There’s a lot written about — and entire businesses dedicated to — transforming organisations to make them fit for the future. These industrial-era firms, or ‘dinosaurs’, present with symptoms that suggest potential extinction, and the impulse is to save them. We fight lack of direction with manifestos, silo-d teams with culture re-boots, R&D free-fall with innovation labs, slow decision making with agile processes, and corporate paralysis with defibrillatory workshops, tools, events, recruitment and moonshots. Everyone wants the dinosaur to live. But is that always the humane option?
Last week I met up with another Wolff Olins alum, Nick Keppel-Palmer. Although we never worked with each other directly (he left before I joined), his reputation and approach for saving big dinosaurs endured. As our conversation turned to this subject, I expected him to make the case for survival. Instead, he suggested the opposite, “What if we just let them die?”
If it hadn’t have been lunchtime, I would have ordered a proper drink right about now because this was interesting. What if we let them die? What if we helped them to die? Why had noone suggested this before? As Nick explained…
The weird thing is that all the best companies started life by doing something good and new that the world needed. The big car companies, supermarkets, energy companies, even the banks all started life making it easier for people to live, or move, or eat, or prosper. Their value was in what they did for us, not in what they had.
But at some point each and every one of them stopped looking outwardly to find what new value they could create, and instead became defined and confined by the value inside — everything they had under their big roofs and behind their thick walls.
The problem nowadays is that pretty much all of that value, that external value that makes it possible for humans to do new stuff and to live better, is coming not from old ultra efficient dinosaurs but from start ups that exist only to create the new, not to replicate the old.
Now, I don’t think that either of us are suggesting that start ups win, and now it’s time to go on some global spree, powering down the Fortune 500 one by one “for their own good”. But I like that, for some, it could be an option. I like the idea that after time, consideration and exploration of all other solutions, there’s an acceptance that the list of symptoms is just too long and a dinosaur can be laid to rest.
Because the great thing about letting a dinosaur die, is that it can then come back as something else. Free from the problems that killed it, it has the potential to reincarnate with the strengths that kept it going so long in the first place. Strengths like people, market understanding, consumer insight, networks, real estate and IP.
What’s important to remember, is that this shouldn’t be about making room for another generation of dinosaurs. In fact, we’re already seeing once nimble, responsive organisations grow lumbering and lost. For Nick, it’s about approaching companies in the way we’re starting to approach work,
No jobs for life, work defined by outputs and creativity not by inputs and time, portfolio existence, a much more dynamic value exchange between employer and employee which is defined as temporary at the outset, with the expectation that continuation is the exception not the norm. What if we treated companies the same way?! Wouldn’t it be great……?
Subscribing to this philosophy, means believing that organisations could become just as flexible and transient as the people that work for them. They are small, efficient and fast — creating value where it’s needed before changing into something else. We are already seeing flashes of this approach in ‘pivoting’, but it’s positioned in the context of failure. What if companies weren’t built to endure and grow old, but to live short but beautiful lives?
So, the next time you’re faced with a brief that reads like a list of symptoms, or a team trying to solve problems within the very framework that created them, maybe it’s ok to accept that treatment won’t lead to a cure. Let go of what can no longer evolve, and move forward with what can. From the dinosaurs came the birds. Time to die.
With thanks to Nick Keppel-Palmer for his insights and input to this piece. Image by Howard Grey.