Thursday, May 8, 2008

Analogy #178: Sinking In Quicksand

Quicksand is an interesting substance. It’s basically just a sandy area supersaturated with water. At times, quicksand acts more like a solid, and at other times it acts more like a liquid.

If you accidentally walk into some quicksand, it will start to pull you down into it. A typical reaction when this happens is for people to start thrashing around in the quicksand to try to get out. The thinking is that if I can just keep shifting my weight from foot to foot, I will be able to eventually get a foot free.

All of this activity changes the chemical bonds between the sand and the water, causing the quicksand to act more like a liquid. The process has the technical name of liquefaction. The more liquid-like the quicksand, the less the resistance and the faster one sinks into it. So the irony is that the more you fight with the quicksand, the more the quicksand will win, pulling you down faster.

By contrast, if you make no movement at all, the chemical bonds between the sand and the water stay strong and the quicksand acts more like a solid. The natural buoyancy of your body will create a sense of equilibrium with the ground and you will stop sinking. In fact, you might even float up a little bit closer to the surface.

Therefore, the safest thing to do when confronted with quicksand is practically nothing. Slow, gentle, purposeful movement will get you safely out.

Quicksand can be a symbol for all kinds of dangers and threats in the business place. It could represent an economic slowdown/recession, a new competitive threat, a changing consumer, or other such troubling events.

These events can make you feel trapped, as if you are in quicksand. Things seem out of your control and you feel like your business is starting to sink.

Just as with quicksand, one often starts to react quickly to this negative situation by thrashing around. The business undergoes a lot of activity in an attempt to break away from the negative environment “quicksand.” This could include actions like:

- Changing Advertising Agencies
- Firing the CMO
- Changing the Strategy
- Releasing a flurry of New Products
- Modifying the Business Model
- Reorganizing the Corporate Structure
- Bringing in Fresh Talent
- And so on….

Yet, as is so often the case with quicksand, the more you thrash around in a flurry of activity, the faster the business continues to sink. Although it goes against our natural instincts, we will see in this blog that often the best thing to do when your company hits a patch of quicksand is to do practically nothing.

The principle here is that frequent change can often be more damaging than “staying the course.” Even in times of trouble, avoiding change can be one of your best moves. Especially in times of panic, change can be your worst enemy, because the change is not rooted in one’s core strategy. Instead, it tends to be disjointed and counter productive.

There are four basic ways in which too much change-based activity can draw you further into the quicksand, rather than lead you to safety. These are discussed below.

1. Dilution
It is difficult to stake out a distinct position in the marketplace that is ownable in the mind of the customer. Once your strategy helps you find and achieve your winnable point of distinction, hang onto it. It is the reason for someone to prefer you over the competition. Lose that point of distinction and you lose your advantage.

Often times, a lot of actions will stretch the company in areas beyond that point of distinction. For example, a luxury brand could panic and add line extensions at the lower end, or increase its distribution in more mass channels. This could dilute your point of distinction in luxury and class. You will be seen more as a mass brand, and your core customers could abandon you.

Or, you may have a strong brand name that you start slapping on a whole slew of new products that have little to do with the original product. You have diluted what that brand stood for, weakening its power of ownership in the marketplace. Instead of standing one thing well, you now are diluted to sorta meaning a number of things, none very well.

Often times, trying to stretch to become all things to all people makes you mean less of anything to anyone.

2. Confusion
With all of the communication “noise” out in the marketplace, it is very difficult to get your message across clearly. Compound that with the fact that your customer has a lot of other things on their mind and that you are probably not near the top of their list of priorities. So the noise coming at your audience is drowning you out while at the same time your customers are not all that attuned to listening for your message, either.

The net result is that it is hard to get a new message out clearly to the intended audience. If your new message is different from your old message, then it will not serve to reinforce and strengthen your communication. Instead, it will tend to confuse them.

They had one impression of you before, and now you are asking them to take on a different impression of what you stand for. Because the messages are conflicting, the end result is often confusion. And they are often not going to waste their precious time to resolve the confusion.

The same thing can apply to your own people. They may become confused about what the company stands for and become confused about what is expected from them. Rather than having clarity of purpose and determination about executing their role to its fullest, they hold back out of uncertainty.

Creating confusion during uncertain times will just draw you deeper into the quicksand.

3. Averaging
If you currently own a point of distinction, that is a good asset to hold onto. Your competition probably owns different points of distinction that are assets for them. In times of trouble, you may become jealous of some of the advantages your competition has due to their points of distinction. As a result, you may want to make changes that help you achieve some of the points of distinction of your competition.

The problem is that when you combine all of the points of distinction, you no longer become distinct at anything. You end up averaging to the middle. It’s like mixing all of the pretty colors of paint together. In the end, you end up with none of the pretty colors and only have an ugly gray mess.

Averages are not always the best place to be. For example, if a market is 50% men and 50% women, the “average” person would be half-male/half-female. That average person does not exist. Targeting that average is not as effective as being distinctively male or female.

Of course, if you attack a competitor’s point of distinction, they will vigorously fight back. In the end, you will probably not have taken away it away. But you will have probably weakened your own point of distinction through dilution and confusion.

4. Stalling
Any change in course eats up precious time. It takes time to get a new team up to speed. It takes time to convert to a new ad agency and get a new program in place. It takes time to even dream up what the change will be. It takes time to get the message out. It takes time for consumers to react.

In tough times, one cannot afford to waste time. It’s like being in a road race and spending all of your time at the pit stop. Sure, a pit stop can help you change your tires and get more fuel in the tank, but while you are in the pit row, your competitors continue to race. Too much time in preparation at the pit stop can cause you to lose the race. The pit stop becomes your pit of quicksand.

In times of trouble, there can be pressure to embark on a slew of new activities and agendas. However, all of this activity can result in dilution, confusion, averaging and lost time. None of these results will help you get out the quicksand. They only help you to sink faster. The better route is to stay the course and reinforce whatever point of distinction you already have in the marketplace.

It’s true that sometimes one needs to change course. All strategies eventually become irrelevant. However, the time to change is not when times are tough and you feel most vulnerable. Rash decisions at a time of panic are rarely the best decisions. It is better to slowly evolve into the change while you are still on top. Think it through during calmer times. The better the fortress you build in the good times, the better you can weather the eventual storms.

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