The metaphor “don’t reinvent the wheel” is commonly used to save us both time and redundant efforts. In the context of a business, it means there’s no need to put energy into reinventing something that already exists and works well: that problem has been solved in the past, let us now focus our attention on more necessary topics. On a tactical, day to day level, I wholeheartedly agree. I am usually in favour of a buy-not-build approach, finding efficient and proven solutions to everyday issues. This is the beauty of not reinventing the wheel.
The danger of not wanting to reinvent the wheel is on the strategic level. In fact, even the metaphor is flawed because the wheel itself has been reinvented many times over as infrastructure, technology and materials have evolved. Looking at the designs for vehicles in the future, we can expect that the concept of the wheel will be challenged if not reinvented several times more.
What I am getting at is the necessity of any business to be open to reinvent itself. In these times of fast-moving progression, we will either be the disruptors, or we will be disrupted. Neither of which will happen by slow evolution. For true business transformation to take place, we need to step off the path of slow evolutionary progression and indeed reinvent.
Reinventing the wheel before the wheel reinvents you
Whenever I deliver keynote speeches that touch on the topic of digital or business transformation, I use the caterpillar-butterfly metaphor to illustrate:
When a snake sheds its skin, it changes; When a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, it transforms.
These visual images describe quite effectively what real business transformation is all about. The fundamental nature of the organism becomes different. Not only what it looks like from the outside, but also what it eats, how it moves, the territory it covers and what it can do.
George Westerman from MIT Sloan School of Management adds to the point by saying:
“When the (digital) transformation is done right, it’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly; but when done wrong, all you have is a really fast caterpillar.”
I have worked in the realm of business transformation for several years and I believe that the term “transformation” is commonly misused to describe necessary, progressive evolution of business.
Let me be clear: the necessary, progressive evolution of a business is a certainly positive and no easy feat. Kudos to all the businesses out there who are smart enough and brave enough to recognize that they need to move forward and achieve their next level of growth step by step. Without this approach, the future of any business today will be bleak and short lived. The question is whether this progressive, evolutionary change alone will be enough to ensure long-term success? I believe not. At some point in time, any business will need to face the prospect of true transformation.
When we talk about business transformation, we mean an entirely different, radical approach that takes several years to achieve. The businesses that are able to recognize the right moment, who are able to reimagine themselves as a new organism and able to execute that transformation, are the ones who become legendary.
There is nothing easy about this. We can, albeit grudgingly, accept the need to change parts of the business that has not been working as well as others. It is extremely difficult to question the parts of our business that perform well. Often the biggest impediment to a business’s future success is its past success.
Being able to step out of the identity we have crafted for ourselves in business is extremely tough. Yet how are we to reimagine the business and to reinvent ourselves in a world where digital is core and where customers want both immediacy and customization at the same time?
Success or failure?
Just ask Kodak about that. They missed the opportunity to transform. Even though Kodak invented the digital camera, they failed to imagine the opportunity of digitizing their product line, relying instead on the past successes of an established product and a beloved brand. It killed them. In all fairness to Kodak, it would not have been easy to guess how the world market would embrace digital photography before the technology was developed enough to have the appeal that later followed. However, the fact remains that after being a success and number 1 in their field for more than 100 years with USD16 billion in revenue, some years later they became bankrupt.
Then ask Lego who were struggling with their established product and beloved brand, and who grabbed the opportunity to reimagine their business and reinvent themselves in the digital world. In 2003 Lego was USD8mil in debt and sinking fast. They recognized the need to reimagine how the brand could continue to delight the market in a world that was moving to online and on-screen obsession. Amongst other initiatives, Lego emerged strongly in the film and gaming industries and in 2015, they not only announced £600 million in profit but they also overtook Ferrari as the world’s most powerful brand.
What we can learn from just these 2 stories is that reinventing the wheel on a strategic level is necessary. Yet true transformation requires more than reinventing a product or service. True transformation is about reimagining and reinvention of the market you serve, the product you create, the way you deliver, the way you understand your business reality and the way you realize your business potential.