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Dare the Impossible – Achieve the Extraordinary.
Vol. 13, No. 6
(626) 791-8973
Copyright © by William A. Cohen 2016


Drucker Said Innovate or Else*

June 2016

Yes, Drucker claimed that any business, and I would add any non-profit too, had only two primary functions: marketing and innovation. Let’s be honest. Many, perhaps all of our innovations come from flashes of sudden inspiration. I seem to get an enormous number of such flashes on awaking in the morning, which tells me that my mind has been hard at work all night while I slept. Entrepreneur Joe Cossman was an unbelievably productive innovator who thought of so many new product innovations that it was a miracle that he found the time and resources to pursue even a small percentage. But somehow he exploited enough to become extremely wealthy, mainly like Drucker, working basically alone as a “one-man band.” Most of these were successful and probably made him a million dollars or more every time he introduced one. A few failed, but there was no question but that his batting average, as well as his productivity, were both excellent. The Cossman Ant Farm was one of his most successful and best known efforts.

Cossman’s Ant Farm — the Most Successful Toy Innovation of the 20th Century ?

Well, maybe I’m exaggerating a little. But Cossman’s famous “ant farm” was one huge success.  The idea of constructing an educational toy by assembling an ant colony, with the correct kind of dirt the ants needed for a successful living environment using a wooden framework of about twelve inches by twelve inches surrounded by clear panes of glass was not new. The “farmer” could peer in and watch the goings on and that was not new either. This educational toy had probably been around for eighty years or more when Cossman introduced his version with the basic title “ant farm” coming from his brother-in-law” Milton Levine. However, that’s where his innovation started. The old version never even attempted a mass market for children because the clear panes of glass were hazardous. Unfortunately the glass could easily break and made the toy dangerous. However, the original ant colony concept worked when used under the supervision of a teacher in the classroom, but it could not be promoted as an individual child’s toy, and not only because of the danger of the breaking glass. The glass-wood interface was not perfect, and the ants frequently escaped, much to the dismay of both teachers in the classroom and their students. Parents would have been even less amused to have ants running around the house.

Cossman’s version of the “ant farm” was intended for use as a “learning toy” for individual children at home. Thus it was designed for personal ownership, and not as a class project. Moreover, it was a toy system. He replaced the wooden frame and glass with clear plastic. That made it lighter, unbreakable under normal use and therefore safer for children, more secure regarding the ants ability to escape, and much less expensive to manufacture. But Joe didn’t stop there. Even the name chosen “ant farm” was a new innovation.

But how could he distribute the farm with the ants to retail stores around the country? Simple: another innovation. A farm had livestock, and each ant farm that he sold had a “stock certificate” accompanying it which was mailed to an address to receive guaranteed live delivery of the “livestock” necessary to populate the farm.

Viva La Difference! Michael Dell and Bill Bartmann

So the basic idea of an “ant farm” was so different, it was the innovation that made the product. Consider Michael Dell and his computers. While a pre-med student, Michael Dell discovered that he could get a vendor’s license to bid on contracts selling computer upgrade kits all over Texas right out of his room in a residential building.  With very low overhead, his prices were low and he won contract after contract.This led him to challenge the conventional method of selling computers through retail stores and to go directly to the customer. His innovation revolutionized computer sales and allowed customers to essentially design their own computers based on what they wanted at a competitive price. What an idea! What an innovation. His net worth at the end of 2014 was 22.4 billion dollars.

Billionaire Bill Bartmann was once listed by Forbes Magazine as the 25th wealthiest man in the U.S., right ahead of Ross Perot. Bill is on my Board of Advisors at the California Institute of Advanced Management, and he is one amazing individual having done so many amazing things that it would fill a book, in fact it has. I recommend his book, Bouncing Back (Brown Group Publishing Group, 2013).

Bill made his biggest fortune in a highly innovative fashion by completely turning an industry on its head. This was the collection industry, where the standard operating procedures have usually been to threaten, hound, and otherwise coerce those owing money to pay up or else. In the immortal words of the Godfather: “To make an offer which the one owing money can’t refuse.”  Bill Bartmann bought these credit notes for 10 cents on the dollar. However, instead of hiring guys to threaten loss of reputation, home, or damage to bodily parts, Bartmann hired an assortment of headhunters, personal coaches, and placement experts to assist those owing money in job finding, rebuilding their careers, and restructuring loans so that, while maintaining their self-respect, were able to pay off every penny. Now that’s innovation and market structure innovation! And of course, Bill made a fortune in the process while helping others.

Drucker Predicts the Future

About 20 years ago Drucker predicted that the future of executive education was online. His prediction was based partially on technology and convenience, but also on the fact that computer literacy and computer ownership was growing even faster than the demand for executive education and that the education could be provided at a much lower cost in this manner without the overhead of the brick and mortar classroom.

Many traditional educators disparaged the idea of “distance learning”. They said it had to be done in the classroom face-to-face by lecture just as it had been done in ancient Greece two thousand years ago. They said that discussions had to take place and questions asked and answered in this environment or it just wasn’t effective. Students might be exposed to information and ideas online, but they just wouldn’t and couldn’t learn in this way.

Well, Drucker was right again. Research found that learning online was even faster and more effective than classroom learning in many instances. Back in 2011, former Presidential Candidate and Florida Republican Governor Jeb Bush, and James Baxter, Jr “Jim” Hunt, twice, and longest serving governor of North Carolina, who is a Democrat, gave a joint speech on containing the rising costs of education which was published afterwards in Inside Higher Ed in which they noted:

“The 2010 U.S. Department of Education’s ‘Review of Online Learning Studies’ found that students who took all or part of a course online perform better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction. Similarly, a study conducted in the same year by scholars Drs. Mickey Shachar and Yoram Neumann analyzed 20 years of research on the topic and showed that in 70 percent of the cases, students who took distance-learning courses outperformed their counterparts who took courses in a traditional environment.”

Today, many old traditional universities such as Harvard, Stanford, University of Southern California, etc. all have online programs. Others such as Boston University even offer doctorate degrees entirely online. The California Institute of Advanced Management (CIAM), started out with a so-called “blended” or “hybrid” MBA program with six lessons of every course face-to-face in the classroom and five online. This enabled committed students to complete a rigorous and unabridged MBA program in only 11 months. After three years’ experience CIAM started an alternative online program with all the features of the blended program except that it is 100% online. Using these and other Drucker-recommended concepts CIAM was able to offer much more to students including the completion in eleven months  and  practical consulting experience in every course whether on line or in the classroom. Moreover CIAM was able to do all this at a much lower price than most graduate schools.

Drucker Tells Us What to Do

Drucker told us that we must innovate with two big insights, it’s not the size of the change, but the amount of advantage caused by the change. However, he did not leave it there. He told us what we should avoid and how we should approach innovation to build and maintain the success of our organizations with the best sources of new ideas. Drucker found specific ways to approach innovation, and others proved by their success that he was, as usual, right on target.

*Adapted from Peter Drucker’s Consulting Principles: And How to Apply Them for Business Success to be published by LID in June 2016.


“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old”

– Peter Drucker

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