The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fall

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Overview

Great companies can fail—not because they do anything wrong, but because they do everything right. Meeting customers' current needs leads firms to reject breakthrough innovations-"disruptive technologies" that create the products and opportunities of the future.

Radical thinking . . . and a wake-up call. Citing examples from many industries (computers, retailing, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, steel), Clayton M. Christensen explains how to avoid a similar fate. He presents ...

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The Innovator's Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail

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Overview

Great companies can fail—not because they do anything wrong, but because they do everything right. Meeting customers' current needs leads firms to reject breakthrough innovations-"disruptive technologies" that create the products and opportunities of the future.

Radical thinking . . . and a wake-up call. Citing examples from many industries (computers, retailing, pharmaceuticals, automobiles, steel), Clayton M. Christensen explains how to avoid a similar fate. He presents strategies for determining when not to listen to customers, when to pursue small markets at the expense of larger ones, and other ways to ensure long-term growth and profit. This award-winning book shows managers the changes that may be coming—and how to respond for success.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565114159
  • Publisher: HighBridge Company
  • Publication date: 6/13/2001
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Abridged, 2 CDs
  • Pages: 140
  • Sales rank: 814,120
  • Product dimensions: 4.94 (w) x 5.63 (h) x 0.44 (d)

Meet the Author


CLAYTON M. CHRISTIENSEN is an associate professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. Prior to joining the Harvard faculty, he was chairman and president of Ceramics Process Systems Corporation. He holds degrees from Brigham Young University and Oxford University, where he studied as a Rhodes scholar. He lives in Belmont, Massachusetts.

DON LESLIE has appeared on and off Broadway as well as in over fifteen feature films and various episodic television shows. He is an accomplished audiobook narrator and also voices commercials, on-air narrations, and movie trailers.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: How Can Great Firms Fail? Insights from the Hard Disk Drive Industry

When I began my search for an answer to the puzzle of why the best firms can fail, a friend offered some sage advice. "Those who study genetics avoid studying humans," he noted. "Because new generations come along only every thirty years or so, it takes a long time to understand the cause and effect of any changes. Instead, they study fruit flies, because they are conceived, born, mature, and die all within a single day. If you want to understand why something happens in business, study the disk drive industry. Those companies are the closest things to fruit flies that the business world will ever see."

Indeed, nowhere in the history of business has there been an industry like disk drives, where changes in technology, market structure, global scope, and vertical integration have been so pervasive, rapid, and unrelenting. While this pace and complexity might be a nightmare for managers, my friend was right about its being fertile ground for research. Few industries offer researchers the same opportunities for developing theories about how different types of change cause certain types of firms to succeed or fail or for testing those theories as the industry repeats its cycles of change.

This chapter summarizes the history of the disk drive industry in all its complexity. Some readers will be interested in it for the sake of history itself. But the value of understanding this history is that out of its complexity emerge a few stunningly simple and consistent factors that have repeatedly determined the success and failure of the industry's best firms. Simply put, when the best firmssucceeded, they did so because they listened responsively to their customers and invested aggressively in the technology, products, and manufacturing capabilities that satisfied their customers' next-generation needs. But, paradoxically, when the best firms subsequently failed, it was for the same reasons—they listened responsively to their customers and invested aggressively in the technology, products, and manufacturing capabilities that satisfied their customers' next-generation needs. This is one of the innovator's dilemmas: Blindly following the maxim that good managers should keep close to their customers can sometimes be a fatal mistake.

The history of the disk drive industry provides a framework for understanding when "keeping close to your customers" is good advice—and when it is not. The robustness of this framework could only be explored by researching the industry's history in careful detail. Some of that detail is recounted here, and elsewhere in this book, in the hope that readers who are immersed in the detail of their own industries will be better able to recognize how similar patterns have affected their own fortunes and those of their competitors.

