Change is good but it is possible to be so focused on change that we are unable to execute it effectively. The secret to being able to make quick changes and keep up with constantly evolving business cycles is to not be singularly focused on change itself, but instead, focused on the things that will not change.
I once worked for a company where all the employees joked that each new policy change was the “flavor of the week.” We changed them so often that employees often had a hard time remembering the new processes. It was like that scene in the movie “Office Space” where all his bosses were wondering if Peter was putting the new cover sheets on his “TPS Reports.” The company was so worried about keeping up with best practices, they had no discernible long-term practices at all. Employees were confused, managers were confused, and most damagingly, the customers were confused.
Sometimes we’re so afraid that the competition is going to be ahead of the curve that we expend too much effort trying to read the tea leaves when what we really need is a thing I like to call concentric flexibility.
Security forces often talk about “concentric rings” of vulnerability or protection, meaning the target they are trying to protect is in the middle and there are layers of vulnerability emanating outward like ever wider ripples in a pool.
For example, if you are protecting an airport and you secure the terminal, then the vulnerability moves out to the ticketing area. Once you secure the ticketing area, the threat could move to the parking area, then the airport entry and so on. While the security personnel have concerns about the outer rings, they maintain the majority of their focus on the central element they are protecting.
When applied to business, I call this concentric flexibility. If you stay focused on what’s important, – your core business goals, your customer’s core needs – then you can be more flexible to make positive changes around the edges.
Jeff Bezos of amazon.com once said that what separates people and businesses who achieve lasting success from those who don’t is the ability to focus on the things that won’t change. Bezos understands that his customers want three things: a quality product, at a fair price, delivered quickly. That’s never going to change. He’s now the richest man in the world. Ever.
This is more than just Bezo’s philosophy. It should be as much a business principle as gravity is a physical law. Regardless of the business you are in, there will always be core needs your customers have that will never change. The processes by which you meet those needs or the packaging your product or service comes in may change with time, but the needs themselves simply won’t.
In football, when a running back is handed the ball he has one main focus. Advance the ball. The path to achieve this will be at least slightly different on every single play he ever attempts. But the goal of advancing the ball will never change. He’ll make small decisions on the fly as he runs the ball to achieve his goal. Do I zig? Do I zag? Do I jump? But his focus will always be on the same outcome – advance the ball.
When you focus on the specific and unchanging needs of your customers, you can stay flexible and nimble enough to incorporate new processes to accomplish meeting those needs. Instead of trying to stay ahead of the curve in terms of technology or emerging best practices, you can put new ideas to a simple test. Does this new app, technology, or practice make meeting the unchanging needs of my customer easier and more efficient?
Maybe it is easier to actually be cutting edge when the cutting edge isn’t your main focus.