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Can You Find Your Innovation in a Cup of Joe?

If there's anything sadder than a company in dire financial straits, it's one that got there by sticking to the tried-and-true, despite all evidence that points toward the road less traveled.

For the worst case scenario, you only have to look to General Motors, which produced the same cars and trucks - under various brand names and with slightly different packaging - and marketed them in the same way for decades, regardless of the economic climate or consumer trends. For a slightly less drastic example, there's Starbucks, now in the midst of a reinventionof sorts orchestrated by its (returned) original CEO and founder Howard Schultz.

Starbucks
Starbucks

Tons of criticism has been lobbed at Starbucks in the past couple of years, most of it resulting from overzealous expansion.

(We'll soon see what comes of the firm's release this week of VIA, its instant coffee formula.)

Since his return to the company early in 2008, Schulz has been busy stripping away all that Starbucks has come to (negatively) connote in recent years, while bringing coffee back to the forefront. It closed branches that performed poorly, increased store efficiency (with changes to ordering schemes, for example) and boosted product quality (better brewing schedules, removal of HFCS and artificial flavors from its baked goods). It even debuted an "off-brand" offshoot in Seattle: 15th Ave. Coffee and Tea, which is more about community than corporation - well, one blogger called it a "corporate indie" coffee shop - and includes beer, wine and ice cream among its menu options. The idea will be tested in two other Seattle locations, and if all goes well, rolled out (slowly, one would hope) to other cities. All of these elements have affected the company's share price and reputation, both of which have risen steadily since late 2008.

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Every executive worth his weight has to similarly reassess him/herself from time to time, even if the results of such an exercise aren't released to the public. It's probably easier to do this when circumstances demand it. A marketing executive recently dropped from Big Ad House #2 will likely have to sell himself - well, his branded package of experience and potential - to an employer outside traditional "marketing," or to a client in a totally different field than he's used to (or even to a firm that's well removed from any previous reference point) in order to return to the workforce. But even if you're still working and relatively secure, an occasional review of your employment and educational background could help unearth talents that you've forgotten about in the ensuing years. Perhaps they'll resurface with some training classes or seminars; if possible, work them into your normal job routine. Getting together with old colleagues now and then is bound to jog memories of old assignments, the skills you utilized to handle them, and the associated business lessons learned (or not). Even if these skills can't become part of your usual job responsibilities, you should still somehow integrate your "newly regained" experience into your resume.

The bottom line: No one can afford to get stale, and in fact, it's terrible even to look stale.

Employers believe that one's brain grows soft when it's absent from the workplace; research supports the idea that the longer one is jobless, the faster a potential employer's interest wanes. We've all thought this way in some respect -- don't you reach for the milk with the later expiration date that's crammed at the back of the shelf, even though the ones at the front are still "safe"? No matter where you are in your career, you are the product in front. If you don't want to be passed over in similar fashion for human product that's "fresher," better find a way to reinvent yourself.

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Todd Obolsky has covered a wide range of industries for Vault’s print and online company profiles (including consumer products, government, non-profit, retail, advertising, internet, energy and publishing) and manages Vault’s Layoff Tracker. He has also written for Penguin Group’s Rough Guides and DK travel series. He holds a BS in Mathematics from Bucknell University and an MBA (with a market research concentration) from City University of New York’s Baruch College.

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