“Hold on loosely, but don’t let go. If you cling too tightly, you’re gonna lose control.” –from the single “Hold On Loosely” by 38 Special
(TLDR: Wisdom tells us that relationships are best when we hold our partner loosely. If we hold them tightly, it is akin to gripping sand or water, the more we grip, the quicker we lose that which we want to control. In today’s volatile world, we must hold our expertise, our position, our business models and our mental models loosely. We must adopt a mindset of permanent reinvention, adapting to incessant change.)
Perhaps the greatest lesson that retired athletes learn is how nothing lasts forever. When I played for Toulouse, they contracted a certain number of players each year and there was a set number of locker spaces. Each locker was numbered in such a way that was not associated with a jersey number and that was also the number you wore on your club sportswear. Some numbers were 00, others were 85 and mine was 71 which I inherited from the enigmatic Christian Labit and handed over to the phenomenal Thierry Dusatoir. When I joined the club, our coach Guy Novès explained to me that this was not my number, but wearing it made me part of a tradition that spanned over a century. My interpretation remains, “You are not your jersey.” It is a mindset that is useful in a world that requires a mindset of permanent reinvention.
Every aspect of the world is in flux, in a world of such immense change, we require a portfolio of skills to survive disruption. This is why holding prior expertise loosely and embracing constant learning is essential to the permanent reinvention mindset. As the Zen proverb goes, “Knowledge is learning something new every day. Wisdom is letting go of something every day.” Everything has a decay rate: our achievements, our careers, our stations in life. As the prophetic science fiction writer Isaac Asimov observed, “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is but the world as it will be.”
Letting Go Signals Strength
“Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.” – Hermann Hesse
Some of us cling tightly to our roles in life, it is useful to remember that the role we play is not who we are, a role is only transitory. Perhaps that role is parent, perhaps we overidentify with our job, perhaps we cling to our past successes. In doing so, we deny ourselves the joy of uncovering who it is we are destined to become (which takes work). The number-one succession issue facing a family business, for example, is the inability of the current leader to make space for the next generation. Many times family business leaders simply cannot separate psychologically from the business. Leaders of family businesses may lose their own identities and the company has become their identity. If they were to step down, after all, who would they be, what would they do? The thought of letting go can be daunting.
Similarly, many organisations cling overly tightly to mental models that no longer serve them, in the business world this translates into persisting with decaying business models. Let’s look at some examples beyond the poster children of disruption such as Nokia or Blackberry disrupted by both Apple and Android (remember Apple not only innovated with a new product, but also with a new business model, underpinned by a growing platform (The App Store). For this Thursday’s Thought, let’s take two examples as shared by previous guests on The Innovation Show, Rita McGrath and Felix Oberholzer Gee.
Holding the E-Reader Too Tightly – Sony
Felix shares an example of a company clinging tightly to past success from his brilliant book “Better Simpler Strategy“. the example is Sony and the e-reader versus Amazon and the Kindle. E-readers were the hot consumer electronics product of the late 2000s. Sony, the leading consumer electronics company at the time and the first to offer an e-reader, the Librie, a product that offered an unparalleled reading experience on an electronic device. Amazon was keen to enter this fast-growing, billion-dollar market, but its prospects seemed limited. Sony had adopted the leading technology, was first to market, and spent twice as much on marketing as its rivals. Despite these advantages, Amazon beat Sony handily. Felix tells us, “by 2012, Amazon’s Kindle, introduced in 2007, commanded a 62% market share. Sony’s e-reader stood at a measly 2%.” What made the difference?
Wireless access. Sony customers had to download books to their PCs and then transfer their purchases to the reader. When Sony upgraded its device to make PDF and ePub documents accessible, customers had to send their readers to Sony service centres to update the firmware. By contrast, Amazon’s Kindle offered free 3G internet access, a feature that turned books into an impulse purchase. When it was first launched, the Kindle sold out in five hours. Sony created a wonderful reading experience, which it knew was an important factor in a customer’s decision to buy the novel device. Amazon, by contrast, focused on the customer experience rather than the product.
It can be very difficult for a product-centric company like Sony to let go of their past success of superior product quality to pay closer attention to the changing needs of their customer. They gripped the product experience too tightly and in doing so lost their relationship with the customer. By the time Sony gripped loosely and introduced wireless, it was too late. The market had already tipped in Amazon’s favour.
Letting Go Loosely – Verizon and the Phone Directory
“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.”~ Peter F. Drucker
In “The End of Competitive Advantage“, multiple-time guest of The Innovation Show, Rita McGrath shares an example of Verizon, led by Ivan Seidenberg, proactively jettisoned decaying parts of its business – importantly when they were still profitable – to seek out new opportunities. Rita tells us, “The company shed slow-growth units (even those with solid cash flows), such as phone directories. In their place—and using the cash these spun-off businesses yielded—Verizon has made massive investments in such new areas as fibre optic service technology to enable it to compete with cable companies in offering television and internet services. Seidenberg did what many companies fail to do: make aggressive investments in the company’s future while the core business was still generating substantial cash.”
Gripping advantage loosely aligns with what Rita calls Transient Advantage, that competitive advantages are often short-lived. Gripping loosely means a focus on innovation strategies that continually build new advantages and in turn, gripping new-found advantages equally loosely.
This Thursday Thought holds lessons for us in a business and personal context. To navigate change, we must grip our transient advantages loosely. Today, as we close out the Covid-19 pandemic under the threat of war, uncertainty is a certain ingredient of our life experience. We must be make peace with uncertainty and let go of control. The only control we can exercise is over our preparation, in doing so we prepare our response to unavoidable disorder and chaos. I leave the final word with Visa founder Dee Hock, who gifted me with a breathtaking foreword for my book, Dee says of control:
“Life is not about control. It’s not about getting. It’s not about having. It’s not about knowing. It’s not even about being. Life is eternal, perpetual becoming, or it is nothing. Becoming is not a thing to be known, commanded, or controlled. It is a magnificent, mysterious odyssey to be experienced.” – Dee Hock, founder and CEO Emeritus, Visa
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