Learning Hub

Game changing is fun – but difficult!

Professor Costas Markides will be speaking at IMI’s upcoming National Management Conference on October 9th 2013 – for more information click here.


I recently listened to my colleague Freek Vermeulen tell a wonderful story about a belief (or is it a “myth”) that seems to exist in almost every country of the world.  This is the belief that porpoises are intelligent animals which have on many occasions pushed shipwrecked sailors to the shore, thus saving their lives.  There are many such heart-warming stories from different parts of the world, a fact that suggests that there is some truth in them. The problem with these stories, says Freek, is that they suffer from what statisticians call “selection bias”.  This is our tendency to draw inferences from only a selection of the outcomes, specifically the successful ones, while ignoring the unsuccessful ones.  In the cases involving sailors and porpoises, we only get to see and hear from the sailors that were pushed to safety by the porpoises.  But for every survivor, there are probably nine other sailors who were pushed away from the shore by porpoises.  We don’t get to hear from them because they all drowned!

The exact same problem raises its ugly head when we talk about game-changing companies.  It has become very popular these days to proclaim the virtues of “breaking the rules of the game” in an industry and to encourage companies to become “revolutionaries” and “game-changers”.  Examples of successful game-changers such as Google, Zappos, Amazon, Ryanair and many more are often given as evidence that breaking the rules is a very profitable strategy.  What we usually forget to tell people is that for every successful game-changer there are nine others who failed miserably in their pursuit of revolution!

Game-changing is difficult for any company but it is an especially formidable task for big, established companies.  This is because established companies already have an existing business model and a set of skills and attitudes that they need to successfully compete in their existing businesses.  If they are to become game-changers, they not only need to adopt a new business model and acquire a new set of skills and competences but they must also find a way of either discarding what they already have or making the old and the new co-exist peacefully together.  Both tasks are extremely difficult to pull off and that is why the failure rate is so high.

This is not meant to scare established companies away from rule-breaking.  This is a worthwhile strategy that every company ought to consider.  But we also need to appreciate that coming up with a new, game-changing strategy is the easy part.  Implementing it is the real challenge and companies should not undertake such a task lightly.  Game-changing is not a matter of creativity; it is an organizational challenge that requires patience and leadership.

Costas Markides is Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and holds the Robert P. Bauman Chair of Strategic Leadership at the London Business School.  He is a researcher and widely published author on the topics of diversification, strategic innovation, business-model innovation and international acquisitions.   He was name one of the Top 50  Most Influential Management Gurus by Thinkers50 in 2011.



Did you enjoy reading this article?