By: Kirk Kardashian, Tuck School of Business Posted: Feb 24th, 2015

Ron Adner, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Tuck, has pioneered his own form of associative thinking. But unlike Gavetti’s focus on the association between new and old ideas, Adner studies associations between firms—the critical partnerships companies need to cultivate to thrive. In short, it’s the ecosystem approach to strategy.

How ecosystems allow companies’ strategies to thriveA vivid example comes from his critically acclaimed book The Wide Lens: What Successful Innovators See that Others Miss. In the early 1990s, Michelin invented the run-flat tire, and it was supposed to revolutionize the automobile industry and the driving experience. No more dangerous blow-outs, no more roadside despair. Michelin struck agreements with the likes of Audi, Honda and Mercedes to include the tires as standard equipment on certain models. All was shaping up spectacularly, except for one thing: most tire service centers were not equipped to change or repair run-flats, leaving customers with little choice but to replace the tires at great expense. Lawsuits and other problems mounted. “What had started as an ‘inevitable success’ ended as a massive corporate write-off,” Adner writes. Michelin’s key failure: not understanding the importance of other players in the success of its innovation.

Before Adner created a framework and a grammar for the nature of innovation ecosystems, traditional strategic principles paid partnerships little mind. The resource-based view instructed companies to learn what they did best, and focus on that. The positioning theory centered on understanding the competition. Another school of thought said to cater to customer needs. “The problem,” Adner said, “is that you can do well with all three of those, but if you don’t align your partners, you could still fail.”

At Tuck, Adner is a popular teacher and mentor, and the winner of the Class of 2011 Teaching Award. He teaches the electives Entrepreneurship & Innovation Strategy, and Strategy in Innovation Ecosystems, a Research-to-Practice seminar. He also consults with corporations on ecosystem strategy and regularly melds his research, teaching and advising together. “What I do in one I can bring to the other,” he said. The ecosystem approach works there, too.

Read the entire series!

Part 1 - Tuck Strategists: The history of “strategy”
Part 2 - Vijay Govindarajan
Part 3 - Richard D'Aveni
Part 4 - Constance Helfat
Part 5 - Sydney Finkelstein
Part 6 - Giovanni Gavetti
Part 7 - Ron Adner
Part 8 - Andrew King

Article originally published on, December 12, 2014.

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