The greatest challenge organizations face today is how to stay competitive and categorically relevant given the accelerating pace of change. It’s not change that’s new. It’s the velocity of that change that is new. Information technology has made it possible for a company to be launched and, three months later, have a huge valuation without any need for raw materials, manufacturing, or packaging. Products and services that were on the cutting edge even a year ago have fallen off the edge today. More patents are filed with the U.S. Patent Office than at any other time in history. To succeed in this environment, organizations must possess the ability to see what’s coming, to seize opportunities and capitalize on them, and to dodge threats at the same time—all with speed and assurance.
And, therein, lies the preeminent shift ahead skill required for the twenty-first century: the ability to “see and seize” while the world spins round faster. The implications are financial, of course: How do you maintain competitive advantage without disrupting daily operations? You’ve got to deliver the numbers. But the implications for not staying in front of marketplace dynamics are also social, cultural, environmental, and geopolitical. Any organization that is not constantly seeing and seizing the moment, continuously adjusting to changing contexts and conflicts, is at risk for obsolescence. Yearly strategy development cycles are certainly well intentioned and still obligatory to set a general course. But the reality is that no matter how well you plan, it’s likely you’ll have to keep adjusting your plan.
This ability to “see and seize” was the central theme in the conversation we had with Steven Gardner who, with his partner Tom Nelson, founded the ad agency Gardner Nelson & Partners, Inc.
“What’s different about the age of the Internet is the speed at which categories go through convulsive change,” Gardner said at the beginning of our discussion. “In a rapidly changing world the greatest skill that a business person must have is the ability to see and seize an opportunity. Some people can see an opportunity, but they do not have the insight or executional ability to act on it. Most people tend to be more transactional . . . people who can implement when directed, but who lack the vision to see the opportunities inherent in change. I had the great fortune to work with the Steve Jobs, who is perhaps the most extraordinary example of a single individual possessing the ability to see and seize opportunities. Steve was fond of a simple two-word saying: ‘artists ship.’ What he meant by that was that you can be the greatest artist in the world, but if you don’t actually make something—‘ship it,’ in manufacturing parlance—who cares? Jobs is the most profound business person of his generation. He fundamentally changed five or six industries, given his ability to see and act on opportunities. From computers to printing to music to phones to entertainment to film, he was able to see a market need that was not intuitively obvious to anyone else. He had the skillset to see and make it happen.”
“Look at the Mac,” Gardner continued. “The positioning was ‘a computer for the rest of us.’ The insight? Instead of making people learn programming languages to communicate with computers, why not design a computer that is easily and intuitively understandable to the average human? In the case of music, he recognized that MP3s are superior formats for listening and sharing music, but the distribution system was based primarily on piracy. The opportunity he saw was far less about the bits and bytes of technology, but more about figuring out a licensing and a distribution mechanism that would allow everyone to buy into the idea of legal MP3s. He recognized this and, in doing so, revolutionized the portable music category. Then, of course, the iPhone. Most phone manufacturers viewed their product as a phone to which they incrementally added functionality. Steve Jobs knew how to ‘think different.’ To him, the opportunity was to make a very small computer that had a myriad of functionality . . . including the ability to make telephone calls.”
Gardner went on to suggest that the way business leaders should approach a repositioning project is to actively look for change.
Look for the most dynamic factor in a given category, a critical change in the consumer, the world, or the culture, as that will enable the marketer to leapfrog and redefine the category. It requires the mental discipline to see opportunity versus current reality. “Look at Uber,” he said. “Someone at Uber was smart enough to say, ‘Gee, we could use the combination of mobile communications and GPS technology to reinvent the stale old business of taxis and car services.’ That insight enabled them to rethink the taxi business based on private vehicles and on-demand availability. It’s a great case of someone looking at a business model— the taxi business in New York City—and asking how to make it better.”
Gardner went on to suggest that the way business leaders should look at the marketplace is to ask the question, “If you knew your company was going to start over how would you reinvent it?” What would you do differently? What is changing about society and what impact does that have on your product and your brand?
The companies that succeed today are those whose managers are actively trying to understand what is changeable in their business and get to it before others do.
“There was a catchphrase a few years back: ‘Dell or be Delled.’ It was another way of expressing Intel founder Andy Grove’s statement that ‘only the paranoid survive,’ relative to the chip industry,” Gardner said. “If you don’t disrupt your category the way Michael Dell did, by doing the impossible [in Dell’s case, lowering costs through customization, not standardization], someone else will. I don’t like to think of it as paranoia, but as opportunity.
“I have always told our clients that there is actually a very simple definition of market leadership: You must figure out what the most people want the most, and then deliver it better than anyone else,” he continued. “Sometimes the best way to take on an entrenched leader is to cause a fundamental change in the consumer’s benefit hierarchy; to redefine what is most important to the consumer. And, in fact, the easiest way to do this is to take a step back and ask the big question: What is changing about the world, the society, the culture, the technology, attitudes . . . because it is in those changes that you have the opportunity to restructure how a consumer thinks about your category. In our work, we’ve come to recognize that the defining skillset a business manager needs is the ability to see and apply change. You have to be able to disrupt your own industry to stay ahead of the curve.”
The ability to see and apply change opportunistically is such a simple premise, but obviously very hard to do. If it were easy, there would be no reason for business school courses in change management. In our conversation with Gardner, we also noted that it was ironic that during the period we were writing Shift Ahead, Alvin Toffler, a writer who was among the first modern futurists, passed away. In his bestselling book Future Shock, Toffler cautioned that the accelerating pace of technological change would make us all sick. He described future shock as the “shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a period of time.” While a bit stark and apocalyptic, he also asserted, more constructively, that “you’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so all the small things go in the right direction.” To our mind, this is a much more positive way of framing the situation.
For all we’ve written about the need to shift to stay relevant, and the fundamentals underlying the process, victory in the charge to stay relevant will definitely belong to those organizations inherently conditioned to think about the big things while literally doing the small things.
And, more than that, doing those things right and doing them quickly. Those for whom “see and seize” is simply a matter of business as usual will be those who succeed; they are the organizations whose leadership, culture, and financial wherewithal enable them to make small shifts along the way, executed brilliantly as a result of the clarity of focus on their mission. Much more effective and efficient than having to make a dramatic shift in degree or direction, it is the optimal business model for a world in which the acceleration of change—not change itself—is the key challenge.
Lest you think this business model is for the newly emerging, entrepreneurial sorts, that is not the case. This see-and-seize way of doing business is at the heart of two companies discussed in the first part of this chapter. They are iconic organizations, both long-standing category front-runners. Each was founded by an entrepreneur who excelled at the ability to see and seize opportunities. Each leader had an innovator’s DNA, which became part of the cultural DNA of the entire company. As such, each organization has been able to stay relevant over the course of many years and myriad market fluctuations without the need for a seismic shift. Rather, they have what it takes to have been able to shift as needed along the way.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Allen Adamson and Joel Steckel. Excerpted from their book Shift Ahead: How The Best Companies Stay Relevant In A Fast Changing World
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