The Bowl Has Been Shattered. You Get to Rebuild It.
You’ve been given a rare opportunity to rebuild your company into something more resilient and flexible — don’t waste it.
Co-authored by Gautam Mukunda, Research Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School and David Kidder, Co-Founder & CEO at Bionic
2020 has, so far, been one of the most tumultuous years in living memory. The year is only halfway through and we have seen major crises to our health, economy, and society take hold. Responding to all of this upheaval requires more flexibility than most organizations possess. What’s more, this rapid pace of events and constant barrage of disruptions feels like a new normal. We need to adapt quickly to thrive in the world ahead.
With this strain and upheaval comes an opportunity — the chance to rebuild.
The bowl and the marble
Imagine a bowl with a marble in it. You push the marble up the side of the bowl with your finger, and as soon as you stop pushing and let go, the marble rolls right back down to where it was before, coming to rest in the same spot it has always been.
That bowl is your company, the marbles are all the things you want your company to accomplish — the growth, the re-focusing, the acceleration, the transformation. The bowl resists change, no matter what you try to do. It continually pushes all attempts at change back to their original point of stasis. All bowls do this to all marbles. That’s the whole point of a bowl. It’s the way the system is built.
Your company — and every company — is like that bowl. It’s a system, and like any system, it resists change. So, every time you try to get your company to do something new, you have to fight against the system, just like those marbles have to fight against gravity. This has been true for as long as companies — and bowls — have been around.
Now however, the bowl has been shattered. Not just once, but many times over, as one crisis has been compounded by the next. The health crisis of COVID-19, followed by the financial crisis of the pandemic response, followed by a critical social justice movement brought on by police violence and institutional racism — they have combined to shatter the bowl. For three months, the world has been at a virtual standstill as it reacted to each new event. It is only now that businesses are beginning to come back to life — and we don’t even know if or for how long that will last.
Your job — right now — is to remake the bowl. And the once-in-a-generation opportunity in front of you is to build the bowl right. It is a difficult job, but one with incredible potential for impact.
In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz shares his story of remaking the bowl of his company, Loudcloud, through the 2001 dot-bust recession. Horowitz and his team had been struggling with Loudcloud for a long time, trying and failing to gain escape velocity for their business. Horowitz had instincts for how to correct what wasn’t working, but could never implement them — the changes required would have been too severe.
Then the Loudcloud bowl shattered with the sudden onset of the recession, bringing the company within weeks of bankruptcy. Horowitz was forced to act. Trying to simply keep his company alive, he ended up implementing the changes he had envisioned and remaking the bowl entirely. He parted with his business strategy, his technology, and most of his paying customers. He sold off most of the company’s assets, retained a small portion of them, and regrew the business around that. The new company survived — barely. Then it found its toehold and started to grow. And it continued growing, under the name OpsWare. When Horowitz and team sold OpsWare 5 years later to Hewlett Packard, it was for $1.65 billion, many times the value of Loudcloud at its peak.
In retrospect, Loudcloud’s days were numbered even before the recession. New technologies were coming to market that would have made it obsolete. But Horowitz couldn’t transform Loudcloud into Opsware because he was trapped at the bottom of the bowl. Once it was shattered, though, he was free to remake it. When his bowl was shattered it felt like a disaster — but actually it was the only thing that allowed him to drive his company to much higher value and even avoid its extinction.
This is the magnitude of opportunity that remaking the bowl presents.
Remaking the bowl
Horowitz was forced to remake his bowl under extreme duress. Despite everything that’s happening today, hopefully you get to be a bit more thoughtful about your strategy. In either case, the question you need to answer is: what do you bring with you from your old company, and what new things do you want in your new one?
Consider the bowl you want going forward. What qualities do you want it to have?
- How will you make it flexible? The world that lies ahead bears little resemblance to the one we’re leaving behind. As the world changes, people’s needs and desires change as well. Going forward, the companies that thrive will be the ones that can best adapt to new realities quickly, rather than remaining grounded in yesterday’s reality. You can’t afford a bowl that traps your best ideas anymore. At the same time, you need to make sure those ideas are protected and nurtured until they’re ready to fly free. And not just the ideas you have today — but the ones you will have tomorrow.
- How will you make it resilient? If there’s one thing the first half of 2020 has taught us, it’s the importance of being prepared for the unexpected. Going forward, organizations will need to be resilient in the face of all kinds of challenges, expected and otherwise. How will you make your new bowl able to withstand sudden, unforeseen crises of different kinds? What will you make your bowl out of to give it resilience?
- How will you make it lean? As your organization moves into the new normal, it needs to be able to place many bets in order to be “right and on time” to meet the future. And it needs to do this without upending the balance sheets. How will you build a bowl that can handle new marbles being continually added to it?
With these ideals in mind, ask yourself: what will you take with you from the old bowl, and what will you add to the bowl that is new?
The elements that go into remaking your bowl include processes, strategies, technologies, management styles, organizational structures, culture, spaces, people — everything that constitutes your business. Each of these can and should now be reconsidered. Should the old elements be brought into the new bowl? Should they be given up in favor of new elements? What are those new elements? This is more than starting from a blank sheet of paper. This is saying — what could I do if I took the best of my old organization and mated it to the best of a new one.
Once you’ve decided how you will build your new resilient bowl, you need to keep your team focused on that vision until it is complete. Otherwise you end up right back where you started — with the same old bowl. Alan Mulally was asked eight months after taking over as CEO of Ford why he was still giving the same presentation as when he arrived. “We’re still working on this plan,” he replied. “Until we achieve these goals, why would we need another one?”
Remember that at the end of the day, you want to be free to think about the marbles, not the bowl itself. The point of the bowl is to contain the marbles — the things you want your company to accomplish. But over time the bowl itself comes to take up so much of your attention that it becomes all you think about. You stop thinking about the marbles almost entirely. You want to create a company that lets you focus on the work — the work of new growth, flexibility, resilience — not on bureaucracies and systems. Right now, while the bowl is shattered and is being remade, you have your chance.