Sooner or later, all businesses, even the most successful, run out of room to grow. Faced with this unpleasant reality, they are compelled to reinvent themselves periodically. The ability to pull off this difficult feat—to jump from the maturity stage of one business to the growth stage of the next—is what separates high performers from those whose time at the top is all too brief.
The potential consequences are dire for any organization that fails to reinvent itself in time. As Matthew S. Olson and Derek van Bever demonstrate in their book Stall Points, once a company runs up against a major stall in its growth, it has less than a 10% chance of ever fully recovering. Those odds are certainly daunting, and they do much to explain why two-thirds of stalled companies are later acquired, taken private, or forced into bankruptcy.
There’s no shortage of explanations for this stalling—from failure to stick with the core (or sticking with it for too long) to problems with execution, misreading of consumer tastes, or an unhealthy focus on scale for scale’s sake. What those theories have in common is the notion that stalling results from a failure to fix what is clearly broken in a company.
Having spent the better part of a decade researching the nature of high performance in business, we realized that those explanations missed something crucial.
Companies fail to reinvent themselves not necessarily because they are bad at fixing what’s broken, but because they wait much too long before repairing the deteriorating bulwarks of the company. That is, they invest most of their energy managing to the contours of their existing operations—the financial S curve in which sales of a successful new offering build slowly, then ascend rapidly, and finally taper off—and not nearly enough energy creating the foundations of successful new businesses. Because of that, they are left scrambling when their core markets begin to stagnate.
In our research, we’ve found that the companies that successfully reinvent themselves have one trait in common. They tend to broaden their focus beyond the financial S curve and manage to three much shorter but vitally important hidden S curves—tracking the basis of competition in their industry, renewing their capabilities, and nurturing a ready supply of talent. In essence, they turn conventional wisdom on its head and learn to focus on fixing what doesn’t yet appear to be broken.
Thrown a Curve Making a commitment to reinvention before the need is glaringly obvious doesn’t come naturally. Things often look rosiest just before a company heads into decline: Revenues from the current business model are surging, profits are robust, and the company stock commands a hefty premium. But that’s exactly when managers need to take action.