Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Status Quo = Steady as She Sinks

There are many metaphors describing the human tendency to avoid making hard decisions.  My favorite is “steady as she sinks.”
One of my earliest bosses taught me the meaning of that catchy phrase, and the importance of provoking decisiveness. Our business unit was trying to break into a new market. We had assembled a team of diverse people, each bringing strengths without much overlap. The theory of our leader was that we needed to cover a wide front with expertise in order to detect, assess, and react to opportunities.

Our modis was to collaborate as a team to pick our battles, and then to adjust the profile of our unit to respond accordingly. But, not knowing which battles would be presented to us, we needed a generalist orientation.

In many ways, we acted like a startup business, even though we were part of a much larger organization. The market we sought to penetrate was polluted with entrenched competition and a client base that tended to stay within a known community of service providers.

We had to work hard to gain recognition. Our targeted clients were comfortable with the familiar, and we were a new entrant. How could we challenge the status quo and the perceived lower-risk of doing business with the old guard?

We adopted "steady as she sinks" to provoke our clients into asking themselves whether the old guard were the right partners for the next era.

I liked the multiple interpretations the phrase conveys. To me, it challenged complacency and the tendency to take the easy or comfortable path. Like the boiling frog, just because everything around you feels familiar and stable doesn't mean that you're not losing.

We were quite successful with our strategy of provocation; our business unit grew with some impressive wins.

The adage holds true even better today.

I recently helped several companies think about new sources of growth for their very successful businesses. As leaders in defined markets, the executives couldn't help but constrain their thinking to the boundaries within which they'd always worked. They perceived that reaching beyond those limits would be too foreign, require new skills, and entail uncertain risks.

Most of these companies were faced with the fact the markets are changing at a pace that is unprecedented; the old boundaries are being blown away by new capabilities that are being conceived and implemented with great pace. They could fight to keep share in the markets that they knew well and were most comfortable, or look to redefine the boundaries and reset the game.

Making no decision is tantamount to refusing to change. Look at the increasing tendency of activist investors who are indicting the decision-making of incumbent management for inadequate aggressiveness around change.

On one recent occasion, as we weighed the merits of a bold move into an adjacent market, an executive asked, "If this is such a great idea, why hasn't anyone done this already?" 

The answer? Often times, fortune favors the bold.

Peter Allen has many years of operating experience as a top executive of rapidly-growing multi-billion dollar companies and in assessing sales and marketing effectiveness. He is now a Boston-based Managing Director at Alvarez & Marsal.

Image: born1945/Flickr

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