How Disk Drives Work

Disk drives write and read information that computers use. They comprise read-write heads mounted at the end of an arm that swings over the surface of a rotating disk in much the same way that a phonograph needle and arm reach over a record; aluminum or glass disks coated with magnetic material; at least two electric motors, a spin motor that drives the rotation of the disks and an actuator motor that moves the head to the desired position over the disk; and a variety of electronic circuits that control the drive's operation and its interface with the computer. See Figure 1.1 for an illustration of a typical disk drive.

The read-write head is a tiny electromagnet whose polarity changes whenever the direction of the electrical current running through it changes. Because opposite magnetic poles attract, when the polarity of the head becomes positive, the polarity of the area on the disk beneath the head switches to negative, and vice versa. By rapidly changing the direction of current flowing through the head's electromagnet as the disk spins beneath the head, a sequence of positively and negatively oriented magnetic domains are created in concentric tracks on the disk's surface. Disk drives can use the positive and negative domains on the disk as a binary numeric system—1 and 0—to "write" information onto disks. Drives read information from disks in essentially the opposite process: Changes in the magnetic flux fields on the disk surface induce changes in the micro current flowing through the head.

A team of researchers at IBM's San Jose research laboratories developed the first disk drive between 1952 and 1956. Named RAMAC (for Random Access Method for Accounting and Control), this drive was the size of a large refrigerator, incorporated fifty twenty-four-inch disks, and could store 5 megabytes (MB) of information (see Figure 1.2). Most of the fundamental architectural concepts and component technologies that defined today's dominant disk drive design were also developed at IBM. These include its removable packs of rigid disks (introduced in 1961); the floppy disk drive (1971); and the Winchester architecture (1973). All had a powerful, defining influence on the way engineers in the rest of the industry defined what disk drives were and what they could do.

As IBM produced drives to meet its own needs, an independent disk drive industry emerged serving two distinct markets. A few firms developed the plug-compatible market (PCM) in the 1960s, selling souped-up copies of IBM drives directly to IBM customers at discount prices. Although most of IBM's competitors in computers (for example, Control Data, Burroughs, and Univac) were integrated vertically into the manufacture of their own disk drives, the emergence in the 1970s of smaller, nonintegrated computer makers such as Nixdorf, Wang, and Prime spawned an original equipment market (OEM) for disk drives as well. By 1976 about $1 billion worth of disk drives were produced, of which captive production accounted for 50 percent and PCM and OEM for about 25 percent each.

The next dozen years unfolded a remarkable story of rapid growth, market turbulence, and technology-driven performance improvements. The value of drives produced rose to about $18 billion by 1995. By the mid-1980s the PCM market had become insignificant, while OEM output grew to represent about three-fourths of world production. Of the seventeen firms populating the industry in 1976—all of which were relatively large, diversified corporations such as Diablo, Ampex, Memorex, EMM, and Control Data—all except IBM's disk drive operation had failed or had been acquired by 1995. During this period an additional 129 firms entered the industry, and 109 of those also failed. Aside from IBM, Fujitsu, Hitachi, and NEC, all of the producers remaining by 1996 had entered the industry as start-ups after 1976.

Some have attributed the high mortality rate among the integrated firms that created the industry to its nearly unfathomable pace of technological change. Indeed, the pace of change has been breathtaking. The number of megabits (Mb) of information that the industry's engineers have been able to pack into a square inch of disk surface has increased by 35 percent per year, on average, from 50 Kb in 1967 to 1.7 Mb in 1973, 12 Mb in 1981, and 1100 Mb by 1995. The physical size of the drives was reduced at a similar pace: The smallest available 20 MB drive shrank from 800 cubic inches ([in..sup.3]) in 1978 to 1.4 [in..sup.3] by 1993—a 35 percent annual rate of reduction.

Figure 1.3 shows that the slope of the industry's experience curve (which correlates the cumulative number of terabytes (one thousand gigabytes) of disk storage capacity shipped in the industry's history to the constant-dollar price per megabyte of memory) was 53 percent—meaning that with each doubling of cumulative terabytes shipped, cost per megabyte fell to 53 percent of its former level. This is a much steeper rate of price decline than the 70 percent slope observed in the markets for most other microelectronics products. The price per megabyte has declined at about 5 percent per quarter for more than twenty years.

