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In the October 2021 issue of The Wholesaler, we discussed the need for healthy cycles of planned business renewal — consistency built upon a culture of reinvention. Thanks to those of you who sent emails with comments and questions regarding the reinvention process we’ve fostered. It was encouraging to hear that there appears to be a need for literacy skills on this topic to counter 21st-century disruption and volatility.
Being sustainable is not just about being “green” — or only about sustainable supply chains. If you ask most managers what their key challenges are, you’ll get many different responses. However, you’ll likely hear this, as I have, with regular frequency: “Staying relevant and staying afloat.”
The fast-moving roller-coaster economy we live in today makes this sustainability task increasingly difficult. Just as we handle one crisis, another looms around the corner. How can we sustain and even thrive?
We are in a world of long cycles that need to be transformed into short cycles. We must consistently remake who we are, what we offer, and how we deliver our offerings to our marketplace. We must proactively reinvent. It’s not some one-time project or mobilization and then we’re done. In fact, I even suggest that we consider reinventing every three years.
With that in mind, this column offers the 10 commandments of reinventing today’s sustainable company.
Today, the frequency with which our reinvention efforts must take place, to some, will be staggering. It’s not hyperbole to suggest a new company every three years. We must reinvent so frequently that the traditional roles and processes inside an organization may not be able to keep up.
However, to get this into some context, I suggest you listen to Episode 3 of our “Distribution on the Cusp of Metamorphosis” podcast (an “MCA Talk Podcast Series” available wherever you get your podcasts). As change leaders, we are wired to reinvent — not necessarily to innovate. Episode 3 tells you why.
Recent studies continue to show that the longer something exists, the better it is evaluated, and that holds true for pretty much all things.
These days, the word sustainability has become closely associated with the green movement. But if we return to sustainability’s original meaning, it’s all about continuity and survival. At the center is the desire to endure, hold on and keep going.
It’s precisely this desire to have things around for as long as possible and to celebrate books such as “Built to Last,” published in 1994. It was a great book for its time, but after 27 years, some of those same companies would not make the cut for inclusion.
Nothing in the world holds on, so how can we sustain?
• Commandment No. 1: The only way to sustain is to reinvent
Take the essence of what you are, and let go of everything else. It is that essential core that you need to propel forward, reinventing yourself over and over again. And yes, with a rapidity that you might consider staggering. So, expect some pain and loss; it’s part of change.
• Commandment No. 2: You must reinvent every three years
At one time, companies enjoyed long and healthy lives, with a slow rise to the top of financial performance and a gradual decline to … well, something else. The rate of change was so slow that reinvention was rarely needed. When it was, we had all the time in the world to renew our business on our terms. But that fairy tale is long gone.
What separates companies that survive from the others is the ability to start a new life-cycle. But the difference is, you don’t have 30-plus years to reach your prime; today, you might have three years. That means that barely two to three years into your existing business reality, you must start the reinvention cycle anew.
• Commandment No. 3: Reinvention won’t happen on its own
You’ve probably heard all the words in the “word salad” that describe the response to disruption. No doubt the invitation to renewal makes a lot of sense, but somehow life gets in the way. There are things to be done and tasks to be completed; there is value to be delivered today. Reinvention gets put into the “important” file folder, but the “urgent” file folder may rarely get touched. Reinvention gets left to chance.
Since the mid-1950s, companies have added top leadership roles such as presidents, general managers, chief executive officer, chief technology officer, chief customer officer — which were all intended to transform the energy, power and responsibility to execute the vision of multiple initiatives to bring about change. However, today we are going through a transformation of a different kind, one that does not allow us to leave the job of reinvention to chance.
Do we need a new corporate function that requires us to look at things from a new vantage point, to explore and experiment with new business models — to disrupt the present — and help birth and nurture a new future for an organization?
We need a breed of futurists as well as developing more reinvention professionals internally. They should be equipped with the skills and knowledge in functional and cross-functional areas, possess the necessary personal attributes — armed with the best of foresight and change-making instruments — and then be invested with real power. Someone not distracted by the ever-present and countless crises and the endless on-the-spot decisions faced on a daily basis.
• Commandment No. 4: Reinvention requires discipline
Forget built to last. Think about building to reinvent and make reinvention part of your company’s life.
Remember how the quality movement of the 1980s and early 1990s was catalyzed by what was then a small company called Toyota? Now, I know the quality movement was never really adopted, in principle, by distribution folks, but maybe there is something to learn from how it all began.
Prior to Toyota, the car industry seemed to be sleeping under a spell of great illusion — a car could be high quality or low price, but never both. Toyota challenged that assumption by creating cars that were both affordable and reliable. How?
Every employee is invited to spend up to 20 percent of their workweek dreaming up ideas and improvements not connected to their direct job responsibilities. Sometimes it took the form of improvement marathons. Interesting concepts; it makes for a quite serious reinvention army!
Companies such as Google and Apple offer similar programs, sometimes adjusted for national cultural differences. Even LinkedIn has an incubator program.
Continuous improvement is one of the ingredients to reinvention. It’s a building block of systemic reinvention that amps up efforts to a new level.
• Commandment No. 5: Don’t reinvent from scratch
Reinvention means stripping yourself of everything but your best, down to your very core, and elevating that best to a new form of reality.
