Long Live the Walkman

The Walkman debuted 40 years ago this week, kicking off a revolution in music that no one could’ve anticipated.

Before the end of the 1970s, the only ways someone could listen to music without attending a performance were over the radio, on the stereo, or by boom box. Then something new came along from Sony, something called the Walkman TPS-L2.

Unlike its predecessors, the Walkman personalized the music-listening experience in a whole new way. With its discreet portable tape deck and smaller headphones, it allowed music lovers to enjoy their favorite artists in private while traveling in public. “You could take your music everywhere,” says CorDell Larkin, a Korn Ferry senior client partner. “The Walkman kicked off that individualization of music.”

What stands out today, of course, is the pace of disruptions like that. Sony had actually been making portable cassette players for years before it designed the Walkman. These days, companies must be on the watch for Walkman-like shifts occurring every few years, or even faster. Experts say leaders also have to watch out for how a breakthrough creation in an unrelated industry can have ramifications on their own business strategies.

The Walkman’s small size meant people could listen to music, in stereo, while on the job or riding the subway without having to share that experience with everyone around them. And because of that technology, it opened the floodgates for future personalized inventions like the CD player and even the iPod, experts say. (It may have also revitalized the #2 pencil industry, thanks to having to untangle cassette tape, but the stats are unclear.)

Experts say more companies could try to emulate the dedication to innovation embodied in the Walkman. Sony had a reputation for investing heavily in technology and taking the right amount of risk in developing new products. Some, like the Walkman, took off; others, like Betamax, didn’t last. But whether its inventions soared or bombed, Sony was always able to lead its customers—and the industry—rather than react to what was happening in the sector, because it had a vision of what technology in the future could do, experts say. “True innovation is not being constrained by what’s currently being done,” says Larkin.

Of course, the Walkman is one among many innovations that have both revolutionized industries and transformed societies. Amazon changed retail and how people shop; the iPhone changed cell phones and how people communicate; and the Ford Model T changed transportation and how people travel day to day. “You put the right product out there, and the system changes for it,” says Melissa Swift, leader of Korn Ferry’s Digital Advisory practice for North America. “It’s about having the confidence that your invention will change the world around it.”

Decades ago, leaders at companies like Sony could take risks more often. But organizations today are operating in a much more volatile, uncertain, and ambiguous business landscape, says Craig Rowley, a Korn Ferry senior client partner. Historically, executives have had to foresee the future and learn from the past. But looking forward gets harder as society moves faster, Rowley says.

The pace of technological change and ever-evolving customer demands mean leadership must focus on the future at all times while also adapting quickly to a rapidly shifting environment. “You have to constantly reinvent yourself,” says Rowley. “You have to keep a view of the future that’s not bogged down by your view of the past.”