Wednesday 14 November 2007

Inside and out

Let’s explore the philosophy of Yogi Berra for a minute: If you get to a fork in the road – take it! Opportunities are all around us. Seize them. Follow your dreams. And follow your destiny through to its conclusion.

I think a real challenge in the business world is that many companies, especially young organisations, become very introspective and start focusing way too much on internal things as opposed to external factors such as market trends, legislative conditions, technological developments, changing market places, and so on. I am not saying that internal things are not important, but far too often they are all that people focus on.

Do you see yourself as a business person? Do you see yourself as an entrepreneur? If so, then you will need to start looking outside the walls of your organisation. I am not saying that you must ignore the people within your company. But I am saying that you need to look inside and out. You need to explore the world internally and externally. Simply stated: You need to listen to your customers, your suppliers, and your business partners as well as your fellow staff.

I have seen many start-up companies filled with young, enthusiastic, and aspiring minds, spend so much time on internal issues that the real macro challenges just pass them by. It is the external factors that are the real struggle. As many great leaders have said, "There is no progress without struggle." One needs to be challenged in order to grow. And externally are where some real challenges lie.

I came up with a compelling exercise a few years ago to highlight this point. Call a group of people together in a company and ask them to write down 3 positive and 3 negative things about their organization. I will bet you that on both sides of the scale the issues that are highlighted are practically all inward focused. Typical positive issues would include things like: great culture, friendly people, exciting products, good pay, and so on. Negative issues, on the other hand, would include things like: too stressed, not happy with my pay, poor internal communications, some arrogant co-workers, and so on. I think you get the picture. But what about external factors? What about someone saying, "Hey, our services and products are good enough to compete on the global market!" And on the flip side "Hey, I think this new legislation is going to set us back 5 years!" Seriously, what about external factors?

The people issues are fundamental to any organisation’s success. After all, what is a company but a collection of people. But one has to be careful not to fall into the trap of only focusing on the people within an organisation. One needs to listen, both externally as well as internally. And one needs to have a strong sense of resolve. You cannot please everyone. If someone has an idea that no one buys into then that is the way it is. That is what a democracy, or partnership, is all about. I have seen too many start-up companies’ battle with internal problems because difference and diversity could not be exploited to everyone’s benefit. Instead, people speak about other people and happenings (gossip and office politics are really destructive for an organisation), rather than of ideas.

Think about this for a minute: if your organisation goes bust then all those internal issues will disappear. And you don’t want that. That is no way to solve things. Balance is key here. Again, you need to be looking externally as well as internally.

This exercise also provides a good lesson in perspective. If someone in your organisation thinks that the worst thing in the company is their parking space, for example, then I would have to say that such a person lacks some serious perspective. I have seen this in many companies. I have heard people talk about good and bad things with such an internal perspective. If the fact that your parking bay is the furthest from the elevator continues to drive you mad then I would say that your life lacks some real challenges. The real excitement is out there in the market place. On the other hand, if someone thinks that the best thing about their organisation is the view from their office, well, I will leave this conclusion to your imagination.

What I am trying to illustrate here is that long term business challenges that are pertinent to the continuance of an organisation are just as much out there as they are inside the walls that surround you. Don’t be trapped by these walls. You need to tap into the collective ideas, perceptions and talents of as many people in a company as possible. I guess a real challenge here is that of strategy and the question that goes with it: who drives the strategy of an organisation? A sales person, for example, might turn around and say "Hey, I am not running the company so how could I suggest a direction or strategy for this business to take?" Yes, perhaps in an autocratic organisation, but not in a more enlightened company. Strategy is driven just as much from the bottom as it is from the top. The people on the ground are out there, listening to customers and suppliers, and their input can be very valuable. Their ideas should be exploited. And when your company’s staff are out there, talking with your business partners, the ideas they come up with are going to be largely external – tap into this.

Here is some text I found floating around the Internet. Its wisdom continues to guide me. Small minds discuss people; Average minds discuss events; Great minds discuss ideas.

Posted by Ronnie Apteker