Matt Allen
November 2016.

Which business disasters can we learn most from?

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When people want to learn from business failures they often look to classic disasters and strategic miscues. In reality, the most serious and common failures – the ones we can learn the most from – are failures of imagination, not situations where companies have tried something different that went catastrophically wrong. For example, Yahoo had the opportunity to buy Google for $50 million during its formative stages. They didn’t think Google would amount to much and turned it down. Imagine how different their world would have been had they taken up that particular opportunity.

This is a key take-home scenario that applies to all businesses, big and small. It’s called “Missing the boat”, a moment where a company or individual has an idea and all the technology in front of them. They have a market waiting for their next move and the resources to make it work, but they don’t make the move. Instead they ask, “What if we spend a lot of money, or use a lot of resources, and it doesn’t work?”

It explains why one of the major record labels didn’t start up MTV in the 1980s, or more recently Spotify. It also explains why it took Microsoft so long to understand the power of the internet, and why the major TV companies failed to devise a 24 hour news channel. Instead, Ted Turner, a guy who owned a billboard company in Atlanta, saw an opportunity, acted on it, and started CNN in 1980. This is the paradox of expertise: the more successful we are, the harder it becomes to open our minds to an entirely new way of work in our field.

Stagnation is very dangerous. One businessman who understands this is Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40. He’s obsessed with learning and everyone in his company has to be a learning maniac, they even take a “Maniac Pledge”, which states: 

“I am responsible for taking action, asking questions, getting answers, and making decisions. I won’t wait for someone to tell me. If I need to know, I’m responsible for asking. I have no right to be offended that I didn’t ‘get this sooner.’ If I’m doing something others should know about, I’m responsible for telling them.”

Every time he leaves a meeting with his colleagues, Ridge asks a rhetorical question: “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” I think it’s a pretty good test for pushing ourselves out of a comfort zone. Not being able to answer it is what sets people, and business, towards disaster and disappointment, rather than taking a risk and failing.

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