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Yoshihisa Maitani, the Olympus PEN & the Innovator's Dilemma

Camera lovers may have heard of Yoshihisa Maitani. He joined Olympus in 1956 and worked there for 40 years. He was responsible for many of Olympus' most popular cameras, including the Pen, the OM, the XA and later the Stylus. It wouldn't be hyperbole to say that he's a legend in the world of camera design and had a strong hand in shaping the world of photography in the 20th century. 

Maitani passed away in 2009, but Olympus has two of his lectures preserved on their global website, one on the making of the Olympus Pen series, another on the making of the OM-1. They make for a fascinating read on the history of cameras, but what really strikes me is how similar Maitani's beliefs were to the principles laid out by Clayton Christensen in The Innovator's Dilemma

The Pen was gradually taking shape, but as we moved closer to our initial goal of creating a cheap camera, we encountered two barriers. The first was the technology barrier, the same barrier I hit when I wanted to photograph something but couldn't find a suitable camera. If something doesn't exist, there must be a reason. Perhaps it would be extremely expensive or technically impossible. Or maybe it couldn't be made sufficiently compact. If you want to meet these challenges, you have to break through the technology barrier. That's the first barrier.

So my prototype was about to go into production, and I was excited. But even though the decision to produce my camera had come from the very top, the factory manager refused to manufacture my “toy camera.” Half-size cameras didn't exist then, and sales executives told us that my camera wouldn't sell because there was no market for it. This was the second barrier. Accepted wisdom told us that the camera couldn't be made and wouldn't sell. Since our factory wouldn't make it, we decided to outsource production. That was how the Pen first came into being. And as soon as it went on sale, it became a best-seller.

- Maitani, the Semi-Olympus I - the Pen Series, page 6.

What they have shown is that good firms are usually aware of the innovations, but their business environment does not allow them to pursue them when they first arise, because they are not profitable enough at first and because their development can take scarce resources away from that of sustaining innovations (which are needed to compete against current competition).

- Disruptive innovation, Wikipedia.

However, a month after Olympus launched the Pen, I happened to see a mother photographing her little boy while I was on my way to work. She was using a Pen. I was so excited to see someone using the camera that I'd designed. But after I watched her for a few seconds I started to worry. I wanted to warn her that the picture would be out of focus with those settings.

It was then that I decided to design a camera that a woman like that would use. There would be no difficult controls. It would be so simple that the user would just have to push a single button. Yet this concept was the exact opposite of the cameras that were selling well on the market. The sales staff told me that it wouldn't be a proper camera, and I later heard that a conference of branch managers had also concluded that my design would not be a real camera. The head of the sales division came to see me in person and tried to persuade me to abandon the idea.

- Maitani, the Semi-Olympus I - the Pen Series, page 7.

Companies, married couples, parents and children experience a variety of changes in their lives. It's our philosophy and passion that carry us through these changes. Whenever we try to do something new, we invariably encounter the barriers of technology and the accepted wisdom. The Pen camera resulted from our efforts to break through these barriers. I was lucky when we were developing the Pen series. I was lucky to have superiors who could see beyond the barriers, and even more lucky to have the support of users. It was this good fortune that propelled me through the second barrier.

- Maitani, the Semi-Olympus I - the Pen Series, page 8.

Companies pursue these “sustaining innovations” at the higher tiers of their markets because this is what has historically helped them succeed: by charging the highest prices to their most demanding and sophisticated customers at the top of the market, companies will achieve the greatest profitability. However, by doing so, companies unwittingly open the door to “disruptive innovations” at the bottom of the market. An innovation that is disruptive allows a whole new population of consumers at the bottom of a market access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.

Clayton Christensen.

In short, it seems that Maitani solved the innovators' dilemma, decades before it was codified by Christensen. And he was lucky, to be surrounded by colleagues just as willing to bet on his disruptive ideas as he was (not that it didn't take some persuading at times). The Olympus Pen and OM cameras set new precedents for the cameras which came after, and are regarded as classics today. In fact, the Olympus OM-D E-M5 digital camera is named in homage to the original OM line. The two lectures are worth a read for camera lovers today, check them out here and here.

If your way is obstructed by the technology barrier and the barrier of accepted wisdom, you have to find ways to break through those barriers. I believe that our efforts to do this have brought Olympus to the present stage in its history.

- Maitani, the Olympus OM-1 - the XA Series, page 10.

Alvin Soon / Associate Features Editor

I like coffee and cameras, but not together.

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