I’m happy to have Prianka Srinivasan, Strategic Foresights Practitioner in the Technology Vision & Tech Ventures Team, as a guest blogger today. Before I hand the reins over, let me tell you a little bit about her.

PriankaHeadshotPrianka has spent 8 years at HP in various roles from competitive intelligence to business strategy and evangelizing the power of data analytics. Within the Office of the CTO, Prianka spends her time being a student of the future. She tracks social, economic, demographic and technology trends to identify and research future opportunities for HP. Her current obsession is the field of Artificial Intelligence. Outside of work, Prianka is a keen follower of world politics, a tennis fanatic and she tries to pursue one new hobby every year – 2016 is the year of Bikram Yoga for her.

Let me preface this blog by saying that I am an unabashed, die-hard fan of Roger Federer. So if this blog seems biased or overtly enthusiastic about the achievements of Mr. Federer – you know why!

Longevity is the common goal and aspiration of every human endeavor, whether in the arts, sciences, sports or business. But for businesses where disruption is the new norm it can be particularly challenging.  As so perfectly described in “No Ordinary Disruption, “ the ubiquity of the internet coupled with the power of digital platforms means that start-ups are instantly global entrants and micro-multinationals putting pressure on established businesses.

There are great examples of companies that have braved this vortex of disruption and come out on top – Netflix is one such maverick of reinvention. However sometimes when we look beyond our field we find some of the greatest insight off all. This post is an attempt at doing just that – examining the career of a legendary athlete and tennis player, to draw out lessons for how corporations might look at innovation and reinvention.

Tennis can be a brutal sport – an almost year-round season that spans the globe, varying surfaces and hard-hitting modern style of play that has become the benchmark thanks to advances in racquet and string technology. It is a sport that is unforgiving on the toll that time and aging take upon the athlete’s body. It has forced many a player into premature retirement – Bjorn Borg being the best example. Against this backdrop is one man, who has remained close to the apex of the tennis hierarchy for 17 years – a veritable aeon in the tennis world.

Much has been written about Roger Federer’s astronomical achievements, his gracious sportsmanship and balletic dance across tennis courts around the world. Spectating a Roger Federer match has even been likened to a religious experience by the illustrious David Foster Wallace! However, in my mind, what supersedes all of these facets in Roger’s game has been his ability to continually reinvent himself in the face of younger opponents and “father time”.

Turning failure into success

At the peak of his dominance Roger was virtually unbeatable. He set and broke many records, played shots that seemed to defy the laws of gravity and physics and he achieved it all with deceptive ease and nonchalance. But, as is natural, younger competition soon reared their head and sought to unseat the sovereignty of Roger. And in his typical gracious yet unrelenting style, Roger responded.

In 2008, after winning for 5 consecutive years on the hallowed lawns of the Wimbledon Championships, the prodigious Rafael Nadal defeated Roger Federer in what has been hailed as the best tennis match ever. Unfettered by his crushing defeat, Roger quickly regrouped, reimagined and defeated one foe after another on the road to capturing the US Open Grand Slam title.

So what is the lesson here? First, don’t let one defeat define the rest of your future. In the corporate and start-up world alike, one failure is seen as the end of the road – the media hype doesn’t help either. In times like these, it is important to remind yourself that you learn the most from your failures. Failure doesn’t define who you are; how quickly you get up, dust yourself off and get back in the game is what ultimately defines you.

Timing is everything

When your competitors are weak, strike hard, strike fast and go for the jugular. Remember that while you can never stay on top forever, neither can your competitors. It is important to be vigilant of what your competitors are doing and once you spot a chink in their armor, be ready to exploit the situation in your favor.

In 2010, things started to unravel in earnest for Roger. He managed to win the year-opening Grand Slam in Australia but fell to opponents he had once “owned” at the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open. As far as the tennis media were concerned, this was indeed forewarning of Roger’s swansong. Instead Roger took stock of his team, his goals and took a decisive step. He hired a coach – Paul Annacone, the man who led Pete Sampras to his last Grand Slam.

