Keep Calm and Carry On

I say it all the time, but organizations are funny things. Sometimes an organization will start to make a little headway with something–anything from their culture to their branding to their structure to their products and services. They’ll have some forward momentum that they’ve generated over recent months or years, but as with any organization, they run into the inevitable obstacle or setback. Maybe a few of them.

You can almost see it coming at that point–a retreat is inevitable. Duped into thinking that going backward instead of forward in the face of uncertainty is the better option, organizations flee back to what they perceive to be safety. In reality, that safety is often at best a temporary respite from the craziness that is progress, and at worst a fearful and controlling uber-conservativism masquerading as safety. It’s like they hit the rewind–or perhaps even reset–button on the organization.

The problem is that the safe thing isn’t always the smart thing. And it’s certainly not always the best thing. A lot of times, organizations that thrive and grow are the ones who are willing to press on when things go a little sideways on them.

Citing Apple is so terribly cliché at this point, and I’m not one who says that everyone needs to be exactly like Apple, but that’s where my mind went when I was thinking about this. Apple had plenty of opportunities to pack it in and play it safe.

Like, for example, after their Apple 3 computer turned out to be a literal fire hazard. Or after their release of the not-so-lovely Lisa model. Or maybe after their Macintosh Portable, which was more likely to turn on when it wasn’t plugged in than when it was. (yes, you read that correctly) Or possibly after their Newton MessagePad, which sported new technology (technology that inspired modern products, actually) but was a failure in its day. Or perhaps following their PowerBook Duo, with all its random and various docks that people first had to purchase and then were subsequently confused by.  Or after the Performa, which was supposed to be a cheaper line of computers but was still more pricey than its PC competitors and didn’t work nearly as well. Or the eWorld. Don’t remember eWorld? Yeah, most people don’t. Or the Pippin, a console designed to compete with Nintendo, Playstation, and Sega. Or their Copland OS. Or that hockey-puck-shaped mouse. Or the Power Mac G4 Cube.

You see what I’m saying, right?

Great organizations learn to roll with the punches while continuing to move forward. That’s not to say there’s never a time when an organization should take a step back for some reason, but those times are less frequent than we might be tempted to think. We have to work to keep calm and carry on rather than succumbing to what for many is the default mode of the human heart and mind–fleeing to safety when things get a little rough.

10 thoughts on “Keep Calm and Carry On

  • Matt – one of your best posts ever. In an era where “agile” and “lean” are buzzwords for business experimentation, your example of Apple’s trials and failures puts a different perspective on it. Sometimes a trial can go really badly, as shown in your laundry list of Apple’s failures. But to progress, you HAVE to fail sometimes. The key is to run with the winners and learn from the losers. It’s great to see how you can list so many problems that Apple fell into – and yet look where they landed later… Great post.

    • Thanks, Scott. I’m definitely not saying it’s an easy thing to execute, but we’ve got to be aware of our tendencies as organizations. When we’re aware of them, it’s a little easier to be intentional about not slipping back into ruts.

  • Matt,
    Your post was so insightful – making me think about the workforce in risky times.. a bit of a stream of consciousness….
    So interesting that you reference that poster. What’s intriguing, is that despite the darkening cloud of war, there was a thread of resilience and confidence. Companies often shoot from the hip when numbers go awry, competition heats up, or the economy is in the dumper. But changes to retreat instead of move forward have consequences. Such action often impact employees negatively in the form of cutbacks, layoffs, fewer employee assistance programs. That to me is the biggest hole in the game. In times of conflict, companies should embrace their human triggers, but not in fleeing to safety. Instead they should bolster the confidence and resilience of the workforce enabling everyone to move forward with strength. Embracing such an ideology might make risk taking easier to digest when the team is engaged and moving forward into uncharted territory.

  • Matt,
    I really agree with the concept of failure can assist us in eventually moving forward. A couple of thoughts about that though:
    1) it’s much scarier to move forward than back into our safe zone so it takes courage and sometimes a push, as Judy so aptly mentions above.
    2) while we may agree that failure is an option, many shareholders are not so sanguine about their investment in the company to underwrite risky ventures. Often those who championed the failing project are shown the door which instills fear and the organization ends up being risk-averse.

  • Matt – I think this happens most often when leadership dones’t have true vision, or maybe doesn’t believe it. When tackling something new, you can’t just quit if it doesn’t work in 6 months. I’ve seen happen usually because people get financially impatient. They want results now. Even if the original idea was good, it gets scrapped because the return wasn’t immediate. When people are stuck to a vision (over specific strategies or outcomes) it helps get through tough times and mini-failures. Great post.

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