"If someone is going to eat our lunch, it may as well be us." This is an oft-quoted phrase in the business world. Its meaning is simple - we have a successful product in the market, the competition is after us; rather than allowing them to usurp our position in the market, we should do it ourselves with our own newer/better or altogether different products. Or put another way, better to cannibalize our own revenue streams and hold on to them vs. letting others take them from us.
However you say it, this sentence points me to one, very powerful truth: be more defined by what you will do than what you have done.
I'm not saying forget your past (though that's sometimes a huge temptation!), but rather that we can only control our future actions, that embracing paradigms that got us to a place may only serve to hold us back, and not allow progress.
Andy Zaky wrote a great post on the irrelevance of the iPod to Apple's future. In it, he includes two graphs - one showing the decline in iPod as a percentage of Apple revenue, and the other showing Apple's overall revenue growth.
The lesson - while the iPod was HUGE in resurrecting Apple (at its peak representing 55% of all Apple revenue, vs. 8% in the last quarter), and while it remains a significant contributor to revenue (and margins), Apple has moved on. They no longer count on the iPod as a growth engine, indeed, much of the decline in iPod sales is the direct result of the success of newer Apple products (iPhone, iPad). This is why new announcements from Apple are so well attended - people want to be connected to the next new thing, knowing that instantly the last (now old) new thing will be utterly outmoded and boring.
Of course there are many organizations that don't take this approach, and sometimes for good reason. If you have a cash cow that's amazingly productive, why stop milking it? Why not get every last drop out, especially when the latter "drops" are so much more profitable than the former. After all - new products are always risky, and may never come close to the potential of existing. Whilst these companies might not have the "innovation aura" that Apple has, they can be just fine, enjoying steady and predictable revenues and plodding growth.
It is possible though for this approach to lead to a state of strategic entrenchment, where an organization is so committed to a past formula for success, that it loses sight not just of future opportunity, but also present and future threats.
This behavior isn't confined to corporations; it also applies to other industries, education and government to name but two.
In education proposed change must be proven and peer-reviewed before it is accepted; we can't afford to do something untested to our children - a reasonable concern. (The problem of course is that you can't test innovation at scale without implementing it.) Consider for a moment how the current system was established - there was very little analysis, brain science didn't exist, and of course there was no research at the time that said learning was best accomplished in an authoritative, homogeneous, teacher-in-front, instructivist system. They just decided to do it that way.
I can understand not wanting to change if things are working really well (much like strategically-entrenched companies), but let's face it, education in America is not a success - dropouts are on the rise, and those that do graduate aren't learning nearly enough to be competitive with the rest of the world.
In education "historical success" is also something of a tautology - the "successful" graduates happen to be running the current system, and by definition, since it got them to this place, their education and the system they had was successful. Therefore innovation is less of a priority vs. "back to the old ways," and therefore there is very little open-mindedness to change. Sure they're willing to tweak things slightly, but real change ...no. There's no external motivation either because the parents are a product of the same old system, and there's no competition that is anywhere near the scale of the American public school system.
Change is therefore unlikely or even worse, impossible.
Governments face the exact opposite problem. Politicians measure success through action (at least that's how they promote themselves to the voters). Action = creating laws or setting up commissions, or I suppose, going on "fact-finding" tours. But because their goal is not a better society, but rather to get re-elected, success is merely passing laws, not passing good laws, or indeed enforcing existing laws; commissions only needed to happen, not resolve or repair anything.
I'm reminded of a West Wing episode where, among other things, the discussion is about the Republican vs. Democratic view on laws. Here's an exchange between Sam Seaborn and Ainsley Hayes (with my emphasis):
AINSLEY: I'm a Republican ...I believe that every time the Federal Government hands down a new law, it leaves for the rest of us a little less freedom. So I say let's stick to the ones we absolutely need in order to have water come out of the faucet and our cars not stolen. That is my problem with passing a redundant law.
SAM: You know, you insist that government is depraved for not legislating against what we can see on the newsstands or what we can see in an art exhibit or what we can burn in protest or which sex we're allowed to have sex with or a woman's right to choose. But don't you dare try to regulate this deadly weapon I have concealed on me for that would encroach against my freedom.
AINSLEY: And Democrats believe in freedom of speech unless you want to pray while you're standing in school. And you believe in the freedom of information act except if you want to find out if your 14 year old has had an abortion.
SAM: We believe in the ERA. ... How can you have an objection...
AINSLEY: Because it's humiliating. A new amendment we vote on declaring that I am equal under the law to a man? I'm mortified to discover there's reason to believe I wasn't before. I'm a citizen of this country. I'm not a special subset in need of your protection. I do not have to have my rights handed down to me by a bunch of old white men. The same Article 14 that protects you protects me. And I went to law school just to make sure.
So like the commercial and education sectors, politicians can't resist the "tried and true approach" to governing. They will therefore make spurious, ill-conceived laws to try and look good to naive and frankly stupid voters. Like education, government has no competition, they know that most new politicians are just as dumb as they are, and follow the same traditions; they know this because enough of them will get reelected to ensure continuity. Yet again there is no sufficiently credible perceived competition to create a change in behavior.
Most corporations, school systems and governments are afraid to do something new or interesting; they are afraid to go beyond their self-imposed limits, and will therefore diminish whatever is connected to them. Is it any wonder so many parts of the American fabric are in decline?
Competition is crucial; it creates pressure and the urgency to outperform. When there is no competition (or perceived competition), you rest on your laurels and stagnate. This is less important for corporations - you only risk money; but when the stakes are as high as they are with education and government how can we afford to be sloths? There is competition in the tall grass, and it's not lazy.
We must seek to be defined by what we will do and not what we've done.