Monday, June 2, 2008

Analogy #182: Blueprint for Success?

Once there was a man named Joe who did a very good job of managing an office building. His job was to see that the building and all of its systems were in good operating order. Joe made sure the electrical systems worked, the air conditioning worked, and that the building was secure.

Joe did such a good job in these areas that he got a promotion. In his new job, Joe was in charge of a much larger and much older building.

Joe came to the new building with a large bundle of papers under his arm. The guard at the door asked him what all those papers were. Joe responded, “These are the blueprints of the building I used to work at and the schematics of all of the equipment that was in that building. These papers never let me down in the past, so I expect they will continue to fuel my success.”

“But Joe,” said the guard, “This building doesn’t look at all like the old building…and the equipment inside is a lot older and made by other manufacturers. How are those papers going to help you here?”

“These are the papers I know. I have become an expert at interpreting them. It is because of my ability to interpret these papers that I have been so successful. Why abandon something which has worked so well for me?”

Well, as problems turned up at Joe’s new location, Joe stayed true to his word and relied on the old blueprints and schematics. However, because they were not designed for this building, they gave Joe bad advice. Joe kept putting holes in the wrong walls and destroying the equipment by wiring it improperly.

The building quickly was in worse shape than when Joe started. Joe was fired.

Joe was confused. He knew those were great blueprints and schematics. He wondered what went wrong. Joe finally concluded that the problem was because nobody else in the building was using his blueprints and schematics. If they had just been more like him, Joe concluded, there would not have been any problems.

Joe eventually got another building management job. And guess what…he brought those same papers to his new job.

Joe had been very successful earlier in his career. He attributed his success to following a particular blueprint. Unfortunately, that blueprint is only an accurate representation of one building. If you try to apply that blueprint to a different building, it is not very useful.

It seems silly that someone would rely on a blueprint designed for an entirely different building, but similar things happen in the business world all the time. Many successful business executives move around to new jobs with different companies, often in different industries. When they get to the new job, they bring along the “blueprint for success” which worked so well in the past. All the tricks and dashboards which worked so well before are expected to perform exactly as well in the new location.

Most times, though, there is enough of a difference in the circumstances that the old tricks don’t have the same impact. Differences in corporate culture, customer base, core competencies, reputation, or resources can make your new situation not very similar to the old blueprint of success. As a result, you will be like Joe, putting holes in the wrong locations and destroying the operational systems.

It can be something very simple, like an executive I knew who honed his skills in tough New York City. When he took a job in the more people-sensitive Midwest, his formerly successful tough style failed miserably. His failure to adapt his style to the new culture eventually forced him out of the company.

Other times, it can be subtle nuances to the local business. They are not always easy to detect at first. The companies may look very similar at first blush, but these nuances may be enough to make success in each depend on very different variables. Coke and Pepsi may look similar at first, but they have reached their success in very different ways.
Just because you have some great “blueprints” doesn’t mean that you can just walk into any building and be an instant success.

The principle here is that learning is better than knowing. You can know how to do something so well that you can do it in your sleep. But if situations change, the thing you know how to do may no longer be useful. Knowledge has limited applicability to limited situations. Get outside those boundaries and the knowledge is worthless. If you only know one way, and that way becomes worthless, you become worthless.

Better than knowing how is to learn why. Learn why the blueprint is successful. Learn the broader principles behind when the tricks work better or worse. Learn a variety of skills and when they are most appropriate. That way, when situations change, you will understand how to adapt to the change.

Knowledge can lead to cockiness. You may have had great success in cost cutting and become cocky enough to believe that all problems can become solved through cost cutting. Therefore, without deep thought one can approach every problem by rushing to cut costs.

However, some problems can be caused by years of underinvestment. The solution may be to temporarily increase costs through investments in technology or infrastructure.

This idea is similar to the flaw of having only one trick up your sleeve, which we talked about in the blog “Henry the Hammer.”

So. when confronting a new situation, such as a new job or a new responsibility, keep the following ideas in mind.

1. Don’t assume that the strategic tricks of the past will work exactly the same in the new situation.

2. Don’t rush too quickly into action. Take time to learn. Learn the nuances of the business. Learn the culture. Talk to key customers. Talk to the old-timers. Learn how it is similar and how it is dissimilar to situations in your past.

3. Don’t assume that all of the blueprints currently in use by the business are all wrong and that all of your blueprints are all right. The truth is somewhere in between. Remember, the business you are inheriting got as far as it did by doing something right. Learn what that was, before changing it.

4. Don’t be afraid to try new things. For example, if you move to a new company from a competitor and try to do things exactly like they do it at the old place, all you are building is an inferior clone of the old company. The marketplace already has one of those. You need to develop a strategy which is uniquely different, so that it stands out in the marketplace and can own a position of its own for which your new firm is most ideally suited.

5. Just because you may be more comfortable doing things one way doesn’t mean that your entire team can quickly adapt to your way. It may be easier and faster for you to adapt than to get a whole team to adapt. I know of a place that collected a large number of great employees who came there to avoid a particular management style. New management came in and brought the style these people were trying to avoid. As a result, many left the company.

This is not to say that you abandon all of your experience from the past. Experience is a good thing. But the true value of experience is in how well it prepares you to learn and adapt.
Those big consulting companies can sometimes be very useful. They hire very smart people. They’ve been exposed to things you have not seen. However, they do not know the nuances of your business. Therefore, there advice is often rather generic. They can make more money if they quickly push the tricks they know rather than spending time to learn the particulars of your situation. They take the same old power point presentations and just fill in the blank with your company’s name.

These can be clever and useful tricks, but don’t just abdicate all the power to them. Make sure you get them to adapt to your nuances and particulars. Don’t just take what they know. Force them to learn and adapt.

What works well in one place will not necessarily work as well in another place. Strategy is about exploiting one’s uniqueness in the marketplace. Generic one-size-fits-all strategies will never be optimal. Take the time to learn the nuances.

When it’s time to hire people, do you hire them just for the blueprints they have under their arm, or do you look to see how well they can learn and adapt?

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