This requires you to strike a balance between managing change and managing continuity. What is critical here is that you do not start from scratch. Keep the essence — preserve your company’s core, but find a better way of using it.
As part of seeing the world anew, reinvention invites you to appreciate the past. How can you improve whatever you have done well to extraordinarily well? Look at what others have done and breathe new life into their inventions. You also can sharpen your anticipation skills and access new outside channels. In other words, “What’s coming down the road?”
You don’t need to be a Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos regarding innovation and changing the marketplace. Just be better at who you are and what you do.
• Commandment No. 6: Don’t love your creation too much
There are reasons companies hold on to the present so tightly. Each of these can sprout and become a real but often invisible killer of reinvention. My suggestion? Take them seriously and eradicate them with your most powerful weed whacker!
1. Narcissism. Also known as “We are just too big or well-financed to fail.” You see, we tend to fall in love with our own creations, don’t we? It’s very hard to let go of something such as product, processes or even business models — particularly when they’ve worked in the past — for the sake of something unclear and uncertain.
2. The Titanic Syndrome. We get arrogant. The Titanic disaster is a great example of a “too big to fail” and “unsinkable” mindset. This arrogance cost the Titanic dearly.
3. Plain old fear. Also known as “we are too scared to move.” Starting new things can be scary. No wonder business leaders have a difficult time getting on with the new. But time is not on the side of the status quo.
So, our own model becomes so appealing that we keep endlessly updating and improving the old, rather than creating the new — our own self-love becomes our worst enemy. Arrogance and fear always stand in the way of reinvention.
• Commandment No. 7: Don’t reinvent reinvention
Countless tools for reinvention exist already; find out about them. The problem is the tools get rarely used. We attempt to reimagine at the expense of transformative change. Functional silos often get in the way; that is, everyone is trying to optimize their own silo and are too often focused on the short term.
Working across functions, silos and time horizons requires an entirely different set of skills, the fundamentals being:
1. Anticipation and foresight. The ability to sense forces that will shape the future.
2. Strength-based change. The ability to recognize, transform and scale existing organizational strengths.
3. Design thinking. The ability to create custom-made solutions where none seem to exist.
There are numerous schools of thought and methods that together comprise a toolkit for each of these reinvention skills. The crucial thing is to connect all three and focus them ruthlessly on the task of elevating strengths and reinventing value.
So, don’t reinvent reinvention; discover the buffet of tools already created. Think about it as providing a plate for your specific tastes.
• Commandment No. 8: Get the process for reinvention right
When we think of reinvention, most often, we are focusing on the content of reinvention — the key ideas that allow us to approach something in a new way. In other words, the essence of the new strategy.
The process of reinvention — designing steps and conditions for the right strategic content to emerge and then implementing it — often gets little-to-no attention. This separation of idea and execution runs deep in our business lives. As a result, countless reinvention ideas may end up wasted. Yet we all know, deep down, that ideas require clear, manageable steps; no other way will do.
So, if the separation of idea and execution runs deep in our business lives, why don’t we challenge our own focus on the content of reinvention and invest heavily in the process?
• Commandment No. 9: Build a healthy reinvention cycle
Reinvention requires a carefully choreographed dance of sorts — leadership and management.
Whenever I happen to work with a group of business professionals on the concepts of change and continuity, what eventually gets in the way is the issue of leadership vs. management.
They are two different things. Which one plays the leading role? The first contender for the leading role is leadership. Many equate leadership with leaders, whereby leadership is someone or a group of people beaming charisma to inspire people throughout the organization.
But if we look beyond formal positions and titles, it becomes clear that leaders act as leaders some of the time. As leaders, don’t we try to inspire our 2-year-old kids to brush their teeth?
The second contender is management. Again, if we look beyond titles and positions, management is something we all perform every day — such as making sure our 2-year-old kid is actually brushing their teeth as a regular routine. It’s similar to organizing a progress meeting for a project.
In essence, management is all about helping yourself and others to simplify complexity, to take something scattered and chaotic and organize it into a systematic routine. It would be difficult to imagine reinvention without this.
So, is leadership or management more important when it comes to reinvention? The answer is simple: both. Leadership and management cannot be separated from one another; they are interrelated. The difficulty is sometimes our leaders are better at leading — overcoming the comfort of complacency — than they are at management — taking the chaos and making it orderly, simplifying and organizing the complexity.
Once the reinvention is completed, it’s time to start another reinvention cycle to avoid a slide into unhealthy decline. Every three years, remember? It’s the need to consistently design new ways of creating value.
• Commandment No. 10: Reinvent your business model
Let’s say you’ve looked at all the facts and figures and compared your personal experience with data from the market battlefield. You are ready to take reinvention seriously. Where do you start?
Most companies obsess with the technology side of things. I know, technology innovation is a sexy topic, and innovative products are all the rage. Built into the hype is a strong assumption; to survive, you must possess the best technology and be tech-savvy — or get killed. Does this assumption hold true in the real world?
To answer the question, we must look at Kodak and Nokia. The lack of technological innovation was not the thing that brought down both companies. Kodak invented digital photography, while Nokia owned nearly 50 percent of the smartphone market at its prime.
It’s not as if they were producing horse carriages and buggy whips and suddenly got run over by the first car manufacturers. Both had the technology, but it didn’t make a difference.
What makes a difference, however, is inventing new ways of creating value.
Glad to be of help, and I welcome your feedback.