As the new year approached, discussions with family and friends turned as usual to thoughts about the future. But of course 2016 was anything but usual. As a result, everyone was anxiously debating what changes, for better or worse, lay ahead.
Trying to steer one heated conversation away from pure politics, I brought up an article I had just read in the Wall Street Journal: “The Economy’s Hidden Problem: We’re Out of Big Ideas.” According to the author, the reasons for this problem are various – from growing “hurdles for transforming ideas into commercially successful products” to costly, complex and failure-prone advances in science, medicine and technology to an aversion to real trial and error to government regulation. Whether you agree with some or all of these reasons, the author argues, one thing is certain: America needs to become “more tolerant of risk to help overcome the hurdles to innovation” and “the pursuit of what’s next”
“Exactly! Big growth and big change requires new and big ideas with no fear!” exclaimed one of my friends who commented on the article. “This is a time for entrepreneurs to create new things to generate new opportunities.” I looked around the table and those who were listening were all nodding. I wasn’t.
Not that I disagree with the premise that America has become risk averse and that we must be fearless in our pursuit of opportunities. But I don’t agree that the biggest growth opportunities exist solely in the pursuit of “the new” or “outside the box” thinking. Yet that’s what I keep reading and hearing.
For example, the December Harvard Business Review featured an article “Mapping Frontier Economies” in which the authors stated: “Global players in search of double-digit growth are running out of opportunities. Emerging-market giants such as Brazil, Russia, and China are experiencing an economic slowdown.” The solution? Look to the 19 “frontier economies” like Myanmar, Mozambique, Vietnam and Rwanda – countries possessing one or more of three characteristics: faltering prosperity, corruption, and arbitrary enforcement of rules. All 19 are expected to be in the top 25 fastest growing economies over the next five years and, the authors argue, the “risks are overblown.”
Wait, the path for growth is so bleak here that we have to look to Mozambique rather than Michigan? Trust me, after decades working for and with big businesses, I understand the pressure to build the bottom line. But are the biggest opportunities only in countries in some cases not yet a generation removed from genocide? Is this a result of thinking that we must – but can’t – create new things and thus seize opportunities in the United States to grow?
The problem is we're failing to see that we don't have to create “new” things. We have our own frontier economy opportunity to reinvent existing things to not just change in America but evolve.
I get that this is a time of great uncertainty and no one – and I mean no one on any side of the political aisle, let alone me – has all the answers. But the more we force ourselves to think what’s and where’s through the lens of reinvention we avoid the complacency that got us into this mess in the first place. And until you make the choice to reinvent you may never know just how complacent you were. About growth. About opportunity. About jobs. About people.
We must stop focusing on the holy grail of the new and begin to focus on reinvention to evolve those opportunities that are right in front of us. Which brings me to the first of three steps leaders and organizations must take to start solving for the right growth opportunities.
1. Evolve within the box.
Stop using the expression “think outside the box” and start thinking more strategically within it to reinvent the things that are right in front of us.
We are experiencing the reinvention of our economy – or rather it must be reinvented so we can grow and prosper from a greater awareness and strategic use of our own resources. This is the difference between innovation and invention. We don’t have to invent new things in order to have a frontier economy. Old ideas only become old because we restrict them from evolving and just repackage the old templates.
We see this happening all around us on a smaller scale: companies re-purpose old wood for picture frames or advertisers finding new ways to present sponsored content. Why can’t we do this with everything and everyone by helping old conversations evolve and bring everyone into the conversation? When we talk about “change,” people feel like they are part of the problem, when we talk about “evolution,” they feel like they are part of and influence the solution. That’s how you rebuild trust – the foundation for reinvention.
2. Actually know who you solve for – not just what you sell.
A client recently asked me how his business could sell more to multicultural consumers. I told him he would never know if he kept asking the wrong question and thus solving for the wrong opportunity. He needed to go deeper into what his business was solving for or his business would never evolve its thinking and reinvent what it was doing to seize that growth opportunity.
It is not just about “what” we are solving; it’s about “who” we are solving for. There are greater dependencies around solutions these days. If we don’t know what they are, we tend to retreat, grow complacent, and perpetuate the silos, instead of leading new conversations much like we do in serving the unique needs of everyone. The question my client needed to ask was: What are my company’s goals with respect to who I am serving in the workplace and the marketplace and how does this help us have the right conversation around and thus solve for the needs of multicultural consumers? In other words, it's not about how do I sell more or market more effectively; it’s about broadening our perspectives to see the mosaic of differences that make up our ecosystems today.
3. Think “individual” not “business.”
I was watching the original Miracle on 34th Street (1947) over Christmas and one scene was especially relevant to how we must think today. Specifically, I leaned in as Kris Kringle, the Macy's Santa, ignores a corporate directive and sends a customer to Gimbel’s across the street to find the toy she needs. When the customer tells the manager that Macy’s has earned a loyal customer, Macy’s turns it into its new policy: If we don’t have it, we’ll help you find someone who does.
You don’t have to believe in Santa to know this is a perfect example of what we once understood and must again: That business today is becoming less about the business defining the individual than the individual defining the business.
I’ve said that many times before, but I want to be clear that, like the scene in the movie, this does not mean sell to one person at a time. It's not that everyone wants something different; it's that there are a lot of different people out there who want to express their individuality. Simply put, we must embrace those differences or we will only influence the people who already agree with you or are already receptive to what we have to say.
Fact of the matter is most people are not receptive: They are disconnected, because they don’t see themselves reflected and respected anymore in what you are doing, saying, and selling. Individuals don't want brands to define them anymore. Case in point? The Wall Street Journal reported a growing consumer movement to remove logos from sunglasses, shoes, and clothing – even the iconic Lacoste crocodile. According to one customer, who loves the Lacoste quality but resents being used as a marketing platform: “Why would I do someone else’s advertising for free?”
To reach this customer and the millions we fail to see every day, we need leaders with strong identities who provide clarity and understanding for what their leadership solves for – leaders who have a strong identity that supports their personal reinvention efforts to be more purposeful, responsible, and accountable in how they lead and influence others. To do this, leaders must embrace a new mindset – an innovation mentality mindset.
Simply put, everyone talks about innovation but what we lack is an innovation mentality to evolve. The innovation mentality is a paradigm shift back to what we have lost and need to regain in business and in life for the renewal, reinvention, and survival America and indeed the world needs.