Business Reinvention in a World of ‘Word Salads’By Howard W. Coleman | October 15, 2021 << Back to Articles
The last 18+ months have felt like a disaster movie, haven’t they? A global pandemic has caused record-setting despair; travel has been restricted; the economy went into shock; people everywhere have been staying at home or managing some type of cautious return to activities.
But then, a kind of technological revolution has emerged as the pandemic has served as a catalyst for some rapid technological growth, pushing our world further into the digital sphere than ever before.
So much has happened. It has been a very extraordinary and unprecedented time. It has been a metamorphosis of sorts. Metamorphosis refers to a profound change in form, from one stage in life to the next, as from a caterpillar to a butterfly. I believe that there is really no choice other than to embrace change and what we’ve come to call “disruption” (one of the first words in the word salad). Disruption is a real thing. The question is: How do we respond to it?
To ignore it, I believe, is a form of arrogance. Call it what you will—fear, risk, threat—it’s a cover-up for arrogance or at least blinding over-confidence. That was one of the major problems for the Titanic—which I’ll explain in a few moments—a real-life example of both arrogance and over-confidence.
In this article, I will attempt to untangle it all, as well as provide some thoughts as to how you might navigate what the hullabaloo is all about and why it’s turned into this word salad.
Change is hard
Over two years ago, I wrote an article entitled The Truth about Driving Change & Innovation—What No One Tells You. It was my perspective on something called “transformational leadership.” The article was really a product of my own experience with clients, potential clients, reading recent books on the topic, attendance at conferences, online webinars, etc. My attempt, in the article, was to re-enforce the concept of disruptive forces and influences brought about by technology, as well as a myriad of other factors impacting how you do business.
One of the first things I learned was that leadership and innovation conferences are now a US$15 billion industry. Apparently, in my own arrogance, I never thought this discussion would reach the level of intensity that it has.
My impression was that these sessions got people all riled up, encouraging us to think differently about our businesses, preparing us for the future, elevating, empowering, and inspiring us to do innovative things—extraordinary things. What’s not to like about that?
But what I discovered is that what is often left out is: Who will lead the effort? Do we really have a leader? What’s the actual internal process?
I’m fairly sure most people attending these conferences went home probably feeling enthusiastic, but ultimately were either unable or unwilling to execute the change or a so-called innovation through “transformational leadership” after all that cheerleading. Why? Because innovation is hard.
Not everyone is, or can be, a Steve Jobs, a Jeff Bezos, or a number of other people we may admire for their real innovational thinking.
If I substituted another term, let’s say, “reinvention” for innovation, somehow it just doesn’t have that same kind of ring or buzz, does it? In fact, I bet it would be pretty difficult to produce even a few names associated with something called “reinvention.”
The reality though, is that only 2.5% of us worldwide are real innovators. Only 13% to 14% of us are early adopters—ones who love trying and testing new things. Pretty much everyone else is a follower.
A research team at the University of Toronto surveyed 1,000 American and Canadian knowledge workers (all employed and with college degrees)—surely a different demographic than the worldwide example—to assess their attitudes towards innovation. They were assigned to six different groups, and even broken into three age groups.
They were presented with the following thesis: Innovation is all about something new—new features, new solutions, and new business models. Innovation demands freedom and creativity so that you are not caged-in by past and present limitations. Most of the time, the question of what to do with the old, falls outside the scope of innovation efforts.
Interestingly, while the drive for innovation among participants varied from 14% to 28%, only two of the six different groups measured, actually broke the 25% mark. Willingness to take risks was even more telling. At best, 19% were willing to take risks, with some age groups dipping as low as 11%. Remember, this is data for two First World and most innovative countries. You have to wonder what everybody else is doing.
Basically, it tells us that most people are just not inclined to be innovative. We are all wired differently. Yet we know, however, that life does not start from scratch. Companies have existing products, assets, and people, just like families have existing histories, traditions, and possessions. Can we abandon or ignore those legacies? Most of us just don’t have the luxury to invent in a vacuum.
So, maybe we have to figure out how to create the new, while preserving the best of the old—how to drive change while also assuring continuity.
That’s what reinvention is all about
Coming from a different perspective, one of renewal, which is within most people’s reach, almost anyone can offer a reinvention idea, subject to evaluation and testing. Sometimes you will get some wild ideas, and that’s fine. It’s offset by the strength of the participatory process. When we talk about innovation, we talk about it like it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event or moment, and that, historically, was enough.
Kodak lived off photographic film for decades. George Eastman, their founder, took his own life, and in his final letter, said: “My work is done.” Kodak invented digital photography, and we know what happened there. Nokia once owned 50% of the smartphone market. And Blockbuster? We know what happened there too. Pure arrogance!
