Allowing any business to stagnate is dangerous. Most leaders are comfortable with reflecting on past successes and failures and committing vaguely to instituting improvements but don’t venture too far outside the lines. I believe real innovation demands destruction of a creative kind: a consistent breaking down to build something even better.
Sometimes innovation can be as simple as changing a single process. In my first vice president role, I got in trouble with the facilities department for taking my office door off its hinges so I could be more accessible to my team. It was worth it. That one action changed the communication dynamic and shifted dialogue from a vertical model — when it was only “open” in the sense that it suited managers — to truly collaborative and allowing for regular cross-organization discussion.
For creative destruction to be meaningful, it has to be systemic, rooted in the organization’s core. We’ve seen in recent years several large traditional retailers struggle with the notion of inviting and even pursuing constant change. These companies might have 40 or 50 years of experience and have in place legacy processes and cultures that have remained mostly static throughout that time. In other words, they’re deeply resistant to meaningful innovation, let alone creative destruction.
A shift in power
Before the dawn of the internet, a company could get by with merely being the most obvious or only choice available to a consumer. Now the consumer holds all the power, armed with an abundance of product information and choice available to them. To survive and thrive in a world where this power dynamic has shifted, retailers have to be agile.
Great retailers (and great companies in general) must be able and willing to change iteratively based on recent results, fresh insights, and continually shifting markets. They consistently ask themselves what aspects of their customer experience separate them from their competitors. Is it quality, choice, exclusivity, design, price? More than one of these?
Once companies establish these clear points of differentiation and specialty, they can put into place any necessary components that are missing to deliver a great customer experience, before circling around and asking the question again.
One major consumer technology retailer I worked for launched its biggest-ever strategic initiative in which it tasked hundreds of key people from the organization with coming up with an entirely new operating model. The result? Customer-centricity. The creative destruction of the business—which had previously prioritized a merchant driven strategy—saw it re-built with the core focus on the customer experience. That shift led to a series of key ongoing pivots, which ultimately led to enormous future success and a cultural model built around constant change and upheaval.
Personal creative destruction
Creative destruction can be valuable on a personal level, too. The most successful leaders I’ve worked with are those who built broad networks of talented people within their organizations by diligently training close-knit teams and creatively destroying them to export talent away where it makes the most sense for the company. Even if that means having these talented employees move to a completely different department.
Innovation can be a painful process and will inevitably create tension, even with leaders who are winning every race they enter. After a CEO I worked with made the cover of Forbes magazine, we went to congratulate him. But the CEO said the Forbes cover was terrible news. “This could go to all of our heads,” he said. “If everyone basks in this glory and thinks everything’s peachy, great creativity will come to a halt. To be the best we can be, we need to act every day like our business is on fire.”
Getting comfortable with discomfort
In some cases, disruption can go too far, but sometimes the only way to find the sweet spot is by trying uncomfortable practices and seeing what works and what doesn’t. It often won’t be fully recognizable if a systemic change has worked until you see the real results, which could come two or three years down the line. When the time has come to make a change, you have to pursue what you believe is right with as much conviction as you can, backed up with all of the evidence you have gathered.
If an organization is used to being creatively destroyed and built back up again, it’ll be better placed to react positively to change and be able to shift when necessary. Staff will develop agility and adaptability. Destruction, when undertaken in the right way, leaves fertile ground on which any business can grow.
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