In a world where a Sri-Lankan based firm can provide unlimited tech support for $149 a year to a business owner in Sioux City, Iowa, no company can escape the new realities of global competition or hide in its local markets anymore.

Even the German Mittelstands (small to mid-size firms), those powerful “hidden champions” I’ve extolled in past columns, are succumbing to global pressure. In February concrete pump manufacturer Putzmeister was acquired by its Chinese rival Sany.

And the founder of Putzmeister, Karl Schlecht, when asked a year ago by Hermann Simon, his friend and author of Hidden Champions of the 21st Century, about the threat that Sany might acquire them, replied “That won’t happen to us; we’re going to continue on our own path, and we’ll do it alone.”

“Things didn’t turn out that way,” summarized Simon!

Things are going to continue to be a lot different for all companies, requiring the leadership to reinvent their companies to deal with this new reality. Two recent books will help inoculate your firm from the impact of this competitive invasion

Reverse Innovation

The first book is Reverse Innovation: Create Far From Home, Win Everywhere (April 2012) by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, professors at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

Their book outlines how companies are reversing the trend of innovating in the developed world and exporting their solutions to the developing world. Instead, companies are using the new emerging markets to innovate products and services to bring back to their own local markets.

Case in point is a $1,000 handheld electrocardiogram device that GE developed in India to address the cost and travel challenges that serving this rapidly growing economy throws at a company. And GE needed to create this product to preempt local firms from developing a similar solution and exporting it to the rich markets that are their bread and butter.

My own growth firm benefited from a reverse innovation when faced with providing quality executive education to a client in Eastern Europe. Finding a solution drove us to create our first online courses, which today serve growth companies globally and prevent competitors on the other side of the planet from beating us to the punch.

Govindarajan and Trimble suggest three guiding principles:

  • You must innovate, not simply export, if you want to capture the mammoth growth opportunities in the developing world.
  • The stakes in emerging economies are global, not local. Passing up an opportunity in the developing world today may invite formidable new competition in your home markets tomorrow.
  • Legacy multinationals (and growth firms) must rethink their dominant organizational logic if they are to win in an era of reverse innovation.

My strong suggestion for smaller firms is finding an existing client that is already working in emerging markets and make sure you’re supplying what they need to compete in the developing world. This will force the kind of reverse innovation that will help you reinvent your own products and services for your local markets.

Idea Monkeys

The second book is Free the Idea Monkey… to focus on what matters most! (January 2012) by Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitón. One of their favorite reinvention sayings is that you can’t read the label when you are sitting inside the jar.

“If you’ve been working in an industry or job for longer than six months, you become an expert,” notes Maddock, one of my most stimulating clients at Gazelles. “Eventually your expertise becomes your Achilles heel. You know what works, what doesn’t, what the regulations allow, what you can afford, what you can make, what the boss wants, what’s failed in the past, that someone got fired for the same idea…”

They suggest three strategies for overcoming this myopic situation:

  • Junior to Senior . Grab a very junior person in your company, ideally someone smart, creative, brave — and too naïve to worry about failing. Take your tough­est challenge and ask them to generate as many ideas and questions about the challenge as possible.
  • Department Switch. Try the same exercise as above with people from opposite departments. It is amazing how much you will learn by watching the folks from operations handle the biggest marketing challenges and vice versa.
  • Boss/Industry Swap. Switch leadership roles. Doing this inside your company will produce similar results, but with more fireworks because of the bigger egos involved. And if you want to have a whole bunch of fun and learn way more, find a company in an unrelated industry and do a job swap.

Galway, Ireland-based City Bin Co. did just this recently, allowing all 180 employees to switch jobs for a day and experience the roles of colleagues in other departments. “We’re just starting to see the huge benefits in terms of culture and new ideas this generates,” notes my client and friend Gene Browne, City Bin’s innovative leader.

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