Unless you are just starting our in your business and have a completely clean slate you carry some baggage into each decision in the form of the outcomes of your previous decisions. That baggage sets the foundation for your future decisions and can take the form of organizational structure, staffing decisions, technology investments, brand image and positioning, and many others. This baggage is very real and does create very real constraints on the decision process, but if you allow it to control the decision making process you are doomed to mediocre decisions and moderate growth at best over the long haul.
Let’s consider the baggage of technology investments, something that I have the most experience dealing with. There is a concept called “technology debt” which is made up of all of the gaps between the tactical or not quite strategic investment or architecture decisions you have made to the ideal solution, added over time. In many older organizations this debt level can be staggering with a mix of “legacy” mainframe and microcomputer applications mixed with more recent open systems platforms and multiple “middleware” layers stitching the whole mess together. If you step back and look objectively at it it can be hard to fathom the set of decisions that led to the ball of yarn you are now managing in a business environment that is changing at an ever increasing pace.
In this environment we often find ourselves in a position of what feels like running our fastest just to stay one step behind our competition. The strategy becomes outwardly to be a “fast follower” not because we think that is the right approach to the market, but because it is the best we can do given the foundation we have built over time.
The problem with this approach is that if you accept the constraints of the baggage of the past at face value and accept that you always want to be at least at parity with your industry in your base offering, you will never have any resources left to focus on what really should matter – winning.
I believe the answer to this puzzle comes from a perhaps unlikely source – hockey great Wayne Gretzky. He said:
A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.
If you allow yourself to accept the constraints of the past (where you are on the ice right now) and focus on maintaining a minimum standard of parity with the industry (where the puck is now) you are doomed to spending your time chasing the play rather than winning games or (as in Wayne’s case) rewriting the history book on your game.
It is true that you may be carrying a seemingly unmanageable level of technology debt (or organizational debt, or B-players, or brand orientation etc) but that constraint only really limits the amount of resources you can bring to bear on new initiatives and ideas, not what initiatives and ideas you can pursue. You can chase the puck where it is now or skate to where it’s going, but not both.
The only way to break the cycle is to consciously choose to direct your attention to where the puck is going to be and accept that for at least one step on your journey you won’t be a “fast follower” to industry parity. You need to skip a step in your evolution to get back into the lead and get back to dictating the way the game is played rather than hoping for a lucky bounce.
I admit this is easier said than done – how do you know where the puck is headed? What if it stays where it is and nobody makes the pass you expected? How do you move to playing an offensive game without letting up on your defense and giving up the next all important goal?
There isn’t an easy answer, but I believe it comes down to your deep understanding of the game you are playing. Wayne Gretzky wasn’t lucky or blessed, he was a brilliant student of the game of hockey who could read the play better than anyone else in the game. He could “see the ice” in a way that most players only dreamed and in a way that few if any have achieved since.
The truth is though that while Gretzky is clearly the best to ever play the game, there are a much greater number that have experienced great success by following his same approach – albeit with less skill or accomplishment in their talent.
You don’t have to be the Wayne Gretzky of your industry to be successful, but you do have to apply the same dedication to understanding your market, your customer, and the direction of your industry as he did to be able to get to the open ice on a reasonably consistent basis.
Spend (lots of) time reading about the trends that affect your industry. Spend lots of time interacting and observing your customer and how they use your products and services and those products and services that adjoin yours in the value stream. Spend lots of time reading the opinions of others who are looking at your industry from an outside lens (analysts, bloggers, advisors, reviewers, etc).
Then, skate where you think the puck is headed and stop worrying about where it is right now.
Tim Empringham, MBA
Tim Empringham is a passionate advocate for Innovation in organizations of all sizes as a mechanism to drive growth, create uncontested market space, create new customer value, and drive efficiency into the internal organization. His focus is on disruption of thinking and markets through integrative thinking, structured Innovation frameworks, and leadership development of Innovation and Change leaders within the organization.