The Fall of the Turnaround Blueprint Strategy

02/27/2013 12:56 pm 12:56:01 | Updated Apr 29, 2013

Two tech superstars are each fighting to prove their past success wasn't a one-off: Ron Johnson, former head of retailing at Apple is trying to turn around flailing retail giant JC Penney, and Marissa Meyer, often thought of as 'the third founder' at Google, is wrestling at the helm of tech's perennial runner-up, Yahoo.

Both of them have adopted the same mantra as the core of their turnaround strategies -- In Meyer's case, "That isn't how we did it at Google" and in Johnson's, "That isn't how we did it at Apple".

As recent well-sourced stories about both Meyer and Johnson have indicated, this strategy of "we'll replicate what worked in my previous company" isn't entirely going well for either of them -- and unless they change their tune, it's highly likely that neither will achieve the sort of success they saw in their former positions.

Simply put, the look-everybody-I've-brought-the-blueprint strategy doesn't work for four main reasons:

1. It's Wholly Counterproductive:

When, like Meyer and Johnson, you're trying to turn around a struggling underperformer, one thing is a precursor to everything else: igniting a robust, growing and healthy alignment in the whole organization. In other words, getting a formerly beaten-down, low-morale workforce to face forward and commit to the organization's success.

Telling everyone that they have no clue what they're doing, and that only you and your handpicked lieutenants understand the true path forward, which is the heart of the 'arriving hero' strategy, achieves precisely the opposite -- however dressed up in pr-speak the message is, it alienates and frustrates those who are on the receiving end of it, and guarantees that the organization will start its new journey by moving backward, not forward.

2. It's Almost Always Wrong:

Assuming that what worked in one environment will work in another is not just lazy, but almost always plain wrong. Publicly-owned commercial enterprises, like any large organization, are sprawling, complex entities with grooved synaptic patterns of action and thought. They can't be altered overnight -- and certainly not simply because the CEO says so (just ask Larry Summers, nobody's idea of an ingenue, who was chewed up and spat out by the inbred structure and culture at Harvard).

Yes, elements of past success in previous organizations can be incredibly helpful in shaping strategy in a new position, but the default mindset needs to be 'what's new and different here that requires new and different solutions?', not 'what can I copy wholesale from my last job?'.

3. It Stifles Debate:

"God told me to do it" has long been an effective way to shut down rational debate about the legitimacy of a specific action, and the "look how well it worked for me at Apple/Google/wherever" argument does much the same in the business world.

When you've posted the sort of stellar success Ron Johnson had with Apple's retail stores, or Marissa Meyer did with the meteoric rise of Google's AdWords, who's going to argue with you? (Particularly if your new position is in a proximate organization and entails doing things not very much removed from the arena of your previous renowned success.)

It takes a brave person -- or one truly committed to lasting success -- to withhold playing their 'God card' in the interest of healthy robust debate, but in both cases, the success of their companies depends on them doing precisely that.

4. It Eradicates True Innovation:

The most telling, pointed flaw in the hero-with-a-blueprint strategy? It's rarely, if ever, how the hero's initial jaw-slackening success was achieved.

Would Ron Johnson have upended the entire retail universe if he had followed anyone else's playbook, whether it be that of Neiman Marcus, Macy's, Wal-Mart, or even his own at Target (a previous employer)? Would Marissa Meyer have helped take Google from a couple of servers in Stanford to one of the largest corporations in the history of the world, had she arrived on day one with a preconceived model to follow? (Alta Vista, anyone?

Nope. In both cases, the very absence of a success model -- and a feisty scrappy determination not to be distracted by how anyone else 'did it' (however good they were)-- is what made both organizations and both executives unbelievably successful.

But now, armed with "here's how I did it at...", there's little or no room for zero-based thinking; and with a blueprint, determinedly imposed from the top down, there's little or no room for real and much-needed innovation.

The saddest aspect of all this is that just about every one of us have at some point witnessed the arrival of a whizz-kid, gleefully poached from a competitor. And we've all seen what happens when they start every sentence with 'Well, here's what we did at my old employer...'.

It doesn't work. Newly arrived CEO's seem to believe they're exempt from the same dynamic. Except they're not. Not even heroes with a blueprint.