The Impact of Technology Change

My investigation into why leading firms found it so difficult to stay atop the disk drive industry led me to develop the "technology mudslide hypothesis": Coping with the relentless onslaught of technology change was akin to trying to climb a mudslide raging down a hill. You have to scramble with everything you've got to stay on top of it, and if you ever once stop to catch your breath, you get buried.

To test this hypothesis, I assembled and analyzed a database consisting of the technical and performance specifications of every model of disk drive introduced by every company in the world disk drive industry for each of the years between 1975 and 1994. This database enabled me to identify the firms that led in introducing each new technology; to trace how new technologies were diffused through the industry over time; to see which firms led and which lagged; and to measure the impact each technological innovation had on capacity, speed, and other parameters of disk drive performance. By carefully reconstructing the history of each technological change in the industry, the changes that catapulted entrants to success or that precipitated the failure of established leaders could be identified.

This study led me to a very different view of technology change than the work of prior scholars on this question had led me to expect. Essentially, it revealed that neither the pace nor the difficulty of technological change lay at the root of the leading firms' failures. The technology mudslide hypothesis was wrong.

The manufacturers of most products have established a trajectory of performance improvement over time. Intel, for example, pushed the speed of its microprocessors ahead by about 20 percent per year, from its 8 megahertz (MHz) 8088 processor in 1979 to its 133 MHz Pentium chip in 1994. Eli Lilly and Company improved the purity of its insulin from 50,000 impure parts per million (ppm) in 1925 to 10 ppm in 1980, a 14 percent annual rate of improvement. When a measurable trajectory of improvement has been established, determining whether a new technology is likely to improve a product's performance relative to earlier products is an unambiguous question.

But in other cases, the impact of technological change is quite different. For instance, is a notebook computer better than a mainframe? This is an ambiguous question because the notebook computer established a completely new performance trajectory, with a definition of performance that differs substantially from the way mainframe performance is measured. Notebooks, as a consequence, are generally sold for very different uses.

This study of technological change over the history of the disk drive industry revealed two types of technology change, each with very different effects on the industry's leaders. Technologies of the first sort sustained the industry's rate of improvement in product performance (total capacity and recording density were the two most common measures) and ranged in difficulty from incremental to radical. The industry's dominant firms always led in developing and adopting these technologies. By contrast, innovations of the second sort disrupted or redefined performance trajectories—and consistently resulted in the failure of the industry's leading firms.

The remainder of this chapter illustrates the distinction between sustaining and disruptive technologies by describing prominent examples of each and summarizing the role these played in the industry's development. This discussion focuses on differences in how established firms came to lead or lag in developing and adopting new technologies, compared with entrant firms. To arrive at these examples, each new technology in the industry was examined. In analyzing which firms led and lagged at each of these points of change, I defined established firms to be those that had been established in the industry prior to the advent of the technology in question, practicing the prior technology. I defined entrant firms as those that were new to the industry at that point of technology change. Hence, a given firm would be considered an entrant at one specific point in the industry's history, for example, at the emergence of the 8-inch drive. Yet the same firm would be considered an established firm when technologies that emerged subsequent to the firm's entry were studied.

In the history of the disk drive industry, most technology changes have sustained or reinforced established trajectories of product performance improvement. Figure 1.4, which compares the average recording density of drives that employed successive generations of head and disk technologies, maps an example of this. The first curve plots the density of drives that used conventional particulate oxide disk technology and ferrite head technology; the second charts the average density of drives that used new-technology thin-film heads and disks; the third marks the improvements in density achievable with the latest head technology, magneto-resistive heads...

