The Firm of the Future Will Manage Two Types of Businesses

Bain and Company has just published a worthwile article, debating on the question: What will the firm of the future look like?

Among several characteristics, the authors also particularly anticipate future-proof companies to be required to manage two types of businesses by deploying distinct “engines”:

Companies have always pursued innovation in their core business. Clayton Christensen has called these “sustaining innovations”; they bring incremental improvements in performance or value. But what about the innovations that upend an entire industry? They are all around, even if leaders sometimes find it hard to believe it will happen to them. To thrive in this environment, firms will need to dial up their ability to see around corners, spotting trends before they are well formed and mobilizing resources quickly to adjust to changing circumstances. Seeing around corners is both art and science, and while outright prediction is usually a fool’s errand, there are ways to improve your odds of success. It pays to maintain a high external orientation, staying close to customer needs as well as to moves by current and potential competitors, and to learn from ecosystem partners. It’s also important to tap into the collective knowledge of your internal resources, particularly the front line, on a much broader scale than most businesses habitually do.

Whether the threat is visible and imminent or invisible and theoretical, leaders of the firm of the future will be toggling between running their core—today’s engine—as efficiently as possible, looking for sustaining innovations there. They will also need to create a new business—tomorrow’s engine—that reflects new customer needs, new competitors, new economics or all three.

This “Engine 1, Engine 2” approach is what allowed Marvel to continue to develop its publishing core while simultaneously expanding the character licensing business that has become its new core. Likewise for Netflix: From the mid-2000s, the core DVD business was progressively milked to fund the rapid growth of the streaming business. IBM has shrunk its traditional hardware business while dramatically expanding its newer software and services offerings (see Figure 5). In each case, moves into Engine 2 meant new competition, new cost structures and new economic models to run in parallel, and the new business took at least five years to flourish.

Defining and building an Engine 2 requires creativity on several fronts. It is not enough to define a compelling vision or point of arrival; that is often the easy part. The task also requires identifying a first step that is focused and that allows rapid testing of the core idea, as well as thinking through subsequent moves that could be opened up by initial success. In many ways, this was Steve Jobs’ genius at Apple. Everyone had the same idea for the first-generation move. But he was two generations ahead, and so understood the value of the ecosystem that could be created by keeping hardware and software vertically integrated.

The two engines demand different approaches. Discipline, repeatability, small continuous improvements, careful risk assessment and conventional financial analysis are the hallmarks of Engine 1. Agility, creativity and leaps into the financial unknown with the expectation that only a few investments will ultimately pay off are the chief traits of Engine 2. Running both in parallel raises some tricky operating model questions such as these: To what extent should Engine 2 redefine Engine 1? How and when should innovations get folded back into the core (and who decides)? And how do you manage the allocation of talent and other resources across the company? Perhaps most fundamentally, is it better to build Engine 2 yourself, or is it better to monitor capabilities being developed externally and then acquire them? For the most successful firms in the coming era, we believe managing both engines will be required. These firms will use their Engine 2s not just as sources of new growth but as vehicles to transform their companies into firms of the future.

What this could look like in 2027: Companies will set up and manage Engine 2 under the corporate umbrella but will likely structure, staff and fund it separately. Resource allocation will be a point of integration across Engine 1 and Engine 2, and will be continuous and zero-based. Top talent will rotate through both engines, learning a balanced set of skills and fulfilling mission-critical roles on both sides of the business.

This outlook pretty much captures key points I’ve been putting forth all along up to now. And it’s yet another confirmation for the importance of designing and implementing modern dual corporate innovation systems.



Beside Digital, companies are irrevocably forced to build Dual into their operating systems and organizational designs. Those who miss out on setting the course eventually risk being “future-unproof”. Better start taking action now!

About Ralph-Christian Ohr

Experienced innovation management and corporate development professional. Consulting on organizational and personal capabilities for high innovation performance. Integrative thinker. T-shaped.

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8 Responses to The Firm of the Future Will Manage Two Types of Businesses

  1. joachim von heimburg January 26, 2017 at 5:51 PM #

    I fully agree. The business world has gone VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) in an unprecedented way:
    • Pace of change is accelerating
    • Globalization is creating hyper competition – you may not even know your fiercest competitor yet
    • Knowledge has become a commodity.
    The only way to stay a leader in such a VUCA world is to out-innovate change, becoming a change leader yourself.
    But big companies are no SMEs – they have to take care of their current core business, partners, employees, and stakeholders. They can’t forget about the past and present in order to focus on the future. Just one reminder: pension commitments!

    How to resolve this dilemma? Today’s large companies need to learn to create the new, future business which may disrupt their current business whilst continue to run and progress their current business with excellence. Create the future AND mange the present.

    This is like drumming one rhythm with the right hand and another completely different one with the left hand simultaneously. Companies have to learn to play the present and the future ambidextrously.

