Survival 101: You Must Continually Reinvent and Redefine, Part I

As a member of the C-suite, you now have an urgent question in front of you: Are your customers changing faster than you are? Are they learning faster than you are? Because they are changing and learning fast, if you are not already designing and providing the solutions to the problem they are going to have next week and next year, you are behind a curve you cannot afford to be behind.

Reinvent everything

Realize that redefine and reinvent is not only about transforming the products and services we offer, it’s about transforming how we do everything.

For example, Amazon redefined not only the bookstore but also the shopping experience itself. Southwest redefined the air travel experience; transforming our expectations of something costly, inconvenient, and irritating to something inexpensive, easy, and enjoyable. Apple redefined the PC and has continued to redefine everything it touches, from phones to how we listen to music to how we purchase entertainment.

Reinventing is not the same thing as adding a feature, a tweak, or a twist. Once something is reinvented, it never goes back to being the way it was before because reinvention harnesses the power of transformation. Blogs redefined the news industry. Twitter reinvented blogs and communication. Mark Burnett (creator of Survivor, The Apprentice , etc.) reinvented television.

Now here’s an interesting question: When the American auto industry collapsed in 2009, instead of giving federal bailouts to bankrupt GM and Chrysler so they could go back to doing business the same old way, why did we not use the catastrophe as an opportunity to completely reinvent the American automobile?

Unfortunately, it’s human nature to dig in our heels, protect and defend our existing turf. How do we get past that reflex and build our businesses and our lives on a foundation of continuous self-reinvention?

Forget the competition

One way to get past the protect-and-defend impulse is to jettison some of our most cherished core principles of the competitive marketplace — principles that used to work. In fact, we need to redefine and reinvent the concept of competition itself.

When it comes to the competitive environment, there are two things you can be sure of: 1) competition is more intense today than it was a year ago, and 2) a year from now it will be even more so.

How will you survive in an increasingly competitive world? By not competing.

The old rule was to do what the other guy is doing, only do it either cheaper or better. Price and quality. These are the two great classic parameters of competition. But in a world gone vertical, this entire concept is obsolete. As change accelerates and pressure increases, there is a natural tendency to focus on what the competition is doing, but doing so is a recipe for disaster, because it mires you in a futile and never ending game of catch-up while distracting your focus away from where it needs to be: on the visible future.

Trying to compete is a scarcity-thinking game. The organizations that are winning in the new century don’t bother competing. Instead, they leapfrog the competition by redefining anything and everything about their business.

For example, Marlin Steel Wire Products, a Baltimore-based manufacturing company, faced stiff and growing competition from China and its incredibly low labor costs, until president Drew Greenblatt decided to stop trying to play the competition game.

Leaving the low-margin end of the market to the Chinese, Greenblatt automated his production line and began specializing in more high-end products like antimicrobial baskets for restaurant kitchens, finding customers for his higher-priced product line in places like Japan and Belgium. Marlin’s sales grew from $800,000 in 1998 to $3 million in 2007.

Earlier, I mentioned that Amazon redefined both the bookshop and the shopping experience. Brick and mortar bookstores that compete on price have been, for the most part, driven out of business by online bookstores, which offer an unbeatable combination of price, convenience, and book availability. In the late nineties, people were predicting that the huge Barnes & Noble superstores would disappear. But they didn’t. The brick and mortar Barnes & Noble stores survived because they provide an experience that online shopping could not.

Barnes & Noble decided that a bookstore should be more than a place to shop and buy books. Before Amazon and the Web came along, B&N reinvented the book-buying experience based on a blinding flash of the obvious: most people who go into bookstores love books and reading. So why not provide them a place to do that? They created a unique and total experience focusing on the joy of reading, lifelong learning, and discovery, a place where you could relax, read, and learn, and not just shop.

Amazon used technology to redefine how we shop for books, but Barnes & Noble found and focused on their uniqueness, doing what their competitor couldn’t.

Note that Barnes & Noble competed based not on price but on customer experience. Shopping at Wal-Mart is not a great experience, but you can’t beat their prices: they compete on price. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream tastes good, but they don’t compete on just taste, or on price — they compete on values: Ben & Jerry’s has been a strong advocate (and financial contributor) for various social issues from their earliest days in business. Zappos competes on customer service. Apple competes on design, customer experience, and innovation.

Here is a partial list of all the things you can compete on:

  • Price
  • Reputation
  • Image
  • Service
  • Quality
  • Design
  • Time/Speed
  • Values
  • Customer experience
  • Innovation
  • Knowledge
  • Loyalty

And there are more. You could compete on just one item from this list, or two, but why not use reinvent and redefine to compete on them all? Look at each one and ask, “How can I redefine how we compete on _____” and then fill in the blank. If you don’t, someone else will. Look for Part II of this article on CIOUpdate on August 31st.

Daniel Burrus is considered one of the world’s leading technology forecasters and business strategists, and is the founder and CEO of Burrus Research, a research and consulting firm that monitors global advancements in technology driven trends to help clients better understand how technological, social and business forces are converging to create enormous, untapped opportunities. He is the author of six books, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal best seller Flash Foresight: How To See the Invisible and Do the Impossible as well as the highly acclaimed Technotrends.