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Table of Contents

Introduction
Chapter 1: How Can Great Firms Fail? Insights from the Hard Disk Drive Industry
Chapter 2: Value Networks and the Impetus to Innovate
Chapter 3: Disruptive Technological Change in the Mechanical Excavator Industry
Chapter 4: What Goes Up, Can't Go Down
Chapter 5: Give Responsibility for Disruptive Technologies to Organizations Whose Customers Need Them
Chapter 6: Match the Size of the Organization to the Size of the Market
Chapter 7: Discovering New and Emerging Markets
Chapter 8: Performance Provided, Market Demand, and the Product Life Cycle
Chapter 9: Managing Disruptive Technological Change: A Case Study
Chapter 10: The Dilemmas of Innovation: A Summary
Index
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 29 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 28, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    An Engineer's take on THE INNOVATOR'S DILEMMA

    What it does: Provides insight for business managers that need to deliver continually improved products to their markets. Provides good information about how business have grown and fallen in the face of technical advancement. It does provide case-study backed recommendations on how to manage innovative business ventures.

    What it does not do: This is not about 'how to innovate,' how to make a better mouse trap, nor even how to find out what your customer wants. Christensen assumes that you have that much together already. The book's emphasis is on business management.


    Comments:
    Before reading "The Innovator's Delimma," I thought that I knew what a 'disruptive innovation' was. (After all, I am an experienced engineering manager working in new product development.) But Christensen succeeded in changing my paradigm here and gave me significant insight into the evolution and demise of corporations.

    Christensen's book takes an academic study of business innovation, drawing extensively on the computer hard drive industry, to divide innovation into two classes: 'sustaining' and 'disruptive.' What many people would be inclined to call 'disruptive innovation' are, in Christensen's view, radical 'sustaining innovations.' The 'disruptive innovations' are initially generally not especially technically innovative, but they fill a market niche and grow to the point of challenging the established. He then digs into details, and pulls out similar supporting case studies of the excavator industry (steam shovels to back hoes), computers and electronics, and lesser detail in discussing changes in retailing.

    He shares some good insights into why big companies have fallen to upstarts. This is rooted in the natural tendencies of companies to progress from lower-end, lower-margin products to higher-end, higher-margin products. He also shows how companies succeed by innovating and managing to provide what customers' want, and how that focus can cause a company to miss the disruptive technology. His case-study supported recommendations on how companies can address the dilemma seem convincing.

    A few complaints about the book: 1) the texts and graphs do not agree or match in several cases - this was very annoying, 2) the case studies are largely from manufacturing, so applications to the services industry may not be as straightforward as one would hope, 3) the advice is geared more towards keeping a large corporation alive rather than in assisting small companies grow.

    He ends with a discussion of how he would manage commercializing an electric car, based on his research findings. (I don't think that GM has been listening.) In my opinion, he didn't follow his own advice well enough in his plan - it relies too much on mainstream market.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 28, 2010

    Trying hard isn't enough when it comes to innovation!

    We are all familiar with the story of the innovative and nimble startup surpassing the corporate leader with a disruptive technology that the larger corporation was blind to. Why this happens is the subject of Clayton Christensen's thoughtful Innovator's Dilemma. Although originally published in 1997, it's a highly relevant and useful read today.
    Christensen was interested in how the market leaders missed the disruptive innovations. At the time, most thought the corporate leaders were just too arrogant or too bureaucratic to see the disruption coming. Could there be more structural forces at play? Turns out, there are.

    The first half of the book follows the development of the disk drive and the hydraulic excavator to understand and make clear these forces. First, the author distinguishes between sustaining technologies and disruptive technologies. Market leaders, it turns out, are capable of innovation but those innovations typically occur as incremental evolutionary changes to existing products - sustaining innovations.

    Where they get tripped up is the development of disruptive technologies which fundamentally transform the existing product. In many cases the market leader also developed early forms of the disruptive technology or were at least aware of the development of the technology.
    Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School, makes the case that in ignoring the disruptive technology, the market leader was acting quite rationally. They were following their customers' and corporation's best interests.

