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Alan Webber is the cofounding editor of Fast Company magazine and was the editorial director and managing editor of the Harvard Business Review. He has worked in federal, state, and[…]

Alan Webber explains how the tyranny of old ideas keeps you from seeing the true scope of your field.

Question: How do you recalibrate your business perspective?


Alan Webber: A little context, the genesis of that idea is not new, speaking of the tyranny of old ideas, what’s the flipside of tyranny? The benefit of old ideas, years ago, Ted Levitt, who was my mentor at the Harvard Business Review wrote; speaking of iconic things, an iconic Harvard Business Review article called “Marketing Myopia” and the premise of “Marketing Myopia” is companies have myopia, they’re blind to what’s really going on, he had a couple of great examples that I think were just wonderful then and they’re still very, very true.

He said, “The problem with the railroads wasn’t that they failed at railroading, the problem was they didn’t know what business they are in. They thought they were in the railroad business, they really were in the transportation business.”

But an even funnier example is that a company that sold tools, thought it was in the drill business when it should have been in the whole business and that reframes the whole thing, that makes you look with fresh eyes who you’re really competing against.

IBM was happy to let Microsoft have it’s operating system because it was in the computer business, Microsoft was in the computing business and the verb is better than the noun. So what we’re seeing today with a lot of companies and industries is the same struggle replayed today. What business are the newspapers in? Everybody is lamenting the death of newspapers. Well, what business is the newspaper in? Is it in news business? That’s a terrible business, news is a commodity, it’s available 24/7 now, you can have it being directly into your cellphone. A newspapers comes out once a day, it’s a really bad way to get your news so if you’re going to be in a business and print a produce once a day on paper, you better be in a different level than the news business, right? That’s not a good business to be in, you need to reframe what you’re doing. Where did you get that capacity? How do you learn to reframe? It really does require some acts of reinvention, the first thing you got to do is learn to ask different questions. If you’re content with the existing questions, how can we be a better newspaper, you’re not reframing the business you’re in, you’re simply holding on to the dead hand of the past or the tyranny of old ideas.

So you really have to be willing to let go of something before you can start grabbing onto something else, that is very hard for old, established, comfortable, privileged companies and organizations and that’s why so few industries are born out of old dying industries, it’s very hard for the buggy companies to become car companies, it’d be interesting to see if the car companies can become transportation companies. Toyota’s trying very hard because they’ve invested so much in robotics, they see robotics as replacing automobiles and personal transportation through robotics replacing a car. Well, that may work or it may not work, at least they’re working the problem, they’re trying to reframe a definition of a car company. Where do you go to get this? You got to get out of your comfort zone, you got to visit people who don’t look at the world the way you do, you got to go do weird stuff the company’s the succeeded this don’t sit in their corporate headquarters on the 14th floor looking out the window, wondering why people don’t buy their product anymore, they go visit if you’re a game company, you go visit rappers and find out what street culture is all about, if you’re the MET and you’re in the opera business, you go visit movie theaters all over America and see what people want to see that isn’t their own hometown but it doesn’t come from staying home and lamenting the demise of the status quo, it comes from going to people who are vastly different from you, who are weird, artists, poets, basketball players whatever, and seeing how they look at the world, seeing through what you’re doing to what the offering is behind it or adapting a kind of a three dimensional mindset.

So, you’re not in the car business, what’s behind the car business? Is it mobility? Is it personal freedom? Is it environmental concerns? Is it a larger sense of corporate engagement with community building? You got to change the question and you got to reframe it but you can’t do it by just talking to the same people.


Recorded on: April 23, 2009