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  • How Sudden Reversal of Failed Revolutionary Moves is Still Evolutionary
  • A business reinvents itself with a radical departure from its past, trying to improve its lackluster performance. But, the radical change fails to deliver desired results.

    Eventually, the company realizes that its revolutionary remake is not working as hoped. So, the reinvention is abruptly undone and the company quickly returns to what it was before its radical remake. The reinvention's reversal is sudden, not long and drawn out. And, there's no series of small, evolutionary steps taking the firm back to its pre-reinvention days. Instead, the reinvention is now seen as failure and is abruptly undone by quick, radical change to return the firm back to the pre-reinvention state.

    Is this radical shift to undo the reinvention revolution? Or, is it evolution?

    Just as conventional business wisdom harbors many myths, there can be confusion about what it means for companies to evolve. This is especially true in situations like the above where what it means to evolve may not be obvious.

    It is easy to view the abrupt reversal of a revolutionary remake as revolution, not evolution. After all, such a reversal happens quickly, unlike evolution, which takes place more gradually. Also, such a reversal entails a really big jump, which can seem just as revolutionary as the radical reinvention it is intended to undo. So, when a failed revolutionary reinvention is abruptly killed, rather than tweaked via evolutionary steps, it's easy to think that a company is making revolutionary moves rather than evolving.

    But, the sudden reversal of a failed revolutionary reinvention is actually evolutionary, not revolutionary. This kind of radical reversal is evolutionary because the reversal can return the business to its evolutionary path, a place from where a business is well equipped to evolve.

    A company can still apply whatever it learned from its revolutionary mishap, or salvage as much as is appropriate. But, the company must go back to evolving again in order to succeed. And, radical reversals of failed revolutionary reinventions are a direct route back to evolving. Then, it is up to the company to pick up the ball from there and take the steps to evolve.

    An example that helps clarify this recently appeared in a Business Week article about retailer Old Navy (December 7, 2009--also published November 25, 2009 as Business Week Retail Special Report). The article discusses Old Navy's aborted attempt to reinvent itself with a radical departure from its past. Old Navy's revolutionary reinvention entailed a shift from targeting moms to aiming at a younger, hipper market. The remake also shifted Old Navy to a creative management style markedly different from its previous approach.

    But, with an added stumbling block of a tanking economy, the revolutionary reinvention did not work as hoped. After a new CEO was brought in, Old Navy's revolutionary reinvention was abruptly killed. In the Business Week article, a former Old Navy executive who was quoted about the reinvention's halt said "We didn't evolve it... It was a fast death".

    Although Old Navy did not evolve the reinvention per se, the abrupt reversal is evolutionary because the reversal can take Old Navy back to its basics, putting it on a direct route back to evolving. Thus, by jettisoning its revolutionary reinvention, Old Navy can return to its evolutionary path. Then, Old Navy's challenge is to identify how the company will evolve and to do it.

    The evolutionary approach generally has greater success potential than a revolutionary reinvention that radically departs from the firm's past. Unless a company evolves, its success potential can be limited.

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