Wrong Turn at Lung Fish: Critical Decisions in Strategic Evolution

Twenty years ago the brilliant Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theater Company debuted Garry Marshall and Lowell Ganz’ play Wrong Turn at Lung Fish.  This farcical piece is an inquiry into the often harmful peculiarities of human behavior.  In a pivotal scene, one of the characters wonders whether mankind may have made a profound wrong turn along the Darwinian path of evolution.  The “wrong turn at lungfish” sets humanity on a path of despair, and ultimately begs the question whether our fate is inevitable, or could pain be averted with different decisions at critical junctures?

With the benefit of hindsight, it would appear that many businesses have made profoundly wrong turns in the evolution of their business models.  Sears failing to enter (or acquire into) the big box home improvement category.  Blockbuster neglecting to launch a serious alternative to RedBox and NetFlixCircuit City’s decision to exit appliances and abandon its high service sales model.   Any number of smaller retail formats laid to waste in Walmart’s wake.

These are retail examples, but virtually every industry has multiple stories of brands that were on top, but that failed to evolve to the changing customer and competitive environment.  Before long they found themselves dropping from leadership positions to also-rans or, in some cases, filing for bankruptcy and possibly disappearing altogether.  And indeed for some their fates may have been inevitable.

Yet, in the Sears, Blockbuster and Circuit City examples, it’s clear that those companies had the opportunity to know-and the resources to act–to change their course.  Through a lack of customer insight, faulty economic analysis and a fundamental misperception of risk, they somehow failed to see what was obvious to many others.

For these brands the worst case scenario has come true, or the day of reckoning is drawing ‘nigh.  Their fates are sealed.

Chances are, however, that you still have time to act, to develop deep customer insight, to understand your vulnerabilities to competitive innovation, to realize that you should be the one to cannibalize your cash cow.   It is easy?  No.  Is it more than a little scary sometimes?  Of course.

But I always think about the guy on the way to the bankruptcy hearing and what they wish they had done differently when they had the chance.  I bet what they are about to go through seems a lot harder and a lot scarier than what they could have gone through.   Don’t be that guy.

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Author: stevenpdennis

Steven Dennis is a trusted advisor and thought-leader on customer-centric strategic growth and innovation. As President of SageBerry Consulting, he applies his C-level executive experience to drive growth and marketing strategy for multi-channel retail, e-commerce and luxury industry clients. He shares his ideas and wisdom regularly in the press, as an industry speaker and through his popular blog "Zen and the Art & Science of Customer-Centricity"(https://stevenpdennis.wordpress.com/). Prior to founding SageBerry, Steven was Senior Vice President of Strategy, Business Development and Marketing for the Neiman Marcus Group. As a member of the Executive Committee he drove the company's major growth initiatives, multi-channel marketing programs and customer insight agenda. Before joining Neiman Marcus, Steven held leadership positions with Sears, including Acting Chief Strategy Officer, Lands' End acquisition integration team leader, Vice President-Multichannel Integration and General Manager-Commercial Sales. Earlier in his career he was with NutraSweet and the global management strategy consulting firm, Booz & Co. Steven received his MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BA from Tufts University. In addition to his consulting work, Steven is an executive-in-residence at the JC Penney Center for Retail Excellence at SMU’s Cox School of Business, President of the DFW Retail Executives Association and serves on the Advisory Boards of Invodo Inc. and Nectar Online Media. He is also active in the social innovation and education reform arena as a Partner and member of the Board of Directors of Dallas Social Venture Partners. He is currently co-leader of DSVP's investment and engagement with SMU's Center on Communities and Education "School Zone" initiative in West Dallas.

2 thoughts on “Wrong Turn at Lung Fish: Critical Decisions in Strategic Evolution”

  1. Steve,

    Your blog is great and keeps getting better.

    In this case, I’d amplify the reason those companies took a wrong turn:

    An imperial CEO didn’t have the guts.

    When you build a bureaucracy that is focused on obedience, then the buck stops in only one place.

    Like

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