    This means rethinking values, missions, and strategies and requires new behaviors, processes, tools, and organizational structures and in many cases a culture change.
    This is a tall order and hard work. It’s also risky and failure is very visible. That’s why many executives shy away from it or pay lip service to it. But the price for not addressing this growing vulnerability is losing the leadership position. Remember Kodak, Nokia and other fallen giants.

    • Ralph-Christian Ohr January 29, 2017 at 11:24 AM #

      Terrific comment – thanks, Joachim! I’m fully with you on this. It is a tall order indeed – but there is no workaround for this in opinion The only question seems: How to pull it off decently?

      Let’s meet up some time soon and discuss proper ways how to resolve this issue.

    • Firoz Shroff April 21, 2017 at 12:24 PM #

      Grateful to all of you for sharing thoughts and wisdom on what the future of the firm (FOF) will look like.
      Thank you for sharing generously your knowledge.
      I am looking for mentoring in my quest to design “an ecosystem” and wholistic platform for global deal diagnosing, deal designing, deal structuring, deal implementing and exiting integrated with wellnyss and social attributes”.
      Our belief is the key element in the success of FOF will be human capital/resources what we call today employees.
      Can Future Firms in recruiting process train employees in entrepreneurship to become franchise of their department/position thus giving ownership from day one.
      Why can’t FF turn the human capital cost from expense to profit center by giving and through training, certification, franchise fees and financing the recruit.
      What we call today employees in our mind and in the new structure we will title them as entrepreneurial franchisee recruit (EFR).
      Why can’t FF in new structure design career path (shun the word employees) make the EFR millionaire.
      In present business world of VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) as mentioned by Dr. Joachim von Heimburg —why can’t we adopt new brave and bold human capital structures to make EFR wealthy…….
      Why can’t we replace the word employees to entrepreneurial franchisee recruit (EFR).
      Ralph-Christian Ohr -mentioned the firms of the future will be mixture of many functions.They could be separate SSBU’s (Synergic Strategic Business Units).
      This was indeed very profound insightful observation by Ralph. FOF will be wearing on hat with many spokes and if necessary wear many hats to increase value in the parent company (I have designed 99 spokes in Safari hat). The spokes could be but not limited to private equity, investment banker, startup, consultants, financier instreams, brand owner, educator, advisor, mentor, venture capitalist investor and merchant banker.
      Thank you, Ralph. So, I learned from your deep insight- that our future firm will create partnership with experts as Special Purpose Vehicle as many subsidiaries to earn fees for giving captive EFR. So, Ralph what you are saying is that outsourcing can be profit center not necessary cost center. Also, getting public listed status with upfront fees on the capital market with captive business would smart valuation, with IT and digital operational dynamics attached to it value. You are Guru on the subject Firms of the Future. We must meet or discuss on phone

      Ralph another area that might be interesting in FOF. Wellnyss Corporation project we have been working for last 3 years. I will email you this project if you send me your contact info.
      Here is real story in action to develop FOF.
      We have developed a business plan under BCorp – Wellnyss Corporation – an innovative disruptive Firm of the Future under my training of Jugaad combining it with Charlie Munger case study and thesis – plan will cause Glotz’s foundation to be worth a trillion dollars 150 years later.

      So, what I did I took from my retirement fund $ 2 million to start Wellnyss Corporation. Then I developed a new DNA to take the $ 2 million – with new period of 150 months to turn it in $ 2 trillion.
      WC is in business of diagnosing values and monetizing them under Firms of Future mindset –
      Wellnyss Corporation has diagnosed and identified several intrinsic assets and values in McDonald- Example 1 – McD’s main currency is it children traffic which it should be influencing and capitalizing via a saving plan to make children wealthy. More when we connect.
      Kind regards to all…
      Firoz Shroff

  2. Graham Douglas January 27, 2017 at 2:52 AM #

    People will need to apply Integrative Thinking which is about connections and integrating intuition, reason and imagination as well as Critical Thinking which is about parts.

  3. Maarten Korz January 29, 2017 at 7:53 AM #

    This is all about ambidextarity. Engine 1: exploitation & engine 2: exploration.

    Often Engine 2 requires a lot of work:
    – entrepreneurial culture
    – collaborating with startups in your industry
    – seeing and using data as your new asset
    – lean startup wat of thinking & working

    The trick is to keep both engines connected. This can work if:
    – your executives not only pormote This ambidextarity, but also are the living example.
    – both engines are serving the same inspiring and purposefull mission of the organisation.
    – employees are not treated as “walking job descriptions” but as humans with an amazing set of competences, skills, ideas,talents and passion!

  4. Henry February 16, 2017 at 5:51 PM #

    So true.
    I actually work in a tech start-up that rented premises above a wine and cigar importer.

    We have around 30 people using two large rooms. No paper, few cables and the only thing you’ll find in there overnight is a printer and a few second screens.

    Downstairs things couldn’t be more different. 2 old guys, 1 secretary and about 4 rooms full of ring binders.

    Agile is surely the way forward, thanks for sharing.

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