Survival 101: You Must Continually Reinvent and Redefine, Part IAs a CIO, you are keenly aware that rapid change in business and technology is the “new normal.” However, in the 21st Century, “change” is actually too weak a descriptor.

Today, it’s all about transformation. This means you can’t go backward, and you can’t stand still. You can’t rest on your laurels and you can’t keep doing what you’ve always done — even if you do your best to keep doing it better.

The only way for your company to survive, let alone thrive, is to continuously reinvent and redefine.

Reinvent and redefine what? Everything.

Today’s transformation is an accelerated, magnified force of change. Redefining and reinventing is a way of harnessing that wild horse and hooking it to a product, a service, an industry, or a career.

In a sense, transformation is a hard trend (a Definite), while reinvention is a soft trend (a Maybe). Transformation is going to happen, all around us and to us, whether we want it to or not. Reinvention, on the other hand, will happen only if we make the decision to do it. If we don’t, someone else will.

In the coming years, dramatic new developments are going to be flying at you so fast, from so many places and so many competitors, that it will be easier than ever to become overwhelmed. In a transformational time, disruption multiplies. The only solution to this increasing dilemma is to become experts at reinventing our companies, our products, our services … essentially everything we do.

Lee Iacocca and Hal Sperlich reinvented an entire marketplace in 1983 when they redefined the family station wagon. At the time, station wagon sales were not growing, even though baby boomers were in their prime childbearing years and the nation was bursting with new families.

A puzzle: why, if they needed the product, were they not buying the product? Because purchases are more emotional than logical, and are often statements of identity as much as—or more than—a rational act of fulfilling a practical need. Baby boomers may have needed a set of wheels with substantial family room, but they did not want to look and act just like their parents, even if that’s exactly what they were doing most of the time. Baby boomers did not want to identify themselves as a generation of people who drive station wagons.

But vans? They were kind of cool (at the time)—and more important, their parents never drove vans. Chrysler introduced the Dodge Caravan in November 1983, creating an entire automotive category—the minivan—that they would continue to dominate for the next quarter century. It was a stroke of flash foresight, based on the hard trend of baby boomers and their needs (along with the eternal insight that people don’t want to look or act like their parents).

It used to be that corporate and product reinvention was an option; today it is an imperative. We live today in a unique context, an environment we’ve never seen or experienced before. We have never had this kind of processing power and bandwidth, this kind of runaway acceleration in technological capacity, and it has completely transformed our relationship to the concept of stability. In the past, stability and change were two contrasting states: when you achieved stability, you did so despite change. Today change itself has become an integral part of stability: today you can achieve stability only by embracing change as a continuous and permanent state.

In the past, great companies and great figures like Iacocca might innovate and then go for another decade before doing anything innovative again. In those days, that worked. It doesn’t work anymore. The world has changed, and more important, change itself has changed. Information and new knowledge now travel around the world at the speed of light, and technological innovation proceeds at close to the speed of thought. Today you cannot just reinvent now and then: to survive and thrive in a time of vertical change, you have to be redefining and reinventing yourself continuously.

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—and 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, et al.) 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 like Amazon and, 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 cannot.

Barnes & Noble decided that a bookstore should be more than a place to shop and buy books. Before Amazon and the Web came along, Barnes 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.