The Business of Radical Reinvention with Jason Jennings

The entrepreneur and author believes that the business of radical reinvention is personal, that every successful organization has a noble purpose, and that, when it comes to meetings, ‘the fellowship and camaraderie, learning from your peers, one on one — that absolutely will never be replaced with technology.’

For Jason Jennings, author of The Reinventors: How Extraordinary Companies Pursue Radical Continuous Change, reinvention began 13 years ago, with a mid-life crisis. A former radio and television broadcaster, Jennings had founded and was running a successful chain of radio stations and a media consulting company when one day, he recalled, the lyrics of a Peggy Lee song came to mind. “I was sitting in my family room and I thought, ‘Is that all there is?’” Jennings told Convene. “Money was not an issue, but I suddenly realized my soul was not being fed.”

Jennings first thought that he might become a theologian, and began studying at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. But after a few months, the president suggested to Jennings that he might not be cut out for the life of an ordained minister. For one thing, he told Jennings, “Sometimes you’ve got a mouth like a drunken blank-blank sailor.”

And the president had noticed something else, Jennings said. “He told me: ‘You love business done well. You love leadership done well. You’ve got no time for leadership done poorly and business done poorly. I think your calling in life is to identify the greatest companies and the greatest leaders, doing the greatest things. And that’s the gospel that you need to write and talk about.’”

Since then, Jennings has written five bestselling business books, including It’s Not the Big That Eat the Small — It’s the Fast That Eat the Slow and Think Big, Act Small. USA Today has called him one of the most in-demand business speakers on the planet — each year he delivers approximately 80 keynote speeches to audiences around the globe. This June, he adds PCMA to the list as a featured speaker at the 2013 PCMA Education Conference in Denver.

For his latest book, The Reinventors, Jennings and a team of researchers screened 22,000 international companies to find those that had been the most successful at reinventing themselves. Jennings distilled from those examples a set of qualities and actions that the companies had in common and that set them apart. Recently we talked to him about that process and what he learned.

In writing The Reinventors, you reinvented your own research methods. What did you gain as a result?

For almost all my books, I had hired a research team and we would work together and go in pursuit of these incredible companies, gain access to them, get inside — I really loved that model. But I was sitting in New York with my publisher. Normally when he and I are talking about a book, it takes us weeks or months to figure out the direction to go, a title, a subject matter — I mean, it’s a laborious, painful process. But I had written three paragraphs about The Reinventors on a single sheet of paper, and I walked in and gave it to him. He looked at it and said, “Let’s do it. Here’s the money. I will have the contract on Monday.”

It was just as fast as I’ve ever seen him work. But he said, “One thing: You have got to get the book to me quicker. If you’re writing a book about reinvention, there are things that you’re going to have to reinvent, too.”

So I sat down and I thought, just because my model has always been to have three or four young second-career MBAs working for me for 12 to 18 months while I’m doing a book — let’s figure out something else. And I hired one researcher here in America. I hired a company in China, and I hired a company in India. And I would tell you that, one, it was faster; two, I think it was more rigorous and complete; and the third thing is, it gave us, I think, a completely different perspective through different sets of eyes.

Was there anything that came as a surprise to you as you researched these companies?

Well, one, everything does surprise me. I think, secondly, the biggest surprise is how extraordinarily simple it is to start and build an incredible enterprise. And what gets in the way 90 percent of the time is our own sense of self-importance.

I’ll give you a good example. I’m not going to mention the company, but I’m doing a major speech for several thousand people in Las Vegas in about 10 days. This is a large retail organization that I’m a customer of, that I thought would be interesting. Now, this retail organization has had some trouble recovering from the Great Recession; some competitors have been a little bit ahead of them and came out of it quicker than they did. And I put a lot of research into working with the company to build this speech. They not only bought the speech, but they bought a day for me to come and spend on their campus and get to know their executives. And I bet in the last two days, my assistant Caryn and I have had 30 messages from 30 different people all urgently requesting a five-minute or 10-minute or 15-minute telephone call for, quite frankly, sh-t that has been done for weeks. The self-importance of people in organizations is, I think, absolutely ridiculous.

What role do you think conferences play in organizational reinvention?

A big error in judgment on my part was that about five or six years ago, I thought the whole thing was going to become virtual. I thought keynote speeches were going to go away. I thought for every speech, I would go to a studio in San Francisco or maybe even be in my home office.

I love technology. I try very hard to be an early adopter in all I do. But I am more convinced than ever before that conferences are not going to disappear. I think they’ve been changed, and I don’t ever think they’re going to go back to where they were. I don’t think you’re going to see $3,000 ice sculptures anymore. I don’t think you’re going to see registrants showing up and being given a bag with spa gifts totaling $500. I don’t think you’re going to see four-day conferences anymore, with morning work sessions and afternoons devoted to leisure and the spa and golf and horseback riding and winery tours. That has all been changed.

The conferences that I see today are two days, two-and-a-half days. Generally they include a weekend day of travel, so the participants are traveling on a Sunday. And they’re meeting Monday and Tuesday and they’re back on the job on Wednesday. So I think conferences are shorter. I think people have started to ask the question, what is the good business reason for spending money on this ice sculpture? What is the good business reason for spending money on this $100-a-plate dinner? I mean, people will just get fat, clog their arteries, and be drunk. It’s unhealthy, so why in the world would we do this?

But the fellowship and camaraderie, learning from your peers, one on one — that absolutely will never be replaced with technology. People who have similar interests, people who are likeminded, trying to work for a common unified goal or strategic objective, they need to get together once in a while.

If everyone who reads your book or hears you speak were to come away with only one idea, what would you want it to be?

That any business that is going to achieve its full economic potential, any business that is going to withstand the test of time in the marketplace, any company that is going to be able to embrace change and is going to be able to direct change and be good for all the constituencies — they all have one thing in common. And what they have in common is they all have a noble purpose. And a noble purpose is not about making money.

I mean, what did Google say? Google said, we’re going to organize all the information in the world. Well, if you’re young and savvy, what the hell would you rather do? That would be so much fun to me: “I’m going to California to organize all the information in the world.” Apple says, we’re going to be a disruptive force that changes the way the world communicates. Well, where would you rather be than changing the way the world communicates? IKEA says, we don’t build furniture for the few who are wealthy; we design and build furniture for the many. Every business that’s going to achieve its full economic potential and withstand the test of time has a noble purpose.

Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer is senior editor and director of digital content.