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“This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt


I came across the quote above from Douglas Adams (from his book The Salmon of Doubt ) during a TEDXLondonSalon talk from Robbie Stamp last year. This got me thinking about the implication of this quote to the world of business today with the disruptions created by digital technologies.

Are there organisation equivalent of the puddle described by Douglas Adams?

Of course, organisations (in turn, the individuals who are part of it) can find themselves in a similar situation as the puddle described, if they don’t embrace digital and use the opportunity to rethink their businesses. In the context of large global organisations, it is very easy to get into several mini puddles within the larger puddle. Without a sense of urgency, established organisation can end up in a situation described as Day 2 by Jeff Bezos in his 2016 annual letter to amazon shareholders. This is also supported by several studies like this from innosight ‘The 33-year average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 in 1965 narrowed to 20 years in 1990 and is forecast to shrink to 14 years by 2026’.

How do we avoid the ‘puddle’ situation?

As a consultant who has worked across industries and organisations with varying levels of maturity, I have come to realise that what can distinguish the truly sustainable organisations from the rest are the following pillars of their culture:

  1. Promotion of a Beginner’s Mindset Beginner’s mindset has been central pillars in a variety of fields including Zen Budhism (I love the quote “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” from the book Zen Mind), Design Thinking, Entrepreneurship, Philosophy etc. This focus on learning/fresh perspective on things encourages organisational curiosity and motivation helping avoid the puddle situation.
  2. Active Questioning of Status Quo – This is related to the beginner’s mindset but the important difference is the organisational culture of courage to question and challenge status quo. Much has been written about Status Quo trap in business decision making and risk it brings to the future of business. HBR Article from 2006 on hidden traps in decision making makes some great recommendations on addressing these and other biases which stop businesses from making choices which keep them in the puddle. Most important of these is to be aware of these biases and force yourself to make a choice rather than just stick to the status quo.
  3. Thinking Long Term – It is easy to focus on the short term financials and the associated stock market rewards while not realising that your puddle/market share is getting smaller while new puddles/competitors are springing all around you. The letter from the Google founders (makes for fascinating reading) at their IPO in 2004 has the quote “If opportunities arise that might cause us to sacrifice short term results but are in the best long term interest of our shareholders, we will take those opportunities’, the continued success and growth of Google is a testament to the efficacy of long term thinking.
  4. Better Collaboration – The ability to quickly form a team with diverse skill sets and execute on a shared goal is key to successfully competing in the digital economy. One global consumer product major I worked with was taking more than a year to introduce new products to market (time from the initial idea to product on the shelves) and wanted to speed up the process. We discovered that better collaboration between teams spread out across the world was the key to faster and successful product launches. The importance of collaboration in organisational success is borne out in numerous research articles with tips on how to improve it as well. Digital Technologies can help bridge the collaboration gaps in organisation but wouldn’t work without an associated culture change.
  5. Encouragement of Sharing/Learning from Failures – Most organisations I have come across are very good in celebrating and rewarding success but tend to sweep failures under the carpet. I see failures and negatives as an opportunity for improvement and maybe even course correction. Again, a critical element of the truly sustainable organisation is the desire to learn from failure and to constantly experiment on new ideas. Remember, James Dyson built 5127 failed prototypes before he succeeded with his blockbuster vacuum.

I hope these tips play a part in helping organisations avoid the trap of getting too comfortable in their puddles and prevent their Kodak moment.

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