By Denise Harrison, Executive Vice President & COO

Strategic Planning Expert

That won’t work!  We’ve tried that before!  The idea is then rejected without consideration.  Yes, sometimes you should learn from history, but what if something has changed and history no longer reflects the potential of this idea?

We Tried This Before

As president of the research center of a Fortune 500 company, I was often faced with the “we tried it before and it didn’t work” argument.  Yes, it had been tried before, as a matter of fact, more than once, and the product had never gotten enough traction to be successful.  So why try it again?  Rather than reject the idea, I had the product team analyze current trends to see if there was anything new that would indicate that this product would be more successful this time.  Some background, this product’s success was predicated on insurance companies sharing their claims history on individuals.  The data would be stored in a third party database (this is where we came in) and could be accessed so that the insurance company could use claims history as one piece of information for a risk profile.  Historically, the insurance companies were not willing to share their proprietary information.  Why should they share now?

Well, increased claims and lower profit margins were causing insurance companies to look for ways to prevent losses.  These trends made some of the companies more amenable to sharing information.  Once the industry leaders joined, the product moved forward; it was a success with the insurance industry because they had a better understanding of the risks they were insuring and a success for us as we were now the provider of this information.

Corning: In with the Old

During its 161 year history Corning has had numerous technological breakthroughs: silica for fiber optics, ceramics for both CorningWare® and military applications.  But along with the breakthroughs, there have been innovations that did not have commercial success immediately.  So when a consumer electronics firm came to Corning looking for a durable, lightweight glass for its touch screens, Corning took a look back through history and found a 40 year old project on glass fusion and formulation and dusted it off.  Using this proprietary technology the team was able to develop Corning Gorilla® Glass – now used in many electronic devices across the world.  It is now a $1 billion business.  A technology rejected 40 years ago comes to life and adds to Corning’s success.

BNSF – Trains are Back

Oil is traditionally moved across the country in pipelines; high volume, point to point.  Recently new deposits of oil are being produced in areas not traditionally serviced by pipelines, so EOG Resources contacted BNSF to see if they could work with the railroad to develop an efficient system to move oil from the production sites in North Dakota to various refineries.  At first the railroad hesitated – was this just a short-term opportunity?  BNSF decided to take the plunge investing in infrastructure that would support the movement of oil by rail.  This new “light tight oil” now moves by rail to all three coasts (East, West and Gulf) and now more oil moves out of North Dakota on rail than it does by pipeline.

What changed to make rail an acceptable mode of transportation?

  • While generally more expensive than pipeline costs, rail costs have fallen about 50% from where they were 30 years ago.
  • Rail is now faster and more predictable. (No more rail cars missing in black holes!)
  • Rapidly increasing domestic production along with increasing supply from Canada and transportation constraints have created price distortion that have incentivized construction of new rail capacity,  making it cost-effective to ship by rail to areas that do not have access to this lower-priced oil.
  • Permitting/environmental issues with pipelines cause rail to be the only option in some cases.

Key Take-Aways

A good strategic planning process causes you to question your paradigms:

  • Try to ensure your team is not locked into old paradigms.  It may not have worked last time; but maybe something has changed to make it viable now.
  • Look at your facts and assumptions, what has changed?
  • Casting a broader net for possibilities; e.g., should you be evaluating rail as the cost has gone down and reliability has come up?  It may give you options you need to consider; especially when the Panama Canal opens and fewer goods are traveling by rail across the country, there should be excess capacity.
  • Have your customers’ needs and preferences changed?
  • Is there a technological change that makes a previously unattractive option more attractive?
  • Are there changes to supply constraints (e.g. availability of natural gas) that allow you to look at opportunities differently?

To learn more about strategic thinking and challenging paradigms please listen to our Strategic Thinking webinar by clicking here.  Challenging paradigms can lead to strategies that your competition has not considered enabling you to gain a competitive advantage.

Denise Harrison is Executive Vice President and COO of the Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc.  She can be reached at

© Copyright 2013 by Center for Simplified Strategic Planning, Inc., Ann Arbor, MI — Reprint permission granted with full attribution.

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