Join forces: don’t fight the irresistible

Join Forces: Don’t Fight the Irresistible

Do you want great results . . . or are you satisfied with excuses for poor performance?

The barrier to irresistible growth is not the unstoppable, uncontrollable external change, but fixed (and frequently unexamined) ideas of how to respond to those changes.

John Kenneth Galbraith, the prize-winning economist, observed that “The enemy of the conventional wisdom is not ideas but the march of events.” And the tide of expected future change in our society is now rapid and breathtaking to most — whether we consider irresistible forces like the advent of the Knowledge Age (with knowledge doubling in many fields within a few years, months, or even days), the electronic improvements in communication choices (the potential number of ways for you to receive or send a message will continue to grow rapidly for many more years), shifts in work activities (from routine fulfilling of standard tasks to Peter Drucker’s knowledge work) and stability (as a result of down-sizing and a “free agent” work force), demographic-driven social changes (ever older populations in the developed countries and ever younger ones everywhere else), weather volatility (both in temperatures and storms), the movements of currencies and markets, social mores of the moment (fads get shorter and shorter), or personal styles of the young (differentiating from older teenagers, not just from adults).

There is no doubt that today the world has become much more complicated and interconnected. For businesses, globalization means that the number and distance of customers, suppliers and competitors have grown geometrically. Such interconnectedness also means that what affects one can quickly spread and affect all, like the rapid expansions of computer and human viruses. These connections mean that economic and financial adjustments, especially in prices and currency values, travel faster and further than before. A rapidly growing enterprise must be adept in adapting to these changes. I believe that making rapid and best use of sudden changes in powerful conditions no one can control is the key to becoming an irresistible growth enterprise.

When asked after World War II about how much control they had over their business’s success, U.S. CEOs felt they had a great deal. By the start of the 1990s, CEOs often felt that irresistible forces had more impact on the company’s success then the employees did.

We only have to look at various charts measuring events over the last decades to see that the volatility of many irresistible forces is also growing. In the last 30 years alone, this volatility has involved an unprecedented success by a commodity cartel (the Arab oil embargo), the fall of a major government type around the world (communism), stock prices have experienced unprecedented growth in the United States and many other countries, interest rates have fluctuated from over 20 percent to as low as 2 percent in North America (and more widely elsewhere), and the advent of the service economy was diverted into creating an information-based economy that skips the need to be local.

As these examples suggest, the degree and speed of change are both accelerating. At one time, corporate leaders could conduct leisurely studies of such changing phenomena after they began to occur, thoughtfully select the right actions, and then experiment with the best way to proceed. In many cases, the time involved to deliberately study its choices today costs a company its biggest opportunities, and can even lead to failure.

Consider Barnes & Noble, the leader in physical book stores. Before launching its electronic commerce business, it decided to watch what happened with Amazon.com for a while as it studied its options. By the time the leaders of Barnes & Noble were ready to act, Amazon.com had built a commanding electronic lead that will be very difficult to overcome. Naturally, it is nice to be able to find one trend and ride it for a long time. The results can be wonderful.

McDonald’s is one of very few fortunate companies that have had this experience. The company’s premise is based on customers’ desires for dependable, inexpensive food, served quickly and effectively in convenient clean locations. From its beginnings as a single hamburger stand in the 1930s in San Bernardino, California, it has become a global giant today.

But even McDonald’s had to learn eventually to adapt to the irresistible force of consumer food preferences as it moved beyond North America. The familiar hamburger, fries and soft drink menu had to expand to offer curry in England and a glass of wine in Paris.

Today’s enterprises will find such long-term strategic rides to be the exception to the rule. Consider how Microsoft flirted with disaster in the 1990s by missing the early significance of providing software and services for the Internet. Intel was originally a memory chip manufacturer, and shifted into microprocessors as its primary business somewhat by accident.

The world is full of shuttered stores that failed to meet customer needs. Their boarded up windows are mute testimony to the need to shift with the changing trends. Many of the most significant uncontrollable forces (such as new technologies, improved communications, the weather, demographics, user preferences, and economic conditions) have grown much more volatile and unpredictable in just the past five to ten years. Analysts suggest that this trend will accelerate due to the “chaos” effects of how a small change in one place in the world can cause an enormous change elsewhere.

Simply consider all of the changes that Jack Welch went through to turn General Electric from a slow-growing-industrial goods manufacturer into a financial services powerhouse with high-margin manufacturing specialties. Any one of these changes could have overwhelmed most organizations, yet Welch succeeded with several.

How well the company fares under Welch’s successors will reveal a lot about the difficulties of continuing as an irresistible growth enterprise.

This multiplier effect will increasingly result with all irresistible forces, and this is the key insight upon which you must act now. While most organizations will react to such uncontrollable forces and their changes only when it is impossible not to (out of self-preservation or fear), the irresistible growth enterprise will see the creation of broad unstoppable change, the accurate anticipation of such changes, and the steady beneficial harnessing of such changes to achieve its purposes as its primary tasks.

Are you ready?

Copyright 2008 Donald W. Mitchell, All Rights Reserved

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