When you begin your career in marketing, one of the headiest and most intoxicating feelings comes from “leading” an actual brand.
A feeling of invincibility. A certain sense of immortality.
I’m sure the brand managers for Pet Rocks, L.A. Gear sneakers, Palm Pilot’s and De Lorean cars felt exactly the same immortality.
Here’s the truth, business is Darwinian.
You’re either able to evolve or your trajectory moves from irrelevant to obsolete and, ultimately, to extinct.
“We’re too big to fail” is a common retort. My category is impervious and indispensable.
Ask Big Tobacco. I grew up at a time when smoking was considered cool and hip. When the Malboro Man was an icon of virility. When every car, every house, every restaurant was festooned with ashtrays.
How about Big Soda? This week a New York Times article “The Decline of Big Soda” shows how rapidly that category is plummeting. This isn’t marginal players and brands, people. We’re talking brand behemoths like Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
And QSR? Leaving business school today, would you be vigorously pursuing a career with KFC, Burger King, Taco Bell or McDonalds?
Or Automotive? They’re certainly tottering. When a senior German auto executive quips that he fears “becoming the ZTC of cars” (officially my greatest quote of the past year) because of the inroads made by Tesla, Google and even potentially Apple. When vaunted brand VW is set to implode because of an insanely desperate management need to “crack” the US market at all costs. Is that category too big to fail?
Banking and Finance? Sure BitCoin may be largely a non-news-item today but alternative currencies are inevitable. If I’m a bank executive, you don’t think I’m terrified when mobile payment platforms from Apple, Google, Facebook sit between me and the transacting customer? Do you think customers are going to be loyal to my bank when I’m largely an invisible entity sitting beneath the “point of most value”. Sounds ominously like the “dumb pipe” fears of the Telcos doesn’t it?
And this isn’t because these organizations lack information, insight, scale, legions of smart and passionate employees, deep pockets, distribution, vigorous networks of partners, loyal customers and franchisees. Trust me, I had the privilege of working with the awesome Finns at Nokia for several years and none of the elements above were in short supply. Today Nokia is sadly a footnote in mobile history.
Maybe the issue is the two most dangerous letters in business today.
“C” and “Y”
(and maybe even healthy doses of CYA)
Or maybe the issue is more biological.
For all the online ink on Disruption (43,100,100 results), Digital Transformation (28,800,00 results) or that hoary ol’ chestnut Innovation(454,000,000 results) every organization is powered by a collection of people.
People operating within an established structure. A structure that has powered historical success.
People operating within a codified set of processes, policies and procedures. Systems that got them raises, bigger offices and promotions.
People who may love what they do but still have lives outside the office. Kids, vacations, in-laws, swimming pools, cold beers.
And, just like every organism facing a moment of profound evolution.
People keen to protect the status quo.
How else do you explain the Kodak employee who was told to bury his patent for digital camera technology? In 1975. Fast forward 40 years and consider the insanity of that business decision.
Or this much publicized effort by one of the 20th Century’s Automotive legends.
Which begs the obvious questions;
“Can Our Organization Genuinely Evolve From Within?”
or perhaps better restated as;
“Will Our Current People & Systems Let Us Evolve?”
If you need signs of how other progressive organizations are tackling the very same question, look no further than;
Google “Alphabet” which officially comes to life today. Read the press release from August 10th to get the full flavor of what they believe is needed to evolve today.
Zappos’ culture experiment with Holacracy, which is radically change how the organization operates and delivers. Reflective of the earlier “biology” comment, Holacracy was seen as too radical for some who chose to leave Zappos rather than adapt to the new system.
Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to hear Leonard Brody speak in Toronto. His mantra was simple. Do create a “parallel business” if you want any chance at escaping natural selection in your category or sector. Do create an organization deliberately and vigorously attempting to drive you into obsolescence. Don’tkeep that parallel business (or “skunkworks” in former parlance) within your current structure. Don’t acquire a “parallel business” and then absorb it borg-like into your incumbent world.
Provocative? Certainly. Prophetic? Very likely.
I can fondly (wistfully?) remember when Incumbency was the ultimate capitalist accolade. When being the biggest was recognition of your business prowess. Not anymore.
Big didn’t save the T-Rex or the Argentinosaurus. Is there any reason to believe it will save you?
How are you tackling evolutionary changes in your business?
Are you actively trying to kill your brands with new models, new thinking and new organizations? Are you willing to consider a “parallel organization” or willing to accept the inevitable evolutionary forces around you?
I’d love to hear what you’re doing.