what happens to your business…?

There’s a lot of freakout happening right now in the business world. Between a lumbering, staggering economy, businesses getting caught with their hands in the cookie jar (Starbucks UK is getting a bit of press, but they aren’t alone), and new regulations and laws (Obamacare, anyone?) it feels like myopically short-sighted decisions are becoming a leadership trend.

Blame the economy, government, competition, etc. for poor business results and force employees to bear the brunt of it. Freeze wages, cut benefits, pare staffing to the minimum and then trim it a bit more. View all employees and all positions as having the same interchangeable value. Treat the cost of employees as an offensive, if necessary, evil. Assume that changing variables on the spreadsheet will not affect any other variable (cutting wages couldn’t affect profit via poor customer service or heavy turnover, could it?)

It’s a complicated world and I don’t pretend to have solutions. I do have one question though:

What happens to your business when you don’t take care of the people who take care of your business?

vanilla passion

I’ve long heard that vanilla is the best-selling ice cream, yet I’ve met very few people that say vanilla is their favorite. So what’s going on? How can a flavor that few love be a best seller? It wins because it is less offensive to more people. Few love it, but few really hate it. Vanilla is a safe choice.

That seems to be the strategy of a lot of businesses: play it safe and offend fewer people than your competition. The opposite approach is to be very clear about what you are and what you aren’t and focus on the customers who truly appreciate what you’re about. Rather than being some things to all customers, the focus is on being everything to some customers.

Likewise, many (most?) people approach their careers and lives that way. It’s pretty obvious from the sameness of LinkedIn photos and bios that the goal is to fit in, be like others, don’t stand out. Don’t veer too far away from the tribe norms. And, on some levels, there’s nothing wrong with that after all vanilla sells more as a whole.

The problem is, it gets passed over more, too. Vanilla sells more, but no one is passionate about it. I gravitate toward ice cream flavors with names like “Chocolate Armageddon” but you might hate that. You might prefer straight up mint chip. Others go for rocky road. We push the vanilla aside to get to what we really want.

When we look at products, businesses, or even people that folks get really excited and passionate about and want to go out of their way to champion, support, and tell others about, it’s never a plain vanilla product, business, or person. The things we get passionate about, the companies we are loyal to, the people we really want to help succeed always stand out in some way.

If we choose to stand out, there will be naysayers, critics, and people who don’t like us. But there will also be the raving fans. If we choose to play it safe there will be few naysayers, critics, or people who don’t like us. But there will also be few cheering us on.

Being different doesn’t guarantee success. In fact, it often impedes it. First impressions do count, the image we present to the world does matter; people judge us based on the information we give them. I can’t control my height, gender, race, age, etc. but I can control how I dress, how I’m groomed, what I say, how I say it, etc.

Being different doesn’t guarantee success, BUT successful people are often different. They think different. They operate different. They have a different message for the world. And they get different results.

So often it seems that the giants don’t norm off of everyone else. They aren’t looking to see what others are doing before deciding what to do. Instead, they go their way and let other choose to follow or not. It’s ironic that so many of our icons are also iconoclasts.

The guys over at Talent Anarchy (twitter: @talentanarchy) refer to our individual uniqueness as our freak flag (a term I love). It’s not about piercings, tattoos, and blue hair. It’s about owning who we are as individuals and being comfortable and honest enough to be really authentic. That is really, really hard to do. And, done right, there is scary, incredible power there.

It’s a tough choice. But remember: sometimes the choices that look the safest are actually the most dangerous. After all, when was the last time you bought vanilla ice cream as a treat for yourself?


quick review: The Strategy Book

“The Strategy Book” by Max McKeown – brilliant and practical. I posted a slightly different version of this over on amazon a few weeks back, but it’s worth repeating.

I had been following the author for a while on Twitter (@maxmckeown) and I ended up getting a copy of the book through a promotion. Once it arrived, I moved it ahead of the long list of books in waiting. Less than 30 pages in I was recommending it to others and I ordered several of the author’s books for our corporate library.

The Strategy Book

This is one of those books where, if I’d highlighted all the ideas that grabbed me, I’d have ended up with practically all of the book in yellow. The author is concise and down to earth, yet has a very engaging and conversational style. He does a great job of condensing big ideas into simple sentences.

Barely finished, I immediately moved his book “The Truth About Innovation” to the top of my reading stack. And then “Unshrink” (and my department is now reading it as part of our ongoing development). Next up, “Adaptability”.

Definitely my new favorite author. Track it down, read it, enjoy. Really, really great stuff.

More info:

Soundness, profitability, or growth. Pick any two.

In everything there is a choice and in everything there is a tradeoff. There is an old adage in bicycling that highlights the choice/tradeoff decision: “Light, strong, or cheap. Pick any two.” When buying parts you can have them light and strong (but it’ll be expensive), strong and cheap (but it’ll be heavy), or light and cheap (but it’ll be weak). It’s up to the individual to decide what’s most important to them.

The same is true in business, even though it goes largely unrecognized. We can just as easily say: “Soundness, profitability, or growth. Pick any two.” We can be stable an profitable (though growth will be slow), profitable and fast growing (at the cost of soundness), or sound and growing (but won’t have much left over as profit). The challenge is, that because we don’t recognize this tradeoff, we try to create a business that is stable, has great profits, and is quickly expanding. Trying to maximize all three at once is impossible – at best one (or more) of the three will suffer, but be hidden. For example, the business may be highly profitable and expanding nicely and appear stable, until that first bump in the market highlights just how overleveraged the company is. At worst, the business is neither sound, nor profitable, nor able to grow.

Correct me if I’m off base here, but it seems that Wall Street rewards maximum profitability and growth, generally at the expense of soundness. Yet, the truly enduring companies (whether we’re talking about a sole propritership or multinational giant) – the ones that survive the cycles of recession – are the ones that best understand this tradeoff and keep soundness in the mix, switching focus on profits or growth as their strategy warrants.

In business, as in personal life, it always comes down to opportunity costs. By understanding what you really want, you have a much better handle on the strategy to pursue. As wonderful as it sounds, it’s a recipe for disaster to try and create soundness, profitablity, and growth simultaneously.

That’s the theory anyway. I’d love to hear about examples that poke holes in the theory (I sure can’t think of any).