    Christensen discovered that the disruptive technology yields a product that is inferior as measured by the traditional metrics for product quality. In the case of the disk drive it was price/unit storage. For the excavators, it was reach. For the disk drives, the disruption was the introduction of smaller and smaller drives. At each step of the way, these products were costlier than the existing larger drives in terms of price/unit storage. However, their advantages, in terms of other characteristics such as size, weight, and power consumption outweighed nominal improvement in the price/unit storage ratio provided by sustaining technologies. Eventually, price catches up and the disruptive products are better in both sets of characteristics.

    For the excavator (a big digger), the existing machines used cables to extend and control the basket. The overriding measure of performance was reach and capacity - how far out could the basket reach and grab a bucket of dirt. When hydraulic excavators appeared, their reach was very limited because of the physics of the hydraulic cylinders needed to control the baskets. Even today, a cable excavator will give you a longer reach. However, the hydraulic excavators had advantages of safety (no cable breaks) and had significantly lower maintenance costs. Eventually, as manufacturing of hydraulic excavators grew in practice, reach extended and for many uses such as building foundation excavation and utility pipe laying, as soon as the reach was sufficient for the task, the improvement in safety and the reduced maintenance costs made the hydraulic excavators superior.

    This book will change the way you think about innovation and the structures needed not only to spark the ideas, but get them built into new product lines.

    My name is David Marquet, from Practicum, Inc and we help our customers get everyone be a leader and avoid casting employees into follower roles. To co

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2013

    Great food for thought

    Even if it does get a bit clunky at times, the ideas are important considerations for managers today.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 28, 2013

    AWSOME

    HIGHLY recomended do read this book it is amazing!!!!!!!!!

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  • Posted October 4, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Highly Recommended, but not for the casual reader

    For those interested in what makes company's succeed or fail when faced with technological change, this book should satisfy. Using the disk drive industry as his main focus, but delving into many other examples, Christensen shows how companies react to disruptive technological change, and why most often they fail to adapt. However, Christensen is not just descriptive, but includes advice on how a business can successfully adapt to disruptive technological change. Highly recommended, but technical at times.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 6, 2005

    A Must-Read!

    Professor Clayton M. Christensen¿s excellent book is a classic of strategy literature. The innovator¿s dilemma is that doing the right things can lead to failure. Sometimes it is wrong to listen to customers, invest in the highest return opportunities and do all of the things that made a successful company succeed. Clearly written, amply documented, provocative and challenging, this book is indispensable for anyone in business. If it has a shortcoming, it is that it focuses more on the dilemma than on resolving it and it does not offer specific remedial prescriptions. However, Christensen has authored or co-authored two other books that attempt to remedy that deficiency. We heartily recommend this book, which remains the leader of the three. It has the potential to change the way managers think about business - any business.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 2, 2002

    Highly Recommended

    Great book. Highly recommended reading on why large technology companies are often unable to win against startups.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2001

