“What are we going to do?”

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It’s been said on too many occasions that actions speak louder than words. Said so often in fact, that many brands today seem to have a disregard that borders on disdain for taking the time to really think through what could make them outstandingly competitive.

In today’s manic, results-driven world, fewer and fewer people, it seems, feel they have time to strategise where their company and their brand needs be heading, and how to retain their edge. It’s better instead, they believe, to just get on with the business at hand.

Everything happens now. And as a result, considered is an idea that seems to have passed its use-by date.

Execution is the mot du jour. The best way to solve any problem is to do something. In fact, not just something, lots of things. Kevin Roberts calls this, “ready, fire, aim”. I call it stupid. Looking to reaction and sheer activity to get you out of trouble relies on the fallacy that doing something has got to be better than doing nothing. In fact, they strike me as equally dumb, because chances are that if indeed you are in trouble, you are where you are because of what you have been busy doing up until now. Indulging in more of the same action parallels having another drink to try and cure alcoholism. It’s just as likely to deepen the problem as fix it.

Remember that lovely moment in the TV series Blackadder when the General says they’re going to throw more men over the top at the enemy and take them completely by surprise. Captain Blackadder queries the surprise element of repeating an action that the British undertook “last time … and the time before that … and the time before that .. and so on” Precisely, says the General, and that’s why it’s so clever. Because doing what we’ve always done is the last thing that the enemy will expect us to do again.

As Albert Einstein once said “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

The philosophy of act and adapt as necessary only works if you do actually adapt. (Even the British High Command came to realise that.) And the key reason why adaption is so hard is because action is easier. People can concentrate on doing what they know, what they have within their frame of reference, what they’ve been doing for some time. Action. And reaction. Getting through workloads. Getting things done. Following the other guy. Or not following the other guy.

Some decision makers seem to believe that if they act, they will get better at what they have been doing (which, incidentally, is often not that dissimilar to what everyone else is doing). That will also satisfy their KPIs – which often are built around actions not competitive effectiveness. Do more. Be more effective.

Polaroid did that. They made a great product. And that’s what they focused on. They were on a roll until digital came along and took the wind out of their sails. Suddenly they were becalmed. They’d got very good at being Polaroid – the problem was that the world had moved on, and now the thing they were so good at wasn’t noteworthy anymore. Polaroid, it seems to me, never had a winning strategy for the digital age. But, like I said, they were very good at what they did. I call this redundant excellence.

Their competitor Kodak had the same issue. Brilliance in the analogue world of photography actively prohibited them from making the changes needed to stay competitive. I have no doubt that over the 15 years that Kodak slowly deteriorated, everybody there worked hard. I have no doubt either that many actions were taken. It’s just that they were the wrong actions in the end because they were based on old thinking about consumers’ wants around their photos.

The irony is that Kodak were a first mover in the very market that would later kill them. In 1975, a Kodak engineer created the first digital camera, but for whatever reason they never took advantage of being first-out-of-the-blocks.

There’s a good chance both companies confidently met many of their KPIs along the way. But key performance indicators are not necessarily success indicators. They recognise actions the company thinks is important. But if those markers are out of alignment with what is required to actually be competitive, then a company may well meet its own goals at the expense of securing its future.

The ironies of this can be intriguing. One set of numbers – the financials – can be showing that things are not as they should be. Another set of measurements can be showing that people are doing all that is expected of them. When a management team is so close to what’s happening, it can be very challenging for them to agree that the expectations they set were wrong.

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