4 lessons in corporate reinvention from a tennis legend

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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Megatrends: Rapid Urbanization

I recently sat down with HP Labs for Part 2 of a five-part series discussing HP’s future technology vision, and how key global forces known as Megatrends are being used to shape that vision and our future. Megatrends are global socio-economic, demographic and technological forces that will have a sustained and transformative impact on businesses, societies, economies, cultures and our personal lives in unimaginable ways in the years to come.

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Megatrends: HP’s future technology vision

I recently sat down with HP Labs for Part 1 of a five-part series to discuss HP’s future technology vision, and how key global forces known as Megatrends are being used to shape that vision and our future.

Here’s a preview of our conversation.

Can you explain to us what you mean by Megatrends?

Megatrends are global socio-economic, demographic and technological forces that HP believes will have a sustained, transformative impact on the world in the years ahead – on businesses, societies, economies, cultures and our personal lives.

The world is in a constant state of change. In the next 15 years there will be more change than in all of human history to date.  And while we can never really know the future, understanding the Megatrends that are shaping the world around us can help point the way, and guide us on where the world is going, and the technology that will be needed into the future to help improve our lives.

At HP, we’ve identified four major Megatrends that we think are important: Rapid Urbanization, Changing Demographics, Hyper Globalization, and Accelerated Innovation.

Mass Urbanization | AndrewBolwell.com

Let’s start with Rapid Urbanization: by 2030 there will be 8.5 billion people walking the earth. They will be drawn to cities in massive numbers for the promise of a better life.  Cities will become larger creating megacities. With bigger cities come major economic growth, particularly in emerging markets.  According to McKinsey by 2025, urbanization will welcome an additional 1.8B consumers to the world economy, 95% of them in emerging markets. It will also change how we buy and consume products and services, propelling the sharing economy and convenience-based services.  But such rapid urbanization will also take a toll on the environment, requiring us to find ways to reduce the strain on our natural resources and infrastructure.

To read the article in it’s entirety and the role I envision HP playing, please visit HP Labs’ blog.

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Innovation: Staying in the Moment

In this TED talk, Joi Ito, head of the MIT Media Lab, shares how he used personal experiences to create one of the most successful citizen science projects in the world.

At HP, we’re constantly building and reinventing things. Staying in the moment or being a “now-ist”, as Ito calls it, is crucial when it comes to innovation. Here are my four tips for staying in the moment:

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The Future of the Internet of Things

Earlier, I discussed how the Internet of Things (IoT) impacts the way we learn, work and innovate and posed some questions about the future of IoT.

The first question was: How can we link interactive and personalized digital experiences with these millions, billions and trillions of inanimate objects to create the Internet of ALL Things?

Most of the things in the world around us are not IT enabled, and probably will never have compute, storage and networking embedded.  Think about the things you buy on a supermarket shelf – a bottle of wine or a box of cereal.  Consider all the paper products we still interact with – the 50 trillion pages that are printed every year as office documents, magazines, books or billboards.  And don’t forget about all the inanimate objects we manufacture or will increasingly 3D print in the future.

Now more than ever we need to humanize technology and make it more tangible, more intuitive and more immersive. We need to harness technology so it works for us – automating the mundane, enhancing our capabilities and creating new, richer experiences for us.

At HP we’ve developed a platform called HP Link that enables many of the inanimate objects around us to have digital services associated with them. This will allow someone to embed digital information into anything printed or made, and then control what happens when that link is activated through a phone, another device or wearable.  More importantly, it will allow that digital experience to change over time based on the user’s context.

So imagine you’re shopping for a new printer. While in the store you could point your phone at the product packaging, and get demos and product information to help you make a purchase decision.  Then if you buy the product and take it home, you might get installation and product tip videos instead, because your context is different. You’re now the product owner, not a potential buyer.

Soon the things we touch, see and sense will interact with our digital worlds in a much more seamless way. At HP we call the fusing together of our physical and digital worlds, Blended Reality.

And if you think of Blended Reality as the fusing of our physical and digital worlds, IoT is a poster child example of how this works. IoT is all about sensing our physical environment and the things in our physical world. We then pull that information into the digital world, where it can be analyzed, and we can then use the results of that analysis to act back on the physical world, to turn on our lights, to direct the flight patterns of our planes, and to enhance our experience in the physical world.

Next, I posed this question: What ecosystems, platforms and design principals need to be developed to deliver end-to-end IoT experiences?

I believe IoT is so much more than just connected things, and it needs an integrated technology stack to implement, from devices to services.  This technology stack is complex enough that no single company can do it all, and an ecosystem of partnerships is needed to deliver end-to-end solutions and services to customers.  In other words, building an ecosystem around your offering becomes critical to success.

Platforms also become strategic because there are many different device/service combinations. You need a platform strategy to leverage your investments, and to be able to reuse technology components to go after multiple verticals and opportunities.  You also need something to build an ecosystem around, and this is why you see so many companies opening up their platforms, to attract developers and innovation around their offerings.

But to really reap the full potential of IoT, we will need to move beyond standalone platforms and closed ecosystems.  If we want to move to a fully-interconnected world, from things on the Internet, to an Internet of Things, we will need to figure out a way to enable an open, interoperable environment where all of these devices and services can plug and play, and where services we haven’t even dreamt of yet can be easily implemented within existing markets, or more interestingly, across market and industry boundaries.

We also need to design compelling experiences for end-users, whether consumer or commercial. IoT services that touch human beings need to be designed with the human experience front and center.  Experiences that are immersive, contextual and enjoyable.

Now that you’ve heard my thoughts on IoT, how do you think IoT experiences will impact our every day lives? Leave your comment below.

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Infographic: The Internet of All Things

The Internet of Things impacts the way we learn, work and innovate. This Postscapes Infographic is worth sharing because it tells the almost complete story of the Internet of Things (IoT) including how smart, connected systems are a technologic phenomenon with infinite possibilities of interactions and experiences.

I say almost because while it does a great job of highlighting smart things it doesn’t take into account that a large portion of the things we interact with each and every day do not have sensors, computer chips, storage and connectivity. And they likely never will.

From wine bottles and cereal boxes on your grocer’s shelf, to magazines at your Doctor’s office, to the printed CAD drawings and quarterly review on your office desk, to new 3D-printed parts and collectibles, non-wired things are all around us.

How can we link interactive and personalized digital experiences with these millions, billions and trillions of inanimate objects to create the Internet of ALL Things?

What ecosystems, platforms and design principals need to be developed to deliver end-to-end IoT experiences?

The building blocks of IoT will enable today’s makers to build new applications, products and services that will cross-location, markets and industries to deliver richer more immersive, context-aware user experiences.

They will awaken the entrepreneur, tinkerer and maker in each of us.

I’m enjoyed talking about innovations like these at the IoT Global Innovation Forum on Wednesday. While the maker’s spirit has been around forever, the tools of expression have evolved radically, paving the way to a renaissance era of innovation that will change the business and social landscape a few years out in ways we can’t even imagine today.

How do you think the Internet of Things will impact our every day lives? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

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