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Nilofer Merchant is CEO and Chief Strategist of Rubicon Consulting. She’s also the author of “The New How.” This post was originally published on her blog, and is republished with permission.To all those leaders I have worked with to reinvent their companies, you can now smack me. Hard. Forget that Reinvention is the right thing and all that other crap I told you and that it’s necessary to move forward. I’ve changed my mind. Reinvention sucks.
Reinvention was once delightful. Besides helping many a client handle complex acquisition integration or revamping a $200M product portfolio or whatever…. I’ve done a bunch of these personal reinventions myself. Over the last 10 years, I’ve migrated my company from product level projects to company-level projects; Rubicon started with “just” me but over time grew its capabilities with some pretty exceptional people and its’ brand is known by many. But the Reinvention process I’ve been going through this last year is has made me question what I really know about it…
Two and half years ago I began to consider the idea of writing a book. That first consideration eventually resulted in the publishing of The New How by O’Reilly in January 2010. For most of the duration of the book project, I saw it as a way to reduce the recurring need to explain my strengths and approach in creating strategies that worked. By accelerating that process, my hope was that I would be able to spend more time on strategic problem solving. And, sure, a MAJOR benefit also happened: I would be able to articulate and evangelize my ideas about decentralizing power, valuing diversity of opinion, and specifically how to translate big ideas like “engagement” and “collaboration” into a specific and competitive process tool.
Looking back on the experience, I can now understand why we sometimes hear about virtuosos reinventing themselves at what seems to be the top of their game. I was a CEO of a well-known, regional firm, our reputation and brand were impeccable, and my team and I were working with some incredible leaders across many companies. We loved what we did to help high-tech companies find and win markets. We loved getting the call after a McKinsey project went south to create strategies that worked. The outcomes we created and enabled organisations to do were —using a too overused word — amazing.
I can now admit that 2+ years ago, there was a lot about my job that I was not enjoying. Rubicon was getting stuck on the verge of what a wise friend (Steve Plume) calls the dreaded “V” of professional services. The “V” represents the shape of a graph that shows revenue on the vertical axis versus number of employees on the horizontal access. Individuals with my kind of talent make good money as a solo practitioner, but as you grow into a boutique firm you actually make less money as you add people. You add more value to the client if done right — which Rubicon did do. If you make it across the inflection point by being known for something, and being able to consistently deliver on that something, you can become a big firm that thrives. But in between the individual and the big firm, there is a scaling problem, and it’s quite tricky to make the leap across the dreaded “V”. IDEO and other firms have made it to the other side; Rubicon has not.
For some 3 years, I have worked very hard to scale Rubicon. I hired some exceptional people, I created new roles, I invested in training and encouraged people to rise above…and I worked hard at aligning people on our shared vision/mission/strategy. Year after year, however, we failed to achieve our organizational goals. Year after year. And each year, there was a different set of reasons. Changes would take place, adjustments to strategy were made and new efforts put into place. After 2 years (of topline growth and client successes but internal failure), I called in the cavalry to better diagnose the issues; I hired a good organizational development firm, Red Ember. Red Ember perceptions helped clarify the issues and they facilitated a discussion where everyone saw the issues. They said the “Rubicon team didn’t want to work with each other, and didn’t collaborate. While we continued to deliver great value for clients, it was Nilofer’s (my) was often playing a “duct tape and glue” role to make sure that happened, because the organisation was unable to do it systemically. Red Ember netted it out to say I had a firm of people who when added up were 1+1+1 = 2.9 instead of 1+1+1 = 5.” Sorry for the bad maths example, but that was their description and it held true. I tried for most of 2009 to change things, but nothing seemed to work. While I’ve been able to help other organisations accelerate growth through collaboration, I clearly lacked the skills/perspective/people/whatever to do it for or at Rubicon.
I admit that I have failed in something I highly value.
The upshot of all this is that I have decided to change the way that I work. I don’t quite know what this reinvention will look like for me or for Rubicon when it’s over. That’s the part that totally sucks. The good part is that I know what I am personally good at, where the company can add value, that The New How is being well received, and I have a relatively clear vision for what I might like to see done in the world to enable leaders to embed collaborative work into their organisations.
….. but the specifics of “what’s next” is fuzzy, at best.
You might wonder why I am sharing this moment so publicly via this blog. Well, I have been processing on this for the last few months — quietly and painfully — and I realise it’s not helping me move forward. By writing and sharing I am effectively admitting defeat at knowing what is the right move and implicitly asking for advice, help, support by my community.
Nilofer Merchant, CEO, strategist and author, is a leading authority on creating business strategy to achieve success. She has honed her unique, collaborative approach to solving tough problems while working with and for companies like Adobe, Apple, Nokia, HP and others. Her book, The New How: Creating Business Solutions through Collaborative Strategy, is available for order now at Amazon.
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