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An Introduction to Survival Planning: A Summary of My WVU Course on Disruptive Innovation


Writing a book was always on my professional bucket list. And as of March of this year, I have now written five of them! My latest -  “Built to Suck: The Inevitable Demise of the Corporation…and how to save it?” - became the backdrop of another bucket list item, becoming a teacher.

Indian Statesman, A. P. J. Abdul Kalam once said, “ Teaching is a very noble profession that shapes the character, caliber, and future of an individual. If the people remember me as a good teacher, that will be the biggest honour for me.”

Being an educator isn’t exactly going to pave a fast track to retirement; nor will it help you purchase that Bugatti you’ve always wanted (I mean, it’s not like many people can play football like Ronaldo anyway!) Quite the contrary. To this day, teachers are still egregiously underpaid, relative to the value they provide. Still, I’ll bet more people would want to be compared to Dr. Sean Maguire or Glenn Holland, then Bobby Axelrod (even with the money factor taken into consideration!)

Last year, I had the privilege of becoming an adjunct instructor for the West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media, where I got the opportunity to create a course from scratch as part of their Integrated Marketing Communications master’s degree program.

My hope was to arm and empower my students with a completely new set of tools, with which to apply a strategic planning lens that was focused more on transformation than simply tweaking the status quo using a series of safe, incremental bets.

“Built to Suck” was prescribed as required reading for the course and the Survival Planning Canvas become the foundation upon which the course assignments were constructed.

So here’s how it worked: students had to pick a DeathWatch company (like the name suggests, they were either dead, dying or had outlived their usefulness). Then, over the next eight weeks, they had to fill out their canvas combining various exercises (like the survival instinct) that would help them come up with a final report that included a survival plan and a growth plan.

Whereas the former focused on identifying key 1) fears and 2) pain points that spoke to the self-preservation side of their company’s survival instinct, the latter would draw from 3) calculated risk and 4) an insatiable hunger that fed the adaptation side of the survival instinct.

My students picked some of the following companies. Perhaps you’ve heard of them. Perhaps you work for them. Or perhaps you got out in time before the ship heaved, capsized and finally sunk…

  • JC Penney
  • Barnes & Noble
  • Nordstrom
  • MoviePass
  • Mattress Firm
  • Payless
  • Victoria’s Secret
  • GNC
  • Macy’s
  • Neiman Marcus

When I repeat the course in the first quarter of next year, I’m actually going to provide a more diverse representation of key verticals. This – predictably – skewed quite radically in favor of everyone’s “whipping boys, ” the retail sector. I’ve also had several large companies approach me and ask if my students will take on their brand. I like this approach a lot!

In addition to their weekly DeathWatch survival planning canvas assignment, they also tackled thematic discussion topics like the death (or evolution) of brands/branding, creativity and advertising.

If you work for any of these companies, feel free to contact me privately and with the student’s permission, perhaps we can do a show ‘n tell. For now, I’ll share some of the really impressive work done on behalf of JC Penney by one of my students.

JC Penney’s story is in some respects no different than any other legacy retailer, with one major difference: Ron Johnson. Johnson joined Penney as the man who could do no wrong, having led Apple’s incredible retail store development, rollout and experience. He attempted to “cut and paste” this almost formulaically, but woefully misjudged the massive culture disconnect or chasm between “Old Penney” and “New Penney.”

The result: the host rejected the organ transplant. And Johnson was fired.

This is the Survival Planning Canvas filled out for JC Penney.

Survival Plan

Today we define ourselves as… confused and unstable. JC Penney lacks a value proposition and a viable target market, which have resulted in defecting customers, a poor financial position and a revolving door of executives.

We embraced our heresy by… dropping most of our product lines, dumping the middle-aged mom consumers, closing stores and downsizing successful stores to focus on millennial and gen Z women.

 …and adopted these pillars:

  • Digital disruption - We may never catch up with e-commerce, but we can save malls by selling back our space to create experiences that draw millennials back into the mall.
  • Talent resurrection – creating a culture that embraces creativity to attract the right talent
  • Customer Obsession – creating loyalty programs our consumers want to join

…to build in these revenue streams:  Similar to Warby Parker and Peloton, combine our retail and ecommerce channels to reach our consumers anywhere they are. Additionally, create new opportunities for our consumers by creating an option to enroll in beauty products and jewelry subscriptions for even more ways for them to access the latest trends they crave. 

…in order to become  an efficient and streamlined boutique that partners with incubator competitors and up-and-coming designers and brands to provide millennial and gen Z women the latest fashion, make-up and hair, and jewelry styles without breaking the bank.

Do you agree with this pivot? Is it super obvious or not? What would happen if JC Penney were to undertake this venture? Will they end up on the right or wrong side of history?

Personally, I would bet on the student (and this course…of course) versus the plethora of overpaid and self-entitled executives at JC Penney. Saying “I told you so” however, would imply JC Penney’s inevitable demise and no one wants that, do they? So perhaps there’s a happy middle ground that would involve JC Penney making the necessary changes in time…to avoid that incurable iceberg…to turn around the Titanic of a behemoth corporation.

Hopefully, this glimpse into Survival Planning will act as cliff notes of sort. Now it’s time to get back to school and back to work!