Views of the forest are often obscured by the trees. This metaphor helps explain why General Electric is alone amongst the founding members of the Dow Jones to still be on that list of leading companies today. Even the biggest and best organisations fail to see the forest for the trees and throw away considerable advantages.
To stay ahead of the curve an organisation must change internally as rapidly as the world outside changes - for when the pace of external change outstrips that of internal change the organisation will struggle to adapt. In such organisations - especially very successful ones - a crystallisation forms: leaders seek to replicate success by trying to engineer defined outcomes through process optimisation; a focus on style rather than substance for initial success is often delivered by reinventing or breaking outmoded rules and processes.
‘Success’ in such organisations starts to become defined by internal measures, such as hierarchical position. Good functional specialists are promoted - often on the contribution they make to internal cohesion - to their own particular level of incompetence, replacing a much needed expert for another, far less needed, incompetent manager. Behaviour in such organisations is reinforced by “meaningless sloganising and mission statements” and the result is Kafkaesque - everyone knows the system is ineffective but are powerless to change it.
But change is a constant and organisations failing to recognise this - and adapt accordingly - risk becoming the walking dead - like the founding Dow Jones alumni of 120 years ago. Today’s increasingly rapid pace of change requires organisations to be ready to undertake change far more often. Doing so at the peak of their current development (S) curve - while resources are still abundant - enables them to act from a position of strength. Doing so only after new technologies or approaches dominate the market - which has likely already started to eat into your competitive advantage and reserves - is a strategic error. Change may not kill you straight away, but it inflicts a heavy enough blow that will eventually: leaving you a zombie organisation.
Dell developed the vacant stare of the zombie prior to its buyout last year. The computer firm hadn’t made the leap to the new ’S’ curve while they were riding high. Now, they are busily sinking money from declining PC sales to finance a belated move into services, storage and software. Time will tell whether this shuffle has enough momentum for them to survive and thrive again. Another one to watch out for is yesterday’s behemoth, Microsoft. Is your organisation next?