Reverse the story

Reverse the story - image for article by Greg Alder

If you’re not an architect of change, you will be its victim.

The fields of history are littered with the carcasses of those who were looking the other way when change happened.

The industrial revolution triggered a connected chain of events. Factories replaced cottage industries. Factories changed how we generated energy. Factories lured people away from small rural communities to cities.

Many smaller textiles producers that couldn’t compete with the speed and scale of the big factories disappeared. As artisan producers, they probably never even saw the massive new textile factories as serious competition. Until too late.

In the early 1980s, two companies were making the world’s best typewriters – IBM and Olivetti. Within a few years of the appearance of desktop computers, Olivetti had all but disappeared from office desks.

Kodak had always thought its business was film. The company didn’t take digital processing seriously. Understandable. After all, early digital processing was of pretty poor quality. Certainly no match for Kodak’s best film. If Kodak had redefined itself as being in the memories business, they would have recognised digital as simply a second way to capture those memories. They didn’t.

Polaroid made the same mistake.

In the 1990s, technology was revolutionising the advertising industry, even the creative side in which I worked. Before the 90s, art directors used to scribble their layout on a restaurant serviette and give it to the studio to be turned into something good enough to go to a client. As the industry embraced computers, art directors were forced to learn to use computer software. Some couldn’t embrace the technology. They’re no longer working as art directors.

Artisan fabric weavers, Olivetti, Kodak, Polaroid and old-school art directors would have hankered for the good old days.

Unfortunately, if change has started, you cannot undo it. You cannot wish it away.

You can do two things.

You can embrace the change, be part of it. This requires clairvoyance and courage. You need to believe that this change signals the future. And you need to be brave enough to let go of the past. Neither is easy.

The alternative strategy is to make the change irrelevant. How? Reframe the reference. Leapfrog the change.

A random example? Say you manufacture house paint. One of your competitors has produced a paint incorporating new science that means the paint endures for 20 years. You could get your R&D department to analyse your competitor’s technology and launch a similar product. Or you could diversify from paint and develop a surface that is impregnated with colour and never needs painting.

In one stroke, you have rendered your competitor’s advantage irrelevant.

Now you’re the change-maker, your competitors the followers. Now your task is to simply stay ahead. How? Well, how about a wall surface that can be made any colour at all from a smart phone app?

Too often we wish we could reverse the story, unmake something we don’t like.

This is our problem-focused mind at work.

Our solution-focused mind would use a disruption as a starting point for something bigger.

Reverse the story or change it. You decide.

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