Aside

Reinvention Really Sucks

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 is 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 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 organizations to do were simply 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” curve 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, 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 organization 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 math 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 organizations 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 organizations. ….. but the specifics of what is next, is fuzzy, at best.

You might wonder why I am sharing this moment so publically via this blog.

Well, I have been processing on this for the last few months; quietly and painfully; and I realize it is 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.

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10 Responses:

  1. BobWalsh. April 8, 2010 at 7:11 pm  |  

    @nilofer Nilofer – It.s always hard when you realize something you’ve strived for is just not working out. No easy answers, but you’ve got a lot of people out there who value what you’ve done, and who you are. Hang in there,

    Reply
  2. Nilofer Merchant. April 8, 2010 at 7:13 pm  |  

    Thanks, Bob – being transparent about what I’m learning is not easy but hopefully this blog post is followed by others where clarity of “what’s next” follows.

    Reply
  3. vik_sharma. April 8, 2010 at 7:19 pm  |  

    I have to say, this a bold step. Not many CEOs out there can do that. And, I don’t think it’s a defeat. It’s just that you’ve been looking at your customer’s issues more than the internal aspect. Your goal was to work for the customers and that you’ve been doing brilliantly (as you pointed out). However team is an important part of any business and maybe you weren’t just giving it enough importance.By figuring out the problem and more so posting it, I think you’ve showed how much you want to fix it. It can be hard to find equally motivated people within the team as the leader itself. And that lack of motivation can lead to something what you explained as : 1+1+1 = 2.9.I’m sure you know how to make things better as that’s what you do , right!Anyhow I’m glad there are people out there, like you who can admit what they haven’t been doing good. I’d love to work under a CEO like you. Best of Luck!

    Reply
  4. B2BGuru. April 8, 2010 at 7:22 pm  |  

    Niolofer, THANK YOU THANK YOU for sharing your expreience, from a fellow strategy consultant and author who is slowly, with constant internal debate, edging into that V. Having watched your brand grow and your firm gain recognition, the question is always, “how does she do it?” But reading about your experiences, I am very vividly reminded that reinvention is always a risky and completely unique and journey, no matter how many fantastic examples we use as role models.

    Reply
  5. thesethings (andy). April 8, 2010 at 7:57 pm  |   Reply
  6. Nilofer Merchant. April 8, 2010 at 8:03 pm  |  

    Vik – you raise a great point. Leadership is both about the outward facing role (vision, goals, strategy, wall-street management, financing, etc) and the inward facing (managing people to performance metrics, etc.). I know I suck at inward-facing and have failed to fill that role for the business. (some really killer stories of trying and failing to fill that role, that i’m sure i’ll find funnier later in my life.) Both roles must be filled for a business to thrive.

    Reply
  7. TalentSynch. April 8, 2010 at 8:28 pm  |  

    Nilofer – I admire and applaud your courageous and bold transparency. I think many companies (of all sizes) experience what you have and the difference is your willingness and desire to dive below the surface and find a way to make things work. Building something great is rarely linear. The persistent willingness to be aware and “present” is what shapes the path to newness and success. I know you will find the way and shape a new path and appreciate you sharing the journey – its a wonderful and rare gift.

    Reply
  8. TinaMBean. April 8, 2010 at 9:07 pm  |  

    Nilofer, keep your chin up and your eye on the goal. You’ve worked hard to assemble brilliant team members inside the walls of Rubicon. Such strong personalities don’t always play well with others.Don’t see this as a failure. When we reinvent, we get down to the bottom of what’s really important then build off of that. I forsee an even stronger Nilofer coming out of this–complete with Wonder Woman bracelets.Relish the gap. Your keen ability to focus your way through this will ensure even greater manifestations on the other end. I will be watching you from the sidelines (and across the street), cheering you on…Perhaps it’s time for the breaking glass?

    Reply
  9. ntarunkumar. April 9, 2010 at 5:47 am  |  

    Several CEO’s, especially in smaller firms, face the challenge of balancing between giving “more than 100%” to business (read:customers) and at the same time managing the growth resulting from it. And they falter. Not because they are not talented (it is not the CEO’s failure) but because in such a situation it really takes two (or more!) to tango. Having early on in the growth curve a strong internal/operations leader is absolutely vital in ensuring the “quality” of growth – and this includes parameters like (a) a collaborative culture, (b) a team aligned with the vision/mission, (c) enough internal bandwidth for non-urgent/non-customer related projects that form a building block for later initiatives/launches etc. Defining an organizational purpose, apart from pursuing the business purpose, goes hand-in-hand with customer development and investing in such resources is sine-qua-non to avoid situations you have just explained.Yes, what you mention is a wake-up call (certainly not a failure) for ushering in inovation WITHIN as much as you deliver it outside to your customers! I wish you good luck with your reinvention – will surely be watching it with interest (not to mention admiration!).Best regards,nt.arunkumar@gmail.com

    Reply
  10. evanleonard. April 28, 2010 at 4:53 am  |  

    Your honest disclosure is a welcome departure from the common hyperbole. Have you read “Seeing Systems” by Barry Oshry? Put simply: context matters. It sounds to me like you are experiencing that difference first hand. It is one thing to think how you will act in a certain situation. Its an entirely different thing to face it first hand. You are facing it first hand. This experience can, however, deepen your practice of helping others who also face with similar situations. The systemic pressures on “Tops”, people who direct or steer groups, are often under appreciated by those in the “Middle” or “Bottom” – usually because they are faced with their own unique pressures.Can you open a dialogue between these groups in your organization? Can you hit “pause” on the daily activities to shine a light on the persistent tensions? Is Rubicon able to be honest with itself?

    Reply

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