Fifteen years ago in the Design issue of Wired, an article appeared outlining Polaroid’s five-year strategic plan. Just 8 months later the company filed Chapter 11. The ‘new company’ formed in its aftermath declared bankruptcy again several years later. For real.
Corporate failure aside, we all have a warm and fuzzy place in our 💚 for polaroids.
Polaroids = Vintage personified. Now cherished by teens, the polaroid phenomenon today resembles the recent resurgence of vinyl.
For Polaroid, Design was chiefly about breakthrough cameras — the Model Swinger, SX-70, Spectra — and those that came before and after. The innovation in the one-step process which allowed you to hold a photo in your hand just one minute after hitting ‘click’, was simply housed in a different container over the years.
The birth of instant photography is by far one my favourite inventions. You can probably testify to owning that cool-as-hell Polaroid that enabled you to magically freeze a moment and instantly share with friends. That vintage camera has since been replaced by the one currently in your pocket, and now rests on your shelf where house guests nod their head with nostalgic approval.
With over 2 billion photos being uploaded daily, the world is undeniably obsessed with sharing photos. And lest not forget about the trillions more that fail to make the publishing cut.
Self Sealing Logic
At the turn of the century, Gary DiCamillo was at the helm of Polaroid. He identified two ways to help innovate the business; Styling and Reinvention.
Styling referred to giving the company a makeover. The narrative to convey was that Polaroid was cool and fun.
Reinvention was in response to a world that had been digitised and was about to leave the company in its rear view mirror.
With hindsight it is easy to critique. We can see clearly now the reasons for the downfall of Kodak or Hipstamatic. In the case of Polaroid, the guilty culprit may have been DiCammilo and the company’s self-sealing logic.
“They were unable to foresee that the photo album would be replaced by the digital slide show.” — Yale Insights
The Digital Era required a drastic overhaul of the business model — wholly reliant on instant film — which in turn would mean taking big risks. Perhaps with a dash of double-loop learning they may have turned the sails towards something like Instagram, VSCO, EyeEm or even the recently launched Swing — the history books would need a rewrite.
Cases of bold manoeuvres to redesign and reinvent a businesses in the face of changing times are a plenty: Intel (shifted from storage to processing),Red Bull (became a media company), and Patagonia (evolved into a business that with implements solutions to the environmental crisis).
What do all these companies have in common? They all employ an operating model that allows for their business to evolve in the face of change. They’ve built internal capabilities that enable speed, agility, and openness together with a healthy appetite for risk. Their systems of organising are adaptive.
Instead of getting hung up on the design of pretty things they continually focus in tandem on the Design of Business.
Becoming A Learning Organisation
What Polaroid missed was not just moving into the digital era — but catering to the behaviours that arose as a result. They lost the connection to what a customer wanted and they failed to anticipate what that customer would want next.
At the core of a truly design-centric organisation is just one thing — empathy.
This translates as the keen ability to listen, to learn from customers, and continually strive to delight them time and time again. For many established companies, the shift to becoming a design-centric business is a tricky one, as they lack both the methodologies and mindset.
But the benefits are vast. Alongside increased customer retention and growth, design can lead to more engaged employees, richer partnerships, and a more responsive way of operating. With this ability to adapt through design, pioneering leaders have learned to welcome change and create progressive 21st century businesses.