During the pandemic, I have enjoyed driving my son to school. Last week, during the school run, we encountered roadworks. I had pre-empted this disruption and drove via several back roads and “rat runs” to get him to school only a few minutes later than our usual time of arrival. When we arrived, proud of my endeavours, I turned to him expecting some form of praise, after all, I had saved us at least 25 minutes and avoided total gridlock. On arrival, however, his reaction was unexpected. He said, “Dad, can we just take the normal route tomorrow?” So much for my efforts, I thought to myself. I explained to him that although we had arrived a few minutes later than usual, unbeknownst to him we had actually avoided severe traffic conditions. Unimpressed, he jumped out of the car and joined his friends.
As I left him, it dawned on me how my experience echoes that of legacy organisations: why should they take risks, when it may be safer to stay the course and stick to what they already know? Why should they explore new routes when they can just exploit existing well-worn paths?
Leaders may ask:
Why should I invest in innovation?
Why should I dabble in new business models?
Why should I invest some of our revenue in R&D when I am compensated for hitting monthly, quarterly and annual targets?
Sure, Nelson Henderson may have said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”, but good intentions don’t pay the mortgage! I empathise, especially when an organisation is enjoying its current success. This doubling down on a “what we do best” approach is only heightened when a leader has a board of directors who demand a return on investment today, rather than long-term bets on a potential tomorrow. This is partly what happened to former CEO of Blockbuster John Antioco.Antioco had battled for funds to plant new seedlings under a project known as Total Access. This project could have performed even better than Netflix, but Antioco was ousted by a group of dissident directors who entered into the Blockbuster board mix. Blockbuster invested in the bricks and divested in the clicks and the saplings Antioco had nurtured shrivelled on the vine.
Many CEOs know there is an iceberg(s) somewhere in their path, but it takes much more effort to avoid a potential iceberg than it does to wait until the last minute to ensure it is a real threat and then engage in a dramatic rescue attempt. Even when an organisation crashes into the iceberg, the leader may still be lauded as a hero, despite collateral damage in the form of rounds of redundancies, closures of plants and the shuttering of potential projects for the future.
At this stage, for a variety of reasons, very few board members, shareholders and stakeholders ask the core question: why were we not prepared? Did we pre-empt this scenario? Did we know about the potential threat? Of course, it is hard to ask these questions in the midst of a crisis when you are in “organisational fight or flight mode” and far from thinking clearly. Furthermore, if you are the person who poses tough questions, you run the risk of being considered a naysayer or a pessimist, when in reality you are an open communicator, a gainsayer and a realist.
The question remains, “is the more impressive leader the person who pre-empts a possible iceberg coming and avoids potential impact or the leader who takes action after impact when the damage is done? I think Dee Hock, (who wrote a magnificent foreword for my book “Undisruptable“), understood the subtleties of such a question challenge when he said,
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