Ten years ago, an office-furniture maker set the world on fire with a modular design that revolutionized the way we work.
At the same time, a computer maker started a revolution of its own by making computing friendly.
HTC And a packaged-goods marketer cleverly used consumer information to outwit its competitors -- and dominated many a cranny in the marketplace.
Now all three are quaking. CEO jobs are at stake, as are those of several thousand employees. Why?
"It's become a discounter's world, a nightmare," says one boss, who not so long ago was hailed as an exemplar corporate chieftain. In fact, all three chiefs are singing from the same page of the same hymnal: Discounters ("without scruple," says another earnestly) abound, margins are evaporating -- and, Chicken Little, the sky is falling.
Funny thing, I have not an iota of sympathy for the three bosses. (Though I do worry about their endangered front-line workers, who have succumbed to numerous programs-of-the-quarter in an effort to hold back the tide.) Each company lost its nerve. All three reached the top through derring-do. Then rested on their laurels, and watched big leads erode.
That's not fair. None of the three, or a thousand thousand like them, snoozed. They worked to improve quality. Made customer service more friendly. Cut product-development time smartly.
Yes, they re-engineered; but they didn't reinvent. They countenanced change, but not revolution. They cheered change agents, but not terrorists, traitors and anarchists.
I reviewed a catalog from the office-furniture maker beset by dastardly discounting competitors and cost-obsessed customers. Truth is, it bored me silly. Ten years ago I was wowed by their products. Now they offered more of the same. Sure, a dozen (or several dozen) new features were touted. But I can't imagine paying a premium for what today looks like run-of-the-mill goods (albeit a quality mill).
The computer maker is in the same pickle. It's still a pioneer, but only rises a twitch above the pack these days. Twitches don't merit 25 percent (or even 5 percent) price premiums, let alone the 50 percent variety the firm boasted not so long ago.
Rumor has it that owners of leading independent bookstores, trying to fight back against the megastores that copied their friendliest features, are thinking of starting a purchasing and distribution cooperative. Suppose the strategy, aimed at achieving volume discounts from publishers equaling those given to the biggies, is successful. What will have been achieved? Some independent stores will shave a penny or two from their costs -- and come close to imitating the megastores.
Cutting costs any way you can is fine, but it's nutty to imagine such a move as the core strategy for turning the tables on giant, deep-pocket competitors. Instead, independent bookstores must up the ante. They must invent something entirely new. Just as the office-furniture maker, computer creator and packaged-goods company must do.
All of life -- if you are lucky -- is about being copied. That's true for successful football coaches, actresses and sprinters, as well as travel agencies, car dealers and pharmaceutical houses.
The standard response, sadly, is to copy the copycats who copied you. Nothing wrong with improving your act. We must all do that, all the time. But if you want to command the heights ever again, you must find a new act. ("The target now is to invent a new game," says Nike's unabashedly paranoid founder, Phil Knight.) It's as simple -- and as hopeless -- as that.
Hopeless, because with leadership comes conservatism, sure as night follows day. And even if you manage to avoid the greater sins of arrogance and complacency, conservatism is more than enough to cook your goose.
Or label it, as I do, improvement-itis. It's a noble calling, but a deadly disease when it fills the calendar and gets in the way of wholesale transformation. And the disease is getting more deadly in a world economy brimming with fanatical entrepreneurs out to destroy today's leaders.
Unfortunately, combating conservatism means thumbing your nose at yourself and all you stand for. It means mounting a successful frontal attack on today's cash cow: "Quad/Graphics must self-DESTRUCT or risk being destroyed!"-- that's the nervy word from the successful printing company's in-house newspaper.
Call it reinvention, call it cannibalization, call it what you will. The guts to mercilessly attack yourself is what counts (which may even mean stonewalling shareholders and securities analysts if your first risky ventures falter). If you don't have the gumption for self-destruction, you can be sure some dreaded discounter waits around the next bend -- doubtless a bend much closer than you think.
(Tom Peters' column is distributed by the Tribune Media Services Inc., 720 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, Fla. 32801;  420-8200.)