Of course, we only see the disaster that has occurred—after it’s happened. Surely, we can’t take that approach anymore. With today’s speed of change, we need to anticipate.
The Titanic syndrome
Organizations facing disruption create their own downfall through arrogance, excessive attachment to past success, or an inability to recognize and adapt to new and emerging realities. In other words, they had no figurative binoculars. Therefore, they couldn’t anticipate.
Look what happened to the Titanic! Their radio communication room was bogged down with transmitting the first-class passengers’ messages to their friends and families. Warning messages from other ships in the same travel lane were virtually ignored as a result. The assistant captain, who, at the last moment, was brought aboard because of his experience in barriers (other ships) avoidance, had no experience avoiding icebergs.
David Blair, one of the second officers, had responsibility for maintaining a supply of binoculars in a secure locker. For some unexplained reason, he was relieved of duty at the first port stop that the Titanic made. He neglected to turn over the locker keys to his replacement.
So, what’s happened?
In our reaction to change, we’ve created a “word salad.” Our business “ether” is littered with new terms. I mean, this is, not just about semantics—that is, giving meaning to a word—but it’s become a word salad of conflated terminology, mostly conceived to get your attention and motivate you to some form of “transformation” in your business (although frankly, I don’t believe that’s even the right word). In fact, I humbly admit, I’ve probably been as guilty as anyone in perpetuating all this confusing jargon. Honestly, it seems to me that we confuse people with this loose terminology.
The “Word Salad”
Innovation—something completely new or different being introduced that changes the marketplace. If someone asks you to come up with something innovative, based on this dictionary definition, your mind will probably freeze. It’s just a natural reaction.
Transformation—a change in form, appearance, nature, or character. I happen to be very tired of this word. It rarely produces results. It is just another word in the word salad that really describes the end result, the result of other actions you may take through other systematic means. An end result does not describe any specific pathway.
Continuous improvement—uninterrupted in time, without cessation. Continuous improvement, whether in an incremental or radical way, is actually involved in the process of reinvention. Just the term itself suggests that. It is not a one-time event. It’s continuous, a respected series of ongoing business improvement actions. I would contend that it has to become more systemic.
Reinvention—To remake or make over, as in a different form; a practice of embracing change by reimagining and remaking something so that it manifests new and improved attributes, qualities, and results.
So, I ask: “Why not make reinvention a regular exercise?” Like taking a shower. Because we all know what happens when you don’t take a shower. To put it nicely, you get “stale.”
Reinvention through continuous improvement is a structured and deliberate effort to engage in “healthy cycles of planned renewal,” building on the past to ensure current and future viability. To survive today, you consistently—continuously—need to reinvent. It’s not a one-and-done thing.”
My own lessons
A mentor once said to me many years ago, “Think big, start small, and then scale like hell.” It resonated with me as a perfect recipe, a perfect set of ingredients for reinvention through “continuous improvement.”
His other words of wisdom? “Focus on speed over perfection.” “Don’t complexify.” Now, I’m not even sure that’s a word, but I know it is an enemy of speed. Lastly, he said: “Always remember that change will go on—with or without you.”
Continuous improvement, renewal of your processes, technology, and people culture are all widely accepted today as the core elements of change and improvement. Now, this puts “transformation” in a different context, although it’s really “reinvention,” because most of us will never achieve real innovation, particularly as I’ve defined it in this space.
Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt, the father of Theory of Constraints (TOC), a form of reinvention and continuous improvement methodology, wrote: “Value is created by removing a significant limitation for the customer, in a way that was not possible before.” In other words, identify and remove a bottleneck or constraint. Do that, and you will have a continuous flow of process and product.
He never said anything about having to blow up all the bridges behind you. You don’t have to freeze people’s minds searching for that grand innovation.
The advantage gained through any improvement we make, of course, diminishes over time. Technology changes, and competitors copy you and eventually catch up. So, we must renew and reinvent, so that the “improvement curve” doesn’t ultimately go into a free-fall, because the recovery statistics are pretty dismal, according to most studies on this topic. Therefore, we need reinvention, at least every three years at a bare minimum.
We all need healthy cycles of planned renewal. It’s good because consistency ultimately builds a habit, a culture of reinvention. Although you can’t prevent that iceberg from appearing, you can make sure you don’t hit it.
So, invite reinvention into your life and your company. With or without you, this metamorphosis will continue.
About the Author.
Howard W. Coleman, principal at MCA Associates, a management consulting firm, works with wholesale distribution and manufacturing companies seeking and committed to operational excellence, implementing continuous improvement solutions, and much more. He may be contacted at 203-732-0603, or by email at [email protected]