In 1975, Kodak engineer Steven Sasson invented the digital camera, effectively putting the company at the forefront of photographic film innovation and in a strategic position to leap ahead of competitors.
Despite Sasson’s predictions that digital imaging would overtake film/analog photography in roughly 15 – 20 years, Kodak executives chose to invest in other areas, marking a missed opportunity that led to eventual bankruptcy in 2012.
“Their decision was to shut [innovation] down because they didn’t like it. The fact that you didn’t like it didn’t mean it wasn’t going to happen, but it did mean you weren’t prepared for it,” said Pixar Animation Studios co-founder Ed Catmull during a recent MIT Sloan Executive Education webinar.
That inevitable change is happening in a variety of industries, including health care, gaming, motion pictures, and semiconductors. During the webinar, Catmull and MIT Sloan senior lecturer previewed a leadership course they are co-teaching on embracing rapid change. Here are two key takeaways for leaders.
Understand that creative transformation takes time
There are many reasons leaders feel pressure to be short-term oriented when it comes to creative transformation, including profit, competition, and the brevity of C-suite tenures, to name just a few.
But leaders who look to the longer-term future are the ones who are better prepared to guide their organizations through successful transformations, Gregersen said. In 1993, Jensen Huang co-founded Nvidia, with a goal of bringing 3D graphics to markets like computer gaming — a market they'd dominated for decades.
Then around 2010, Nvidia began making big bets, Gregersen and Catmull said. This included pivoting from gaming to transforming into a company that delivered graphics-processing hardware and AI-driven software for a variety of industries. Today the company brings in $27 billion in revenue as part of the supply chain for the intersection of supercomputers and artificial intelligence.
“Being able to take the position with shareholders in a publicly held company that we’re in this for the long run … and being able to pull that off is truly unusual,” Gregersen said. “But when you start poking under the surface of these organizations … their creative transformations began a decade ago at least, when they were preparing for the moment we’re in, which is full of uncertainty (and opportunity).”
Practice problem-led, challenge-driven leadership
When it comes to addressing uncertainty and trying new things, an important leadership trait is to be observant. This means looking under the surface for any hidden dynamics, because those less obvious things are what will help organizations build frameworks for creative transformation.
“Essentially how do you organize your team — especially a senior leadership team — to gain deeper insight into the past, present, and especially the future?” Catmull said.
A way for leaders to do this is to practice problem-led leadership. Problem-led leaders seek out problems not because they want attention or to climb a career ladder but because they want to find solutions.
Gregersen offered Lisa Su, president and CEO of Advanced Micro Devices, as an example of a problem-led leader. An IBM alum and former Freescale Semiconductor executive, Su joined the struggling semiconductor company in 2014. She helped bring AMD back from the brink of bankruptcy by making key decisions on what it would manufacture, which companies it would partner with, and which competitors it would challenge — including Huang’s Nvidia.
Problem-led leaders analyze, frame and reframe questions, experiment, and more, Gregersen said: They “show up with really important challenges that test and push their assumptions and cause them to think twice about how they’re approaching their work.”