    HOW TRADITION, BUREAUCRACY, DISBELIEF AND MISCONCEPTION HURT

    Professor Christensen is a Boston Consulting Group alum, as am I, and that firm has been very interested in the question of why dominant firms lose out to new entrants featuring innovative technologies. Professor Christensen has written the best work on this subject that it has been my pleasure to read. Unlike most academics, he is rigorous without being dull or irrelevant to those who must operate businesses. I particularly found his exploration of the differences between a sustaining and a disruptive technology to be very useful. His insights into how accounting and financial concerns can 'stall' organizational progress were also valuable. From the perspective of an organization seeking a 2,000 percent solution (a way to get 20 times the results with the same resources or the same results 20 times faster), his cases (especially the hard disk ones) accurately capture many of the classic 'stalls' that delay organizational progress. For example, tradition says that everyone focuses on serving the current customers. That's where the bread and butter are. Also, the overhead structure is established to serve those current needs. Both perspectives no longer serve when a disruptive technology is involved, and he persuasively argues that being first with disruptive technologies is very important. Bureaucracy comes into play because the authorization process requires a lot of confidence by those who will bet their careers that the market and financial projections will be achieved. The bureaucracy also increases the likelihood that an error will be made, or an unnecessary delay will occur. Disbelief comes from the tendency to misdefine who the customers will be and to underestimate the long-term potential of the technology. Professor Christensen puts in some nice technology development/time charts in to show how to better anticipate a new technology expanding from a lower need-defined market into the mainstream market. Misconception comes in because people misunderstand the danger of the disruptive technology, and how to manage it. THE INNOVATOR'S DILEMMA is very hepful here because it provides a model of best practices to cure the misconception stall here. Three other stalls are often important: Procrastination (delaying when delay is costly); Ugly Ducklings (avoiding what is unattractive, physically or financially); and Communications (not getting the message or not understanding the message). I suspect all 3 play a big role in the cases here, but I could not tell from the way the cases were written. I hope in his future work, Professor Christensen will also tie his thinking into the idea of innovation itself. I personally favor an 8 step process. One, measure everything you can in an area to understand how the measurements can help you improve. Two, apply the same approach to your most important activities. Be sure to consider how and why noncustomers do not find your offerings appealing. Three, seek out the best practices in other industries in these important activities, and estimate where these best practices will be in five years. Four, assemble a new combination of best practices from these cases that goes beyond what any one company will be doing in five years. Five, imagine the best that anyone will ever be able to do, ever, as the ideal best practice. In the case of disruptive technologies this would involve spotting them well in advance and being able to pursue them without pain to the rest of the organization, and pursuing very rapid adoption that leads to dominating the new marketplace. The analogy of slime mold may fit here (slime mold can come together to form new combinations that can move to locations where the food is better, and also to make spores that attach to animals and are carried to new locations where food may also be better). Six, find ways to approach the ideal best practice. Seventh, put the best people, resources, and incentives together to create great success in exceeding the future best practice and a

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 31, 2001

    In depth and intelligent

    Excellent book. The topic of how good companies can fail is covered very thoroughly and effectively. The author uses tons of research and sources to back up his theories, and provides full explanations of each topic. Well researched, well organized, well written.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 24, 2000

    Rise and Fall of Well-managed Enterprises

    Clayton M. Christensen thoroughly and systematically analyzes the impact of both disruptive and sustaining technologies on well-managed enterprises. The author shows us how these enterprises belonging to very different industries fail precisely because they do all the right things in developing and bringing sustaining technologies to the market, i.e. 1. Listen to their customers carefully; 2. Invest enough money in developing new technologies that meet or exceed customer expectations; 3. Research market trends thoroughly; 4. Excel in allocating resources systematically to innovations that optimize returns. Christensen clearly explains to us why and how enterprises that are paragon of the above-mentioned approach to the market can lose their balance while dealing with the emergence of disruptive technologies. Well-managed enterprises eventually fail because they ignore or fight the five laws of disruptive technologies that Christensen has identified for us, i.e. 1. Tackle the disruptive technology appropriately, usually by setting up an autonomous entity free of the influence of mainstream customers; 2. Penetrate small markets through the use of an appropriate vehicle such as an autonomous entity, even if those markets don't allow well-managed enterprises to reach their targeted growth rates quickly; 3. Practice what Christensen calls 'agnostic marketing', i.e. gaining first experience in using a disruptive technology, often made possible by watching how real people use it rather than by listening to their wishes before making plans for implementation; 4. Pay due consideration to internal processes and values that make well-managed enterprises strong in one context and weak in another one; 5. Realize that mainstream customers are not necessarily able or willing to absorb any performance improvement that investing in sustaining technologies makes possible. To summarize, The Innovator's Dilemma brings a fresh perspective to an intricate issue that well-managed enterprises need to address sooner or later in their life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2000

    Wonderful Ideas and Plans

    The author does a Superb job in discounting certain myths, suggesting nontraditional ideas, and giving us all hope as we face the tasks of changes in technology. He goes far beyond what I imagined, because he is simply brilliant in giving us the plans to develop out thoughts and strategies to win in the constantly changing marketplace.

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