Roger hadn’t had a full time coach for quite some time. To then pivot and hire a new voice showed Roger’s willingness to admit that he had run out of “tricks” and needed a new voice to reinvigorate his tennis.

Another important lesson in reinvention – be ready to recognize your shortcomings and do not hesitate in shaking things up to change your status quo. That which has made you successful in the past is not guaranteed to continue yielding positive results. It takes humility and a certain level of objectivity to acknowledge your failures and change old habits. In the corporate world, we often try to apply tried and tested mantras to produce results and we become so “married” to them that we are unable to pivot. Inertia of business models and processes often prevent us from “coloring outside the lines”. Seeking outside counsel, bringing in a new perspective is not enough – one must be ready to listen and change.

This is exactly what Roger did under the tutelage of Paul Annacone. Instead of sticking to the grueling baseline game that the younger generation had brought to tennis, Annacone urged Federer to come forward and be more aggressive. He urged Roger to shorten the points and impose his game with more conviction. Roger heard him loud and clear – and the results followed, most notably Nadal’s defeat at the year-ending ATP World Tour Finals where Roger eked out the win in three sets.

Step out of your comfort zone

As a 17-time grand slam champion and widely proclaimed as the best tennis player the game has ever seen, it would have been easy for Roger to stick to with what had brought him unprecedented success, even as the game changed around him.  It is testament to Roger’s modesty and objectivity that he was able to enact change in his game. Ultimately it is the lack of fear that allows Roger to take risks with his game in the pursuit of success.

Long-standing businesses that are faced with the changing basis of competition are often unwilling to take this gamble and eventually fall into obsolescence. Kodak is a great example of this. Kodak invented digital photography but the inertia of their photo fulfillment business prevented them from pivoting in a new direction. The old adage still stands – nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Be willing to experiment and change your approach

As the game changed so did Roger.  After struggling with injury and new competition he took a step back and took a long, hard look at his game and his tools. Federer had been using a smaller racquet throughout his career (90 sq. in), whilst most of his peers had a larger racquet area. In order to match the younger generation’s pace and power, Roger took the radical decision to try a racquet with a larger hitting area (98 sq. in).

Armed with a larger racquet and new techniques from a new coach, Roger reached the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2013. Although he lost to his nemesis Nadal, Roger was playing a refreshing brand of tennis that had been relegated to history by the increasingly baseline game of the new generation. His successes continued well into the next year.

Once again, 2013 and 2014 are testament to Roger’s ability to reinvent himself. He was able to part with his trusty racquet, bring in new coaching inspiration in the form of Stefan Edberg to put himself back in contention with the younger generation. He recognized what lacked in his arsenal to keep pace with the evolution of the game and did not hesitate to transform himself accordingly.

Businesses that face threats from nimble and fearless start-ups would do well to take a page out of Roger’s playbook and critically re-examine themselves. Understand where they are “behind the times” and enact whatever drastic change is required to become relevant again – even if this means cannibalizing your existing market share. Amazon is one of the best examples – a business built on selling physical books, recognized the on-coming wave of mobiles and tablets. To avoid becoming passé, they cannibalized their own business by pivoting to e-readers (Kindle) and a digital library of books.
Roger continues to change his game, adjust his strategies and seek the advice of others.  He’s never done, never satisfied, always in motion.

In the same vein, corporates today need to implement and measure the results of any and every strategy – no matter how distant from their core competencies. At a time when the minnows are firmly swimming with the sharks, it is time for the latter to build new muscles and employ new tricks. At the core of it all, is the pursuit of longevity without fear of failure or sentimental attachments to the past.

Like Roger has done numerous times, business leaders need to objectively take stock of their weaknesses and bravely look to upend deep rooted business models and processes. Ultimately in the game of corporate evolution, as in life, it is the fittest and most adaptable that survive.

Game on!

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