The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty is the latest book by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, whose 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma and its sequels introduced the concept of disruptive innovation, and provided instructions on how companies can win when faced with it.
His new one is co-authored by Efosa Ojomo and Karen Dillon. It focuses on effective ways to help alleviate poverty in underdeveloped nations through innovation and targeting non-consumption market opportunities.
Its lessons, though, go far beyond helping impoverished countries. The methods it details for attacking poverty could be applied to any situation in which development is lagging, for example. They could equally be applied to the “left-behind” rural communities here in the U.S.A. Its teachings about the value of targeting non-consumption, meanwhile, can be useful in finding fruitful entrepreneurial opportunities pretty much anywhere.
Manufacturers, too, have lessons they should take away from this excellent book. The first of these is a general one about what it takes to reach breakthroughs. In the book’s introduction, Christensen gives the example of man’s early attempts at flight:
Early researchers observed strong correlations between being able to fly and having feathers and wings. Stories of men attempting to fly by strapping on wings date back hundreds of years. They were replicating what they believed allowed birds to soar: wings and feathers.”
Obviously, those efforts failed. Unfortunately, modern-day manufacturers sometimes create their own similar scenario. Whether it’s the safety protocols of DuPont or the production methods of Toyota, many producers latch onto little elements of what their successful peers are doing and expect to achieve similar overall results. Those efforts more often than not are a complete flop, and even when they’re not they rarely result in the kinds of world class results the companies being copied produce. That’s for the same reason as those early efforts at flight: attempting to adopt one fragmentary aspect of what a successful manufacturer is doing and expecting similar success.
The second lesson is about pushing solutions into a culture that’s not ready for them. This one helps explain why so many manufacturers’ efforts at instituting paradigms such as Lean and Six Sigma fail. From the book’s chapter called “Pull Versus Push” comes this passage:
Unfortunately, when these things are pushed before there is a market demanding them or willing to absorb them, the countries are seldom ready to maintain them. And so what we see with push initiatives are brand-new schools that lose their value and deliver subpar education; new roads that become difficult to maintain; and ‘institutions’ that are copied and pasted from prosperous nations that end up hitting the undo button.”
It’s striking how similar those efforts and their results are to the many failed continuous improvement programs in manufacturing. Pushed into company and plant cultures that aren’t ready, they seem to work so long as there’s an army of specialist forcing people to take part – and when those specialist walk away, the whole thing collapses. That’s not to say there’s no value in those programs and their tools; clearly they can offer tremendous benefits when they’re done right. But it’s critical to build the culture first, before expensive training and initiatives are launched.