The company president was excited about a popular cartoon depicting warriors fighting a battle with bows and arrows, along with a suited salesman carrying a machine gun and a briefcase. “Can’t you see I have no time to see a salesman,” says a beleaguered officer, “I’ve got a battle to fight.” Ironically, this is the same executive who nixed new opportunities for his company to grow its sales.
Ideas challenging the status quo can face roadblocks in just about any company. Yet, it may be that these ideas can let in more light so that effective change can take place. Here are six of them.
1. Business owners can be wrong. Scratch entrepreneurs and it doesn’t take much to discover their immense pride in the business and, ironically, a dogmatic belief in their own ideas that may do it damage.
Case in point: The president of a highly successful industrial business became so enamored with breaking new ground in his industry by selling equipment on the Internet that he made a substantial investment in an eCommerce website without taking the time to determine whether or not customers would purchase his company’s type of products online. The venture failed and, worse yet, it failed just at the time when the recession began taking its toll on the economy.
What we think about our business can distort reality and interfere with meeting today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities.
2. Everything is never on the table. Saying otherwise is pure posturing and anyone who puts it to the test gets hurt. Just ask GM’s recently fired marketing chief, Joel Ewanick. He’s the one who came up Chevrolet’s campaigns “Love it or return it” and “Chevy runs deep.” He also opted out of Super Bowl XII advertising and cancelled GM’s Facebook ads just prior to the social media giant going public.
Ultimately, he discovered that other things run even deeper at GM; namely, “That ain’t the way we do it around here.” When someone says, “Everything is on the table,” don’t believe it. They may think they mean it, but putting them to the test can be dangerous. There are always ideas, practices and activities that are untouchable.
3. It’s all about strategy. When the Boston Business Journal (BBJ) asked Mark B. Kerwin, deputy director and Chief financial officer of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, about the biggest challenge he faces in his field today, he gave his answer in six words: “Staying strategic as opposed to tactical.”
Steve Jobs couldn’t have said it better. First and foremost, he was a brilliant strategist. His commitment was to building a company that built beautiful things that consumers admire and love to use in their daily lives. It’s no accident that M.G. Siegler of TechCrunch describes Mountain Lion, Apple’s latest operating system, as “definitely the most polished and robust version of OS X yet.”
Tactics are easier to understand and far more fun, but most of the time, they’re temporary and don’t advance us to the goal.
4. Having “customers for life” is a deception. Why? Because it’s counter-intuitive, naïve — and dangerous. Yet, these three words seem so ingrained in our thinking that Googling them produces 1,390,000 results. Even against such a mountain of evidence, it’s still an illusion.
On the face of it, it should be obvious that customers are never for life: they die, find a better deal, move, change their lifestyles, retire or want something new. In B2B, some merge or sell, go out of business or become obsolete.
In spite of doing everything possible to keep customers happy and satisfied, they still leave. Yet, bloggers, speakers and business writers implore us to embrace the belief that we can keep them forever.
Businesses are best served by abandoning this type of mythical thinking and embracing reality with a “nothing is forever” mentality.
5. Downed by the demon of self-deception. More than just about anything else, self-deception is the biggest human stumbling block, and just about every business is plagued with this unrelenting problem.
In a study of a group of college students, researchers discovered that cheating gives students false confidence in their abilities, according to a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The upshot seemed to be that once we lie, it doesn’t take much for us to convince ourselves that we’re not lying.
Ask the president of a highly successful consumer services company to describe his primary business objective and he would undoubtedly say, “Putting our customers first.” In all sincerity, he would mean it. Yet, this same president sent a letter to his customers filled with dozens of references as to why customers should do business with his company, but no rationale was given as to why it would benefit the customers to do so. It was if he was writing the letter to himself.
To test out just how widespread self-deception is in business, watch the employees’ faces when the president or sales manager is holding forth on the company’s newest product launch, announcing next year’s goals or the need to increase productivity. Then, you can see the clash of two quite different realities.
6. Forget about “The Great Person.” At Talbot’s, the women’s clothing retailer, there has been a parade of CEOs, each one with the answer to the company’s troubles and each one taking it deeper into lower sales and increased debt. The story is the same at Yahoo, where hope now hangs on yet another CEO.
It might be helpful if boards of directors stopped wanting to believe that the next executive holds the key. The “Great Person” theory has had its day, and its vestiges can be found everywhere, including business.
The fallacy rests in believing that success will follow with the right person. But, as science writer Matt Ridley says (WSJ, 5/22/10), innovation depends on exchange. For example, he points to Uruk, in Southern Mesopotamia. It “was probably the first city the world has ever seen, housing more than 50,000 people within its six miles of walls. Uruk, its agriculture made prosperous by sophisticated irrigation canals, was home to the first class of middlemen, trade intermediaries.”
Arguably, it’s the same in America: Silicon Valley in technology, Boston in medical care, New York in finance and Las Vegas in casinos.
As Ridley points out, “In the modern world, innovation is a collective enterprise that relies on exchange.”
In business, ideas, as much as action, make a difference. Companies that put action above ideas may find that they are doing a lot of things backwards.
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