I’ve been slightly surprised by the amount of coverage generated by the one-off reunion of Led Zeppelin earlier this week. Although I wasn’t one of the one million people who tried to get tickets for their performance at the O2 I do remember them from the 1970s when their concerts were major events – but typically only got coverage in the likes of New Musical Express and Melody Maker rather than the mainstream media.
But although it’s tempting to write a piece about how baby-boomer rock’n’rollers are now running (or perhaps that should be ruining) things and how what was once seen as alternative and radical has been co-opted into the mainstream it struck me that there is a parallel with the world of business innovation.
In the same way that rock bands can go in and out of fashion, ideas in business come and go and what was once seen as brave and innovative can seem old hat. This doesn’t mean that the original idea was a bad one. Take business reengineering for example – one of the most radical, and most maligned, ideas of the early 1990s. Few people now would dispute the benefits of re-aligning your organisation around customers and applying radical surgery to your processes to improve service and cut costs. However, after many projects failed to live up to their initial promise many people became sceptical about the feasibility and benefits of such an exercise.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that business reengineering should be dropped, never to be re-considered. The tools and techniques of BPR – along with a great many other management ‘fads’ – are too useful for that. Instead I recommend a simple approach that many of the reformed bands touring or reuniting for a one-off seem to be adopting:
Firstly, revive the idea. In the same way that Led Zep’s reunion was prompted by a benefit gig for Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun there may be some event that prompts a revival of a once-good business idea. This may be something like a dip in customer satisfaction, a drop in profits and at this point a ‘what did we try last time and why did (or didn’t) it work?’ conversation might be the starting point for reviving the old idea.
Just as it’s not really appropriate for men in their sixties to pretend that they are still lithe young rock gods, reviving an old business idea requires a degree of repackaging for a contemporary audience. The rock band analogy breaks down here since a re-formed band is unlikely to get far if it changes its name, but a revived business idea may need to be re-named if its name carries negative associations. (You could argue that business reengineering has been replaced by Lean in some organisations but the newer approach embodies much of the older one.)
3) Cash in!
OK, I’ve hidden a lot of steps in here – the equivalent of rehearsing, remembering the old tunes, organising the tour etc – but the important thing is that your revived idea generates business benefits and, as such, is subject to the same scrutiny that any other – innovation might be.
Business, like music, thrives on a diet of new ideas, but just occasionally an old idea can be just as profitable as a new one. And whether you want to be the equivalent of Led Zep or the Spice Girls is entirely up to you.