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Mission critical: Is your business a slow-moving oil tanker?

An oil tanker is slow and difficult to manoeuvre, but simultaneously powerful and able to weather rough seas. Here’s how to combat those weaknesses with an agile, complementary fleet.
Jonathan MacDonald is a leading authority on innovation and his work is a source of inspiration for the Rocketfuel team. He coined the concept of medium to large companies being oil tankers – inflexible and on a trajectory that’s difficult to alter. It’s an effective analogy that might apply to some, if not all, aspects of your business. His alternative? The speedboat – agile and able to explore new territory, but comparatively fragile and too small to take on the huge ocean.

How the fleet works together

To put this in context, MacDonald uses the example of W.L. Gore and Associates, the international company responsible for the highly successful Gore-Tex material. Gore-Tex is an innovative fabric that is effectively waterproof while remaining breathable, which is why it’s favoured by the world’s leading brands of outdoor clothing. Yet with such a great product creating most of its profit, W.L. Gore and Associates has not relied on its market dominance.

While its oil tanker is chugging along, it’s constantly launching small, agile innovation speedboats to test the market and create opportunities for future growth. There’s an understanding that the oil tanker and speedboats have to work in unison for the business to benefit from its large size, yet remain fast in response to trends and technological advancements.

The speedboat in action

W.L. Gore and Associates’ latest speedboat is the Gore Fuel Cell Electric Bus, a fleet of hydrogen-powered buses cleaning up the streets of Chengdu, China. It’s one of the many applications of its Gore-Select Membrane fuel cell technology. If and when an application gains traction in one of its target markets, the company will gear up its oil tanker and adjust its course slightly to expand on the speedboat’s proven success.

It’s all about being Netflix instead of Blockbuster; Amazon instead of Barnes & Noble. The key is to ride out your successes while embracing progress and the possibility of a strategic change of course for your business. What’s your speedboat? How can you keep your oil tanker going, but explore new opportunities in the market?

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