If you work in a firm struggling to redefine itself and maintain its relevance in this changing world, you’re not alone. You’re also involved in a battle for your firm’s life.

There’s a great article at HBR Blogs by Judith Hurwitz on the topical and timely example of this change battle being waged in front of our eyes at HP.  In her post, “Can HP Change Its DNA?” Hurwitz explores the challenges that hardware firms have in adopting software thinking and business models. The post is filled with relevant questions and ideas for anyone dealing with this Herculean challenge.

A Road Strewn with Wrecks

Certainly, the corporate history books are filled with great names of firms who failed to adapt and change with the times. For every Apple/Jobs, IBM/Gerstner and GE/Welch story, there are dozens of firms with formerly great household names that are no longer great or even good. Many are gone or on their way out.

I suspect there were more than a few smart people in those firms, yet through some combination of factors … poor leadership, the gravitational pull of an old, strong culture, pride and arrogance, dominant logic, management systems and technologies optimized for another era, etc. these firms failed to change and so, they failed.  

Experience Breeds Respect for the Magnitude & Complexity of Organizational Transformation

I’ve lived through this transformation three times as an employee … and learned something every time.

The first one failed. I recall sitting in the conference room as a young product manager, when the management team explained why we would never pursue the low-margin, low-end of the market when we were so dominant at the top end. It felt horribly wrong then and it’s painful to recall now. Perhaps a young Clay Christensen was listening in, because we had our butts disrupted right out of the marketplace.  

The second one worked on a concentrated level. This global firm had no idea how to promote systems and software ... it was hardware-centric and component oriented and wanted to get into the software and systems business. We built a nice business that for a good decade dominated market segments around the globe. We also spent a hell of a lot of time justifying our existence and trying to make the square peg of a software business model fit into a company that only understood the box and component model. Ultimately long after the founding/sponsoring team members moved on to new lives elsewhere, the gravitational pull of the low-margin, box oriented mentality sans support and significant R&D investments, returned to its roots. The unit is a shadow of its former self.

The third one … a pure software firm, succeeded in large part because the only change it had to make (I use “only” very loosely here), was the market focus. The business model was clear…the challenge was facilitating a culture shift into new, emerging and adjacent markets where the capabilities were highly valued. To the credit of the professionals in this firm, it ultimately worked very well. Nonetheless, transition was a bite…with many fits and starts and a lot of resistance. It worked, but it wasn’t a day at the beach. The lessons learned along the way are enough to fill a book. (Hmmm.)

No Easy Answers and a Resource

Instead of being prescriptive and proffering a list of easy-to-write, nearly impossible to replicate/implement suggestions, I’ll offer that helping a firm break free of the past is difficult at best and almost impossible in some circumstances. (OK, you can save the “thank you, Captain Obvious” messages.)

There must be a fierce corporate will to live … catalyzed by strong, united leadership and a workplace population dedicated to doing the messy, heavy lifting required for success in this difficult endeavor. Oh, and did I mention the courage and fortitude required to look around and say, “this all has to change,” and then to do it.

I’ve not yet found the magical answers for this (they don’t exist), however, for those involved in this effort of reinvention and revitalization, consider checking out Geoffrey Moore’s latest book, “Escape Velocity-Free Your Company’s Future from the Pull of the Past.” (Geoffrey is the Silicon-Valley consultant whose thinking and writings in “Crossing the Chasm,” “Inside the Tornado” and others has profoundly shaped strategy and execution in the tech sector for two decades.)

I caught up with Geoffrey last week to interview him for The Leadership Caffeine Podcast and I left the conversation convinced that his latest effort offers some important and much needed tools to guide us on this difficult journey. The framework of frameworks that he offers and the approaches for rethinking the business from the outside in, will be incredibly useful along the way. More on this when I run the interview.

If you’ve lived through and succeeded in one of these endeavors, I suspect we would all like to hear your ideas on what worked and what didn’t. There are more than a few out there with a lot riding on getting this right.

This blog originally appeared at artpetty.com.

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