Out Zuck the Ordinary
It seems like last week’s blog don’t forget to be human resonated with the emphasis on the power of being kind to aide disruption. Thanks for all the feedback!! The biggest theme questioned whether disruption is only relevant for the tech titans and not for the traditional businesses that have faced the same challenges for decades. Today, I will contend that disruption can be the bastion for us all.
I am sure most of us want to be part of a great disruption story? To run, start, or play a project leadership role in a company that wins large and changes the course of its industry. To launch a brand that dazzles consumers and dominates its market. To be the kind of executive or entrepreneur who creates jobs, ignites passion, and builds an organization bursting with compassion, energy and creativity.
These days, in the popular imagination, the quest for success has become synonymous with the spread of disruptive technologies and viral apps, with the rise of radical business models and new-fangled work arrangements. This is the stuff that fuels the dreams of countless start-ups and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, and inspires hard-charging disruptors such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. The “new economy,” the story goes, belongs to a new generation of companies and leaders who have little in common with what came before.
But why should the story of disruption be the exclusive domain of a few technology-driven startups or a handful of young billionaires?
Accordingly, I am going to explore over the next few weeks how we can overcome the challenges that can confound our transition into a new era:
- How do we take the zest for creativity and experimentation that is as natural as breathing in Silicon Valley and extend it to more industries, more fields of endeavor, and more walks of life?
- How do we celebrate breakthrough disruptions that occur not just in virtual reality, artificial intelligence and automation but communities and industries that have been part of our economy for over a hundred of years?
- How can we help people who are working in traditional, familiar workplaces with long established fields that what they know is not limited by their current view of the ordinary?
Disruption doesn’t have to be about Google, Tesla or Facebook. It can happen in the most ordinary fields that you can imagine. Where leaders build creative confidence and enable employees to do truly extraordinary things. To me all it takes is to recognize that we are living in a world, no matter what field you are in that ordinary is simply is not an option anymore. You can’t do big things if you are content with doing a little bit better than everybody else or a little bit different from how you have done them in the past. The goal today, the definition of disruption isn’t to be the best but to be the only. What do you promise that only you can promise? What can you deliver that nobody else in your field can? What are you prepared to do that other organisations simply cannot or won’t do? These are the questions that disruptors ask.
In a time of wrenching disruptions and exhilarating advances, of unrelenting turmoil and unlimited promise, the future is open to everybody. The thrill of breakthrough creativity and breakaway performance doesn’t just belong to the youngest companies with the most cutting-edge technology or the most radical business strategies. It can be summoned in all sorts of industries and all walks of life, if leaders can reimagine what’s possible in their fields.
It is possible to turn even the most familiar offerings, in some of the world’s most traditional settings, into products, services, and experiences that are genuinely remarkable. However, I’ve heard the same reservations time and again, from executives in long-established industries who are reluctant to contemplate a dramatic break from the past: “This place has been around for a hundred years, we’re not Google or Amazon”. Or, “This is not a glamorous business, we can’t be a passion brand like Apple or Nike.”
Their real message: Don’t blame me for being average or old-fashioned, I’m not from Silicon Valley or Seattle. To which I would reply: Don’t use your company’s age or industry as an excuse for mediocrity. There is no such thing as an average or old-fashioned business, just average or old-fashioned ways to do business. In fact, the opportunity to reach for extraordinary may be most pronounced in settings that have been far too ordinary for far too long. If how you think shapes how you compete, then it should be easier to compete in fields locked into old ways of thinking.
To the outside world WD40 may appear to be the most boring product on the planet. And for many decades this ‘one trick pony’ was reflected internally and externally. However, with a shift in strategic purpose the prevailing view now is that the company is “create positive lasting memories and solve problems in the workshops, factories and homes of the world”. The CEO Gary Ridge insists that the companies’ products don’t just keep things clean or free of rust but to ‘rid the world of squeaks, smells, and dirt’. There are now WD40 fan clubs in nearly every major country and it has become a billion dollar enterprise on the back of its share price tripling since 2009. The company may still be a one trick pony but they have defined the trick differently.
Why this story now? Because we have entered a new era of business and leadership, an era defined less by advanced technology than by ever-advancing competitive intensity. When customers have higher expectations than ever, when rivals are more capable than ever, when choices, options, and brands are more numerous than ever, then familiar strategies and comfortable ways of working are less effective than ever. In any industry, especially in long-established industries, leaders who make waves and make their mark are the ones who rethink what they’ve always done, who refresh and reinterpret the products and experiences they offer, who invite new voices into the conversation about the future of their organization.
Thomas L. Friedman, the agenda-setting New York Times columnist, has coined a phrase that nicely captures the tenor of these demanding times. “Today,” he argues, “average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above-average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra—their unique value contribution that makes them stand out.”
This phenomenon is being played out across the global economy, with huge consequences for those who fail to reckon with it. Lior Arussy, who advises some of the world’s most prominent companies on the relationship between strategy, disruption, and growth states, “the problem with most organizations and brands, is not that they are broken. It’s that they are boring. And boring organizations don’t lend themselves to runaway success”.
“We are living in a new world,” he argues. “Customers no longer accept an ‘okay’ job. It’s exceptional or nothing. In most fields, what was once exciting quickly becomes boring, and boring becomes annoying. ‘Impress me, surprise me, do something I will remember’—that’s what customers want. That’s what organizations have to deliver.
Simon Sinek has written that great leaders “Start with Why”—they “choose to inspire rather than manipulate” and to “rally those who believe” to support a shared cause. He’s right. Whatever the specifics of the company or the field, leaders who break new ground are those who are willing to make promises that other leaders won’t make, because they have a point of view about the future that other leaders don’t share.
To ensure the management team at WD40 don’t subscribe to the boring, Ridge (the CEO) insists that everyone at the company take the Maniac Pledge, a solemn vow to become a ‘learning maniac’. To remind himself he affixes an electronic message from Michelangelo: “Ancora Imparo”, Italian for “I am still learning”.