Management Tools: Fighting Gravity

Don’t let leaders get mired in an insidious innovation killer—corporate gravity.

By Ryan Fisher Sep 1, 2013

September Cover  


It happens time and time again: A company becomes the market leader in its industry, gets mired in complacency and is rendered irrelevant. Though it may take years, decades or a century, many corporate stars have fallen victim.

Think Microsoft being usurped by innovator Apple, Blockbuster being nearly wiped out by movie rentals by mail and movie streaming services, and Kodak being caught unprepared for the digital camera revolution. These companies once towered over their competitors and then lost their edge. What’s more, many experts predicted their tumble from the top. The rest of us read about their predicaments in the news and thought, “Why can’t they see what’s happening around them and do something about it? Why can’t they just change and adapt?”

The often-cited reasons include not having the strength to cannibalize their own business models, acting as though they are too big to fail, and other economic or legal factors. However, an even stronger force is usually at play—corporate gravity.

Focusing Energy

Just as larger planets have a stronger gravitational pull than smaller ones, larger companies tend to have a stronger gravitational force that causes stagnation and tamps down innovation. Corporate gravity becomes an overriding part of corporate culture that encourages leaders to do things the way they have always been done. It causes them to ignore—or miss completely—market or competitive dynamics that threaten their businesses.

To defy corporate gravity, leaders must:

Start with the customer. Successful leaders are externally, not internally, focused. These leaders have an intimate understanding of their customer, and the customer sits at the center of all business decisions. The product or service is built around customer needs with the goal of delivering value.

Make a concerted and systematic effort to listen to your customers on social media. Read your product reviews. Listen to customer service calls. Visit your stores. Customers will tell you what you may not want to hear, what team members are not brave enough to say or what you may not have considered. Zealously focus on finding new ways to bring customers into the heart of your business.

Listen to the gadflies. Many people within organizations can see big market shifts coming due to new or evolving unmet customer needs. These holistic thinkers may have already crafted potential strategies to address these changes. However, these innovators often are viewed as troublemakers; they are considered rabble-rousers who aren’t towing the company line. Thus, their concerns and solutions usually go unheard. Some leaders, not knowing what to do with unorthodox ideas, dismiss or silence these voices. The people on the edges of the business are the ones who can see what’s next, so listen up.

Encourage failure. It’s always a good idea for an organization to experiment with new models, strategies, packages and products. Have an open mind about what’s possible, and experiment knowing that mistakes will be made. Learn from failures as fast as you can and move forward. You will be one step closer to finding the answer.

Beware of the metrics trap. Business metrics used on a regular basis usually track the past and capture the way things are done now. These metrics have a gravitational pull of their own, asserting pressure on the organization to stay the same. Although many organizations spend ample time and effort capturing data, leaders rarely analyze that data for new insights that may indicate subtle market shifts, disruptive technologies or external dynamics that might elucidate new business opportunities. Also, stay alert to what isn’t tracked by metrics to discover new ways to innovate.

Get out of town. Earlier this year, Starwood Hotels and Resorts relocated its headquarters—and 200 top leaders—from Stamford, Conn., to Dubai for a monthlong immersion. Pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline sent leaders to traverse Africa to figure out new ways to distribute medical supplies in emerging markets. These types of immersion learning experiences get leaders and teams out of their comfort zones and allow them to gain a much deeper understanding of market opportunities and competitive threats.

Even without wide-scale corporate programs like Starwood’s and Glaxo’s, you can take time to visit markets where your organization is losing share or to assess the viability of new markets and see firsthand what competitors are doing differently for their customers.

Be an agent of change. Agency is the confidence that you can make a difference in the world or, in this case, in your organization. Leaders with a sense of agency take responsibility for problems and initiate strategies or conversations about how to solve them. With this attitude, you can help your organization break free of the forces that maintain the status quo.

Break Free

Companies at or near the peak of their industries are most at risk of becoming the latest victim of corporate gravity. As a leader or potential leader in one of these organizations, it is in your interest to defy the pull. Simply put, if the organization succumbs, you fall with it.

Breaking free from corporate gravity’s pull takes courage, but it can pay off in ways that accelerate innovation and sustain market leadership. Use these strategies to move your organization farther from the gravitational pull and, in the process, boost your career to new heights.

Ryan Fisher is principal at strategic leadership firm Pivot Leadership in Boston. She can be reached at and @pivotleadership.


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