Saturday, 27 September 2008

Time flies when you’re having fun

I hadn't noticed till today that on 3 January of this year I completed a quarter century in business. It may have taken a while to remember, but hey, at least I got the year right. It reminds me of when I went to Dublin in 1988 with my family. It was the time of the city’s millennium celebration and we went to several events associated with the celebrations. Everywhere there was talk of things that had happened in the tenth century, but at no point did I see anything about the year 988 specifically. So eventually I asked:

‘If it’s the millennium this year, what was it that happened in 988 that’s so special?’

‘Nothing,’ I was told. ‘We just didn’t think of celebrating the first thousand years of the city until Cork celebrated its eighth centennial. That was such a success we thought we’d better have our own party. We promise not to be late for the next one.’

So late or not it’s time to celebrate my silver anniversary in business. Or perhaps not exactly celebrate. I had, after all, spent most of the previous 25 years determined that whatever else I became, I would not go into business. Probably the best way of marking the moment, in keeping with the public spirit that has led to my publishing much invaluable advice on a wide range of subjects in these posts, is to share the distilled wisdom of my twenty-five years in business. Don’t worry, it won’t take long. It can all be summarised in five useful principles and three telling jokes, as well as one expression which is pretty useless but I include it here because I like it.

If your back’s against the wall, you can’t see the writing on it. That’s probably not true. Most companies in trouble know it very well, but who cares: it’s a great line. It’s like the old one about ‘last year we stood on the edge of a precipice, but since then we’ve taken a great step forward.’

Forgiveness is easier to obtain than permission. Your partner, or the police, may find this one a little difficult to go along with. Apply it judiciously. I find it an invaluable justification for doing those things that you know are right (or which you believe are right, which to you is exactly the same thing) and which you don’t actually have the authority to do. If you don’t get fired, they’ll finally give you the authority to do it, just because they get tired of telling you not to. Remember to be ready to say ‘Oh, I’m really sorry to have done that. Again.’

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. It’s a real bore to have to make up for a bad first meeting (as I know from personal experience: just because I’m familiar with the principle doesn’t mean I always live by it). A related notion is that nothing matters more than preparation – and that’s true all the way down the line, for the tenth meeting as much as for the first.

A little learning is a bloody useful thing. What was Alexander Pope thinking of when he described it as dangerous? With only half an hour to present, a real expert can only give you a taste of how much he or she knows. So basically you only need half an hour’s knowledge to sound like an expert. You just have to hope you don’t get asked to keep talking for forty minutes.

A similar principle underlies the following story:

An American businessman was on holiday in the woods with his Japanese friend and colleague. While out walking, they were surprised by a bear who started to lumber after them. As they ran back past their tents, the American was amazed to see the Japanese stopping to put on his running shoes.

‘You’ll never outrun the bear, you know,’ he pointed out.

‘I don’t need to outrun the bear,’ replied the Japanese, ‘I just need to outrun you.’

You don’t need to be the best, just better than your immediate competitor, or just better than you’re expected to be.

You probably know the next one but it’s still worth repeating because the underlying truth highlights one of the most common business problems.

A man walking through the woods suddenly heard someone swearing profusely. He walked through to a clearing where he saw another man sitting on a tree trunk which he was trying to saw, while turning the air around him blue with his curses.

‘What’s the matter?’ asked the first man.

‘It’s this damn saw,’ replied the second, ‘it’s blunt.’

‘So why don’t you sharpen it?’

‘I don’t have time.’

It never ceases to amaze me how often my colleagues waste hours and make exhausting efforts doing work the wrong way, where just taking a little time out at the beginning would allow them to do it much more effectively and much more quickly. To be honest, I’m amazed how often I do that myself, but I tend to draw attention to that a bit less.

The next one highlights a point that’s as common as the blunt saw problem.

A tourist stopped a passer-by in a village in Ireland and asked whether he was going the right way for Dublin.

‘Oh,’ he was told, ‘if I was going to Dublin, I wouldn’t start from here.’

How often do people say 'We have to do this but can't with the team we have/the resources we have/the company we have'. That’s just a way of saying that we need to get to Dublin but we can’t do it from where we are.

And here’s my useless expression, drawn from the time when the guru-followers were all saying we should never talk about problems – there were only opportunities. A speaker at a conference I attended mentioned the concept of the ‘insurmountable opportunity’ which I thought was a great antidote to happy-clappy thinking.

I suppose the final principle is never to underestimate the importance of salesman. They may sometimes be arrogant, even deeply obnoxious, though some – particularly any who happen to read this – can be thoroughly charming. They’re also absolutely essential. It doesn’t matter how good your product is, without an effective sales force you’re heading for the scrapheap. But a lot of good companies have gone to the wall because they’ve preferred to have outstanding engineers, building great products, than to put up with the necessary – the essential – evil of salesmen.

And that’s about it. That’s all it takes to achieve success in business. As they used to say at Lehman Brothers.

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