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Escaping The Legacy Trap: Using The Brand To Manage Change

Andrea Fabbri

Businesses come and go.  Some flare like shooting stars on a clear summer night and then disappear; others linger on the fringes in constant search for glory.  And then there are the very few that invent entire business categories and continue to shape the way we live.

Regardless of their fate, businesses are all fruit of the uniquely human act of turning ideas into commercial reality. They are also subject to one of the most powerful and immutable Darwinian laws in nature: change.

The challenge of change has been the focus of business literature for decades. Yet, these days, there is a new urgency in the conversations with executives – and for very good reasons.

Today’s pace and scale of change are unprecedented. When you consider it took about 80 years for telephone coverage to become ubiquitous; but just a bit more than 10 years for six billion people to own a smart device – the implications are profound.

Digital technologies and mobility solutions are changing business models, removing barriers to entry, commoditizing industries, revolutionizing products, and transforming competition.  For instance, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is threatening to change the role and value of people: computer algorithms can now simulate a human conversation, recruit employees, and answer questions.

In order to survive in this seismic flux, companies have no option but to innovate and change.  But therein lies the challenge: the tension between protecting and preserving the core businesses, products, processes that created success, and the need for swift transformation necessary to remain relevant.  One need only look at iconic brands such as Kodak, Nokia and Xerox to understand the fine line between success and irrelevance.

The dilemma was nicely summed up by the CEO of a Fortune 100 company recently in an interview about a transformational acquisition. “We cannot fall victim of the legacy trap, we must change to remain relevant.”

But how to do it? How do you change without undermining the business that pays today’s bills? How do you keep employees focused while modernizing the business for the future?

Elementary, my dear Watson. 

In 2014, IBM launched Watson.  A supercomputer combining AI with analytical software, Watson painted a future more akin to a Sci-Fi movie than a business solution.  Although it has been around for a century, IBM knows full well that past glories do not guarantee future success or survival. Former CEO Sam Palmisano nailed it when he said, “We've lasted 100 years, because we never limited ourselves to a view of a particular product."

As it has done many times before, IBM had to reinvent itself. Anticipating its core legacy business to decline steadily (they were right), IBM reset its strategic future around cloud, cognitive solutions, analytics, mobile and security. But it needed a vehicle to lead the conversation about change convincingly and compellingly. They needed a brand and a narrative: Welcome to Watson and the cognitive era.

Watson is the spearhead of IBM’s bigger corporate idea: rather than focusing on technological innovation, Watson humanizes the concept and makes the promise of cognitive solutions relatable on a personal level.

A brand can be a bridge between today’s reality and tomorrow’s destination: it can define the need for change in a thoughtful, transparent dialogue with employees and the market at large, preparing the ground and making change logical and desirable.

There is no doubt that change is scary, but the status quo is a false friend. Even as I look back on my professional life, I correlate the level of personal reward to the changes I have made, often with painful disruption.  I take to heart the words of my countryman Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa in his masterpiece The Leopard: “Everything has to change, so everything will be the same.”

Let the brand be the bridge to your organization’s future: use it to establish, manage and nurture an ongoing deliberate and believable conversation about change, where you are going, and why the world should care.

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