Business Model Design: Disruption Case Study

I’ve been working with Alexanders Osterwalder’s approach to business model generation via the business model canvas (BMC) for a few years now. The canvas is straight forward to use, which is the beauty of it: you “get it” right away. But it does take some practice to identify and capture the various elements. It’s more of a craft than a science.

To sharpen my skills I decided to deconstruct the Xiameter business model and compare its parent, Dow Corning–just for fun. (You have the right to now say, “Get a life, Kalbach”). My starting point was an article outlining the structure of Xiameter: “Dow Corning’s Big Pricing Gamble” by Loren Gary. I combed the text for the 9 elements of the BMC, jotted them down on paper, and then entered them into the canvas.

The image below (Figure 1) shows my analysis using the iPad app for the BMC. The GREEN notes represent Dow Corning’s core business. The ORANGE notes show the Xiameter model. Interestingly, Xiameter seems to have had an effect back on the core business model, according to the article. These aspects are shown in BLUE notes.

Figure 1: Comparison of Dow Corning’s core business to Xiameter using the Business Model Canvas (Click to enlarge)

The new Xiameter channel is a textbook example of disruptive innovation. Clayton Christensen illustrates the basic dynamics of distruption in a now well-know diagram:

Figure 2: Clayton Christensens illustration of disruption

Dow Corning recognized that it was overshooting its market. Overshooting is one of the first signs of a market ready for disruption. Scott Anthony et al write about overshooting in The Innovator’s Guide to Growth:

At the heart of the disruptive innovation model is the concept of overshooting, that is, providing too much performance for a given group of customers. Remember, the model holds that companies innovate faster than people’s lives can change to take advantage of the advances those companies provide. As companies innovate, products or services that were previously not good enough become perfectly adequate; ultimately, they become too good for a given group of customers. (p. 65)

(See my full review of The Innovator’s Guide to Growth in a previous post).

As the Xiameter case study article shows, Dow Corning seems to have recognized overshooting:

In the early 1990s, however, Dow Corning noticed an emerging trend toward commoditization in some of its markets. This meant that as specific products matured, the priorities of clientele within them shifted from wanting help with innovation to wanting to keep costs low. …

This change in what some customers valued—and the consequent decline in profit margins within those market segments—led Dow Corning to conclude that the basis of competition had shifted in parts of the industry. Facing the possibility that such a shift might spread, the company realized it required a more needs-based approach to customer segmentation. Its existing business model, which emphasized selling technical assistance and product testing on top of its core products, ignored price-conscious customers. To meet their needs—and to keep them from migrating to other, less-expensive providers—Dow Corning would have to devise a radically lower cost structure that would allow it to profit solely from selling products.

Overshooting is a key sign of a market ready for disruption. But don’t confuse breakthrough innovation with disruption. A breakthrough is the next, biggest, better product or service in an existing market. It’s the fifth blade on a razor or the Airbus 380. Or, see Kohler’s numi toilets–another example of a breakthrough product design, with a heated seat, feet warming, music and a remote control. But by definition these aren’t disruptive.

Disruptive innovations are more convenient, cheaper and easier to use, generally targeting previously underserved market segments. Think: Flip video camera, eBay or Zopa (a peer-to-peer lending service), as well as Skype and Ryan Air as disruptions. Xiameter is also a disruptive innovation.

The amazing part of Xiameter, however, is that Dow Corning distrupted itself. The fear of self cannibalization is extremely difficult to overcome in most companies, particular those as large and traditional as Dow. And that fear is precisely what causes the innovator’s dilemma. Dow overcame this fear and didn’t let entrants take that piece of their pie, as the chart above (Figure 2) show what usually happens.

My big take-away from this exercise is in the power of visualizing and diagramming all of these elements. Go read the article article that I reversed engineered (Here’s the link again–opens in new window); then come back here and compare what you read to the diagram.

Which explains the big picture better? Don’t get me wrong: the author of the article writes well, and it’s a clear story he tells. But you don’t get nearly the same sense of interlocking dependencies and overall logic you get from the text as you do from the canvas.

More importantly, the BMC let’s you design your business. You can quickly “sketch” multiple directions or variations. If they don’t work out, crumple it up and go back to the drawing board. That’s the power of it: iterative prototyping. With the BMC, you can apply design thinking to the innovation of a business model. It’s a far better better way than trying to detail a model out in text-based report or description.

Visualizing abstract business concepts really helps solve problems. I’ve been beating that drum for the last year or so, ever since I gave a presentation on “Alignment Diagrams” at the Euro IA conference last year. (See also the article Paul Kahn and I co-authored on alignment diagrams: “Locating Value with Alignment Diagrams“). Alignment diagrams are a class of document that includes such things as customer journey maps, service blueprints and mental model diagrams.

In a previous post, I suggest that the BMC is a type of alignment diagram. The elements on the right side represent customer-facing aspects. Alexander Osterwalder calls this the “front stage.” The fields on the left represent business-related aspects, or the “back stage.” In the middle is the “value proposition.” It’s this type of alignment between the back stage and front stage that’s often missing in business logic. While no silver bullet, the BMC and alignment diagrams can help bring clarity.

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NOTE: I’m giving two workshops this year on alignment diagrams:
1. Alignment Diagrams, Euro IA, 22 Sept 2011, Prague (1/2 day workshop)
2. Alignment Diagrams, part of UX Fest, 3 Nov, London (Full-day workshop)

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***DISCLAIMER: I have no association with or interest in either Xiameter or Dow Corning, nor do I have first-hand knowledge of their business models and thier success. The above analysis is based solely on the text in the article cited. 

About Jim Kalbach

Head of Customer Success at MURAL

4 comments

  1. James, I’ve been curious what our business model would look like deconstructed into Alexander’s Business Model Canvas. Thanks for quenching our curiosity. We’ve had great success with our dual-brand strategy of Dow Corning and XIAMETER brand and have not seen cannibalization to ourselves, only growth of the company as a whole.

    Thanks and great post! Let my know if you ever have any further questions about our story.

    -Kristina Bobrowski from XIAMETER brand
    @xiameter

    • James Kalbach

      Glad you liked it, Kristina. Thanks for confirming that XIAMETER is still bringing growth to the company. It’s quite a fascinating story–one that many companies would have a hard time reproducing.

      – Jim

  2. Pingback: Clarifying Innovation: Four Zones of Innovation « Experiencing Information

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