It was a sad moment no doubt. Back in 2015 when the President of Nokia – Nokia, the star child of Finnish technology sector – announced that it was being purchased by Microsoft. The sale was greased no doubt by the fact that its President, Stephen Alsop, was in fact a former senior bigwig from Microsoft. He was brought into Nokia to see if he could effect a turnaround. He couldn’t. His comment was sad, and illuminating at the same time. It was a precipitous decline for Nokia. One that the folks at Canada’s RIM – Blackberry – understood well having run up smack into smartphone tidal wave that was generated by Apple and Samsung.
But it’s important to understand that the arbiter for success of a business isn’t measured whether it did something right, or whether it did something wrong.
Now before I go too far on that line, let me say this. I believe that all businesses should operate in accordance with the law. Beyond that, I believe there is an ethical dimension to business in that its activities should support and further the aims of broader society. I am not an advocate of Milton Friedman’s view of the enterprise which says essentially that the only obligation of a business is to make profit; to further the aims, primarily of its ownership. I think things are much more complex than that.
In sports I lean more to Al Davis, the now-deceased owner of the Oakland Raiders, who once said
“Just Win Baby!”
And I would eschew his approach rather than that of the New England Patriots who have spent a lot of time trying to game the system to get competitive advantage.
So that’s my caveat.
The battle of business isn’t trying to do things right or even avoiding doing things wrong. It’s more likely a battle of trying to do the right thing better than everybody else who is also trying to doing the right thing.
Alsop’s statement betrays is a bit of self-deflection. In his defense, perhaps he was protecting his people and his predecessors more than himself. And remember, he came late to the game and tried to turn around a company that was on a big slide already. If anything he provided the folks at the company with a softer landing than they might have had otherwise.
I run a trucking software and freight brokerage software business. I don’t worry about whether I am doing the right thing, or the wrong thing. But I do I worry about our speed and ability to learn from our mistakes .
When he assumed the Presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan was told by his intelligence officials that the Soviet Union could not sustain itself – that it could not continue to subsidize its satellite countries providing military protection while still improving the lives of the ordinary Russian citizen who was becoming somewhat restless with all the line ups.
Reagan opened up the arms race. He articulated a ‘Star Wars’ defense system. He raised the ante with the Soviets. He called ‘their hand’, pushed them back to the degree that they had to negotiate more honestly and openly, or turn inward to deconstruct their political dominance over Eastern Europe. It was expensive as he ran big deficits, and it got a bit dicey in world politics. But the pay-off was enormous – the dissolution of the Soviet system, the re-unification of Germany, and the liberalization of economies in Eastern Europe, and even in Russia that has increased standards of living and prosperity, and yes – safety to its citizens. In essence he pushed his ‘lead’ – the lead of the United States – and left his major competitor further behind.
There is the joke about two guys sitting around a campfire, warming themselves, and then being confronted by a menacing grizzly bear. The one guy starts scrambling, putting on his running shoes. The other guys says.
“Don’t worry about your running shoes. Don’t you know you can’t outrun a grizzly bear?”
To which the first guy responds back.
“I don’t have to outrun the bear – I just have to outrun you!”
I think more about the mechanisms and pieces we need to put into our business to learn more quickly from our mistakes than our competitors can learn from theirs. To that end, I have learned to embrace our mistakes. To truly – and I mean it – truly thank a customer who phones into complain. Through my years of experience, I know now, that when customers complain – it’s because they care. It’s the stuff that I don’t see or hear, that I worry about. Indifference is the enemy – not frustration and anger. At least they are showing up to complain!
So I focus on our ability to track the usability of our application. On securing customer feedback on their experience with our company – with our application, with our service, with our website, with our people. I focus on our ability to learn from our marketing mistakes – the A and B testing that we conduct with our online efforts. It was said that the lunar module was 85% off course in trying to land on the moon but that its self-correcting navigation system made sure it got there. When there is lots of space you can find yourself drifting in all directions – finding that straight line is the challenge
A couple of years back I attended a hockey coaches conference at which one of the former leaders of the Canadian Special Forces spoke to us about performance and perseverance. I will never forget what he said
“Good coaches strive for success. Great coaches strive for failure.”
It took me a moment to digest that. Then I realized its power. It’s really only through the testing of our limits – our personal limits, our professional limits, our organizational limits – that we find greatness. That comment is as relevant to business management as it is to coaching in sports.
I don’t know. Maybe Stephen Alsop and Nokia tried to do something that was going to make them great. And they just ran out of runway. That is understandable. It wasn’t right, and it certainly wasn’t wrong. He just didn’t win.
I will leave you with this today.
At the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 Winter Olympics, the 50 kilometer cross country ski race ran on the last day of the games. It is the featured race – the winter equivalent of the marathon event at the Summer Olympic games.
Petter Northug of Norway completed the 50 kilometer course in 2 hours, 5 minutes and 35.5 seconds to win the Gold Medal.
Axel Teichmann completed the course 3/10th of a second slower coming in a 2:05:35.8 to claim Silver.
Johan Olsson came in 2/10th of a second after Axel at 2:05:10 to get the Bronze Medal – a FULL second slower than Petter after 50 kilometers.
Tobias Angerer came in at 2:05:37.0 which was 1.5 seconds slower than the Gold medal winner over the 50 kilometer course… missing out on a medal by half a second.
Devon Kershaw, a Canadian, came in 1/10th of a second slower than Tobias, 1.6 seconds behind the Gold Medallist. He came in 5th… and was probably approached by Microsoft for a buy-out the following day!
One day they will make a movie about this famous race – 5 men who skied 50 kilometers and crossed the finished line mere 1.6 seconds of one another. It might not be a ‘Chariots of Fire’ but it should be a hit with the cross country fraternity for sure.
The margins for winning a medal at the Olympics are minute. The margins for winning in business are as well. I know that you can feel that you are doing everything right, and that might not be enough. You can still come in fifth.
But that’s why I get up early every day… and put on my shoes, and start running. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
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