Holding On Too Tight
In the classic 1986 movie,Top Gun, Navy fighter pilot Cougar, played by actor John Stockwell, finds himself and his plane locked in the gun sights of a MiG fighter. After eventually landing safely, he reports to his commanding officer’s office and tenders his resignation by announcing: “I’m holding on too tight. I’ve lost the edge.”
While Top Gun is just a movie, this scene illustrates an important point voiced years ago by Stephen Covey: we sometimes can get so caught up in processes and in making sure we’re doing things right that we overlook the bigger picture or fail to ask ourselves if we’re doing the right things. This plays itself out on a couple different levels in business.
On a procedural level, we can all agree that having well documented procedures for how to consistently produce superior products and services is a great idea. After all, famed business author Michael Gerber built a career flogging this concept. At the same time, it’s easy to get so caught up in HOW we do things that we forget WHY we’re doing them in the first place. And while this might work when we’re solo operators, as we add people to our organizations, the importance of WHY we do what we do increases. WHY we do things brings more meaning to HOW we do them. It also helps keep us from being blindsided by changes that take place in our industry.
On a strategic level, it’s not uncommon for businesses to get so caught up in relying on the things that made them successful in the past that they fail to recognize changes in customer preferences or technology that will help them maintain relevance in the future. The story of Swiss watchmakers in the 1970’s is a classic example.
In 1968, Swiss watchmakers commanded 50% of the worldwide market. 50%! Imagine commanding half of the market for the goods and services your company provides in your market area. However, by 1978—just 10 short years later—their once dominant position had fallen to only 10% of the worldwide watch market. What could possibly have caused this? Over-focusing on the past certainly played a role.
At a worldwide watch convention held in Basel, Switzerland, a new technology had been introduced: Quartz technology, which Swiss engineers helped to invent. While Swiss watchmakers focused their attention and money on improving main springs and balance wheels in an effort to improve older technology, the rest of the world embraced the technology of the future. As they say, the rest is history.
The lesson learned is that, while continuous improvement of our products and services is always important, we don’t want to be so consumed that we overlook the direction in which our markets, technology, and customer preferences are headed. A critical component of strategic planning isn’t just trying to identify new avenues the company needs to pursue but also which things it needs to stop doing.
When we’re able to keep a soft hand on the throttle of our companies, rather than holding on too tight, we’re better able to maintain our edge, make more informed decisions, and fly our companies into successful tomorrows.