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Disguising diversification for innovation

PurposeAxis, HMS and Sectra are three Swedish companies whose managers argue that you should never be radical on two fronts: creating new products for new markets at the same time. This paper aims to show however that while Axis’ managers claim not to be radical on two fronts, they still perform horizontal diversification, but they do so by disguising it as product development. Just like certain animals disguise themselves for protection, Axis’ managers disguise diversification as a defense mechanism, to protect themselves. In so doing, they have learned to manage the dynamics of innovation, by shifting between periods of focus and diversification.Design/methodology/approachThis study was based on an inductive research approach influenced by grounded theory. In total, 32 interviews were performed with top and middle-line managers from three Swedish companies: Axis, Sectra and HMS. A total of 91 A4 transcript pages, 66 A4 e-mail pages, 52 annual reports (from 1999 to 2017) and 256 company presentations and newspaper articles (from 1988 to 2015) were collected and analyzed. Open and selective coding yielded 105 sub-categories, which were grouped into four main categories and presented as detailed descriptions. The results were based on the interpretation of those descriptions and related to disguise as a defense mechanism in psychology.FindingsInnovation is a difficult process often met with hostility. Axis’ managers however have found a way to go beyond their existing business domain, while still protecting themselves from internal and external opposing forces that would go against such a risky strategy. To do so, they first expand their existing business domain. Then they perform horizontal diversification and disguise it as product development, as a defense mechanism to protect their desire to create innovation from managers who would oppose their risky strategy. In so doing, they convince other stakeholders that innovation through diversification is the best strategy for their company.Research limitations/implicationsThis study was only performed at three Swedish technological companies. For future research, other Swedish companies could be included, and not only technological companies either, to explore whether diversification is considered a strategy that needs to be disguised in other businesses as well, and how managers from those businesses deal with internal and external forces.Practical implicationsManagers from Axis, Sectra and HMS are fully aware that innovation as well as diversification is difficult. Ideas that seem interesting and full of potential for some people may seem too risky and dangerous for others. To protect diversification as a strategy for innovation, Axis’ managers have found a way to disguise diversification, and make it seem less dangerous. In so doing, they are able to diversify and create innovation. A strategy for disguising diversification therefore has practical managerial implications of how managers can deal with internal and external forces that would go against such a strategy.Originality/valueThis study connects defense mechanisms in psychology with innovations strategy and innovation management and solves a practical dilemma that managers often struggle with: how to create innovation despite barriers that exists and oppose such a strategy. Managers will most likely always face different barriers to innovation, and perhaps solving them is not possible. This study shows how Axis’ managers have found a way to go around this problem, when solving it is not possible. This strategy thus shows originality and value for both theory and practice related to innovations strategy and innovation management.

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