Can companies reinvent themselves in a down market?

April 2, 2009

Can companies reinvent themselves in a down market?

Many years ago I heard a story about how AT&T redesigned the phone network in the 1950s. It doesn’t really matter if it is true or not but it holds a valuable lesson. The story goes like this. In order for AT&T to take its telephony technology to the next level, it had to break the old model and start fresh. Management called all of its key engineers into a meeting and told them that the existing network had been destroyed and they had to start from scratch and design a new network.  And that is precisely what they did. They came up with a new design that was not burdened by the past.

What does this have to do with the world we are living in right now? I think that businesses have a unique opportunity to use this economic downturn to rethink the world.  What would we do if we could start over and reinvent the way we run a business or work with customers or design products that are more modular, more creative, and more accessible? What if the products and services we offer were blown up and we could start over?

I actually think that this may be happening behind the scenes. The really smart companies are using a time of crisis and uncertainty to prepare for the future. There will be a time in the future when customers will be more willing to buy products and services. There may be fewer providers in the world. The companies that survive and thrive are the ones that accept the chaos of the current business environment and see the hidden opportunities.

There is some very good thinking going on in companies that are blowing up their old models and thinking creatively. These companies will be the ones that become the powerful players in their markets in the future.  Who will the losers be? They are the companies that are filled with panic and looking for who to blame. So, whether you are in the technology market or in manufacturing or something completely different, it is a time to think about innovation and reinvention. It is time to rethink processes. Great companies are a combination of great flexible products and great innovative processes.

There are five things that future leaders should do:

1. Investigate your customers pain. What is it that they want that they can’t do. Even if their needs sound unsolvable, it may offer opportunities

2. Leverage emerging technologies. Leverage technology that lets your company explore its information about customers, product requirements, unsolved problems, and opportunities. This means that you need to stop looking in the rearview mirror at the past. Look at information in a way that allows you to anticipate the future and what is possible.

3. Don’t be held back by current reality. Clearly, you depend on revenue from existing products to stay afloat. However, think about your intellectual property in completely new ways.

4. Listen. I am finding that in this tough market people are doing more talking than listening. It is better to listen.

5. Experiment and fail. The only way to innovate is to try new things and fail. More innovation comes from failures than from initial success.

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About Judith Hurwitz

Judith Hurwitz is an author, speaker and business technology consultant with decades of experience.

  1. Judith, I made a minor edit

    “The really smart companies do not wait for a time of crisis and uncertainty to prepare for the future.”


    I believe you’re thinking of the following quote attributed to Rita Mae Brown, from her 83 novel “Sudden Death”: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

  2. Judith, this is a thoughtful and accurate opinion of what companies need to focus on in difficult times (good times too- which far too few realize). It is said that, doing the exact same thing and expecting different outcomes is hallucination. New approaches focused on addressing real customer needs will set the winners apart from the rest…

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