Many years ago, I worked for a well-known software firm. As head of product marketing, my job was to figure out what we needed to add to our products to meet the changing needs of our customers, then explain those new features first to development, then to the world.
One Wednesday morning I had a meeting with the CEO and most of top management, where I described our customer base, discussed the current limitations in our products and outlined a strategic development direction for the next year.
At the end of my presentation, the CEO leaned back and said: “Son, people have been happily buying our products for the last five years. They will continue to buy them for the next five years. We need to concentrate on taking this company public.”
It was a massively myopic statement. In software, you are only as good as your last release. The layoffs started four months later and the company never recovered.
At the heart of any creative effort is a balance between change and tradition; the struggle to convey eternal truths in new ways. Over 100 years ago, Sir Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch wrote that there are only seven basic themes or plots, yet all these years later we still find new ways to tell them.
Philip Hodgetts sparked this train of thought during his interview New Year’s Eve on the Digital Production Buzz. When I asked Philip about what he expected for 2016, he said that he expected the tech industry to slow down. “For example, the camera industry has discovered that they can’t keep obsoleting their cameras every 18 months and still expect people to buy them. The industry will shift from constant obsolescence to continued refinement.”
I’m heading to CES 2016 this week which always focuses me on the turmoil in our industry. New products are released before the old ones have had a chance to catch hold. It feels like new products succeed more by accident than by intent.
This constant on-rush of new and improved products has a further down-side: products change so quickly that we hesitate to buy because whatever we buy today will be obsolete by next week.
I call this “Purchase Paralysis.” Worse, this waiting to buy reduces the money flowing back to developers, who then frantically release more new products in hopes one of them will spur sales. This creates a vicious cycle of faster development cycles tied to slower purchase cycles.
The solution isn’t replacement, but refinement.
In these turbulent technical times, it is very easy to pull back – to keep on doing what we’ve been doing. But this becomes a trap. First, because if there is no growth, our creativity becomes stale; new projects become “paint-by-numbers” replications. Second, because somewhere out there, someone else isn’t phoning it in.
Apple is justly famous for creating products that build on the past and, ultimately, replace it. (To quote Quiller-Couch, again, “murder your darlings.”) Rather than playing it safe, Apple keeps pushing the envelope. Why? Because if they don’t, someone else will. Apple wants to be in charge of its own destiny.
This constant growth also needs to be true for us. If we don’t reinvent ourselves creatively, someone else will do it for us; and, suddenly, we find ourselves on the sidelines watching the parade pass us by.
Reinvention is hard because it is so easy to do nothing. Last November, I set myself the goal of going to the gym four days a week. But, when the alarm wakes me at 6:30 each morning, it is SO much easier to just roll back under the covers and tell myself that “I’ll go tomorrow, instead.” Change requires a major act of will.
Reinvention doesn’t mean scrapping everything we’ve done in the past and starting afresh. Reinvention, to me, means building on what we’ve done and make it better. “Test everything; hold fast to that which is good,” Paul writes in Thessalonians. This also means that we need to let go of what hasn’t worked in the past.
One of my favorite lectures to my college students focusses on how to get a job. (Hint: You don’t find work by emailing resumes to Facebook contacts.) During that class I tell them that all our lives we focus on what we are not – our weaknesses – and wish they didn’t exist. Instead, we need to concentrate on our strengths. But figuring out what our strengths are is difficult – because our strengths are just who we are. We’ve always had them and, thus, take them for granted.
A great way to figure out what you are good at is to invite a friend to lunch and have them describe what they see as your strengths. I guarantee that they will point out strengths that you’ve never considered before. The first time I did this was an eye-opening experience. Then, do the same thing with a few clients: ask them why they like working with you. Again, you’ll discover that what they value is not what you expect.
You may think it’s your ability to stay under budget, only to discover they like your sense of humor and ability to work under pressure. Find your strengths, then build on them. Don’t let yourself stand still – the world is moving too fast.
Reinvention is a necessary part of life, otherwise we stagnate. We live in a time where creativity is bounded by technological change. It is easy to become overwhelmed and keep doing what we’ve always done. But this builds a firm path to irrelevance.
In spite of all the shouting, noise and confusion, there are only seven plots. Our job – as always – is to find new and compelling ways to tell them. And, just as our stories need to evolve, so do we.
The process of reinvention is hard work and scary; there’s no guarantee of future rewards. The status quo is tempting because it’s easy; we know how to do it. But it’s a trap.
The way to our best work is to build on the past: keep the good stuff and refine the rest.
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