Book Review: Shift Ahead: How the Best Companies Stay Relevant in a Fast-Changing World

Shift Ahead: How the Best Companies Stay Relevant in a Fast-Changing World. By Allen Adamson and Joel Steckel. American Management Association, 2018. 

Reviewed by Jonathan Groner

Why do some companies survive and grow in a quickly changing world, while other companies flail and fail? That’s the question that marketing experts Allen Adamson and Joel Steckel tackle in this down-to-earth and example-filled book. Briefly, the answer is that some companies are ready to shift and change and others are not. Somehow, they keep the capacity to change in their corporate culture. And it’s not just planning but execution.

As Adamson and Steckel write:

All organizations that successfully seized what they saw were able to take their concept and turn it into reality in a way that met, or exceeded, the expectations of all stakeholders. Their efforts were seen as credible and game-changing, from both inside and outside the organization. The road may be paved to a successfully executed shift of focus. If you can’t make it happen, it doesn’t matter.

But, the authors point out, it’s not strictly a matter of how much the companies knew or how well they researched their market or the economy. Probably the most striking example the authors give is that of Eastman Kodak. The popular wisdom from so many business articles is that Kodak’s executives were blindsided by the growth of digital photography and didn’t see the technological change coming. Adamson and Steckel, based on in-depth interviews that they conducted, say that’s not what happened. In fact, the company had in-house forecasters who precisely predicted the demise of film – why, how and when. It was simply that Kodak’s management didn’t want to “walk away from the easy money flowing from film” and that Wall Street looked askance at companies that didn’t show steady growth. Change, though it would have been ultimately very rewarding for Kodak in the long run, would have been difficult and wrenching in the short run.

Change is always difficult. That’s really the main point of this book. “The ability to see and apply change opportunistically is such a simple premise, but obviously very hard to do. If it were easy, there would be no reason for business school courses in change management,” the authors write. They point to Comcast changing from a cable company to a diversified entertainment company, to IBM going from computers to consulting services, and even to the Greenwich, Conn., public library moving beyond books and embracing information wherever it is to be found.

These days, with change occurring on a rapid pace, Adamson and Steckel point to American Express, which has thrived for an amazing 168 years. They point out that when the first American Express card was issued, in 1958, the company was already 108 years old. It started as a freight forwarder, then became a credit-card innovator and is now a broad-based financial services company with a bright future. They explain:

By looking outside the traditional research parameters, American Express has been able to tap into the early warning signals of consumer sentiment that many companies miss. Early warning signals that may eventually become pain points, as many marketers call them.

Although the authors don’t draw any of their examples from the law firm world, it’s not hard to see that law firms, some of which have long histories, are not exempt from the winds of change that blow in this turbulent century. Outstanding planning and execution may be the secrets of their survival.

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