about that retweet is that it is pretty cool that it happened at all. It means that WU is monitoring twitter, that they have a real person responding to what comes across the line, and that they’re not scared to pass along stories that might not be entirely positive. All of these are things that firms need to be doing these days. The fact that Western Union is on top of this now is encouraging. Maybe it will help them figure out how to deal with the next disruption that they’ll face, like money transfer through mobile phones…

Here’s a nice 5 minute talk from Matt Milan that illustrates some of these points – key quote ‘He who maintains the quickest rate of change survives’:

The New Strategy – Toronto Ignite Version from Matthew Milan on Vimeo.

(Thanks to Jorge Barba for the original link to this video – check out his blog, it’s a good one!)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

3 thoughts on “adapting to disruptive change

  1. Hi Tim – thanks for the posting about Western Union. We do indeed monitor Twitter, and from time to time somebody will post a link to the internal memo about the telephone…its an unbeatable lesson and reminder to all to always be looking ahead. Which is why we are involved in mobile money transfer (spot on comment there…it will be huge):

    Take care and thanks again, Brian

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