Building a Core & Innovating on It
For the 25th anniversary of Parking Today, I want to spend my time talking about the concept of staying power, and my perspective on what it takes to keep an organization alive for more than 25 years.
To last 25 years, it must be useful and relevant. It’s a safe bet that to remain useful that long, the organization has undergone many changes. For example, it’s not the killer app that wins, it’s the ability to create a killer app over and over again. We’re not still playing Super Mario RPG, but we might still be playing the 10th (or so) iteration of Super Mario. At its core, the game has remained the same, but the technology and cast of characters have evolved.
Evolving and remaining relevant makes me think of the late Clayton Christensen, an author and Harvard Business School professor. He coined the term, and wrote the book on the Innovator’s Dilemma. He asserts that a company first has to know what “job” it performs for customers. Once a company knows what job it does, it has to continue to evolve its offering, because new companies will constantly threaten the status quo by offering the customer a better way to do that “job.” Sound familiar?
It takes guts to recognize that the only way to survive is to abandon the (profitable) baby they raised and build another product that beats the competition to the next new thing. However, what Christensen demonstrated is that the most successful companies focus on driving growth through innovation without regard for “what they did last year.”
I think these two concepts of 1) keeping your core, but 2) innovating around the core, are particularly useful in parking today, because our industry is being revolutionized by technology and we must reinvent ourselves in the face of competition that didn’t exist 5, or 10, or certainly 25 years ago, to win.
What does it mean to keep your core? To me, it means preserving “the thing that got you here.” The primary reason a company is successful is most likely the product, or the people, or a combination of both. But we know that, over time, the company’s product and people must evolve with the times to stay ahead of the inevitable competitive pressures from evolving technology. In fact, it was Einstein that said, “we cannot solve tomorrow’s problems with today’s thinking.” Solving tomorrow’s problems demands that we think about a problem differently. That’s where evolution comes in.
I’ve always been a big fan of building offerings at the edges of our core. It always seemed safer to try experiments with things that were only slightly outside the range of our current capabilities. I’m also fond of a phrase I first saw in a book written by Dale Dauten that suggests “experiments never fail.” Whether an experiment works or not, it still teaches you something. Thinking of innovation as an experiment makes it seem less threatening.
Sometimes innovating outside the core business is hard for an organization, that’s where having the right people makes all the difference. These people need to be willing to trust you and their teammates to take risks they know won’t be career-ending. They also have to be comfortable taking risks in the first place. But is innovation really a risk?
If we are to believe Christensen, staying put is even more risky than pressing forward. A business’s whole existence is at risk of being wiped out by innovative competitors who will find a better way to do the “job.” The truth is, there is much more risk in resting on your laurels than finding new and better ways to deliver a product or service.
Which reminds me of the leaders who look, from the outside, to be huge risk-takers. In reality, their gut and their experience give them confidence that they are doing the right thing by seeking greener pastures. Plus, doesn’t it make more sense that you would be more qualified than any outsider to reinvent the way you deliver your product or service to your customers? We have the knowledge and the experience to solve tomorrow’s challenges deep within our industry.
This brings me finally to John Van Horn and Parking Today. Early in my parking career (which isn’t quite as long as many of yours), JVH had trouble remembering my name. As Perry Griffith, Jr. taught me soon after arriving in parking, you have to “show up” for at least three years to be taken seriously. Industry insiders know there will always be newcomers who think they can swoop in and dominate without paying their dues. John was either overtly or covertly applying this rule to me. I’m proud to have just celebrated my fifth anniversary in parking, and to report that JVH can now pick me out of a crowd and remember my name!
If I apply the concepts I’ve described above to Parking Today, the fact that JVH and his organization have survived for 25 years is a testament to his ability to stay true to their core but continue to innovate. I would guess that what got John to this 25th anniversary bears only a small resemblance of where he is today. But his core has remained.
What I see as John and Parking Today’s core is their ability to connect people and companies in the industry and to keep us informed about how our businesses must change to survive. To give us not just a magazine or a conference, but many venues to interact with each other to help us all thrive as the industry changes and evolves.
I’ll always be indebted to John and Parking Today for embracing me, the new guy, giving me a venue and a voice to share my thoughts and to contribute in a meaningful way to this awesome industry in which we’ve all been fortunate to forge our careers. John, my hat is off to you and PT for surviving and thriving for 25 years. It’s taken guts and determination, I’m sure. For that, I want to say, “Thank you and congratulations!” I look forward to the next 25 years!