As they were about to embark on a reunion tour, a reporter asked members of the legendary band The Eagles if they’d be playing just their many hits, or would also introduce new material into their sets. Don Henley answered the question by saying they would, of course, be singing their signature songs, classics like “Hotel California” and “Take it Easy,” but it was also very important (and creatively rewarding) to mix in new material along the way. He said that if they sang nothing but the old songs it would quickly become boring for both them and the audience.
There’s a lesson in his response for all of us: In our organizations the equivalent of “classic songs” and “hits” are the products and services we’ve been providing for many years and the accompanying processes we’ve relied on to “get things done.” Sometimes we become so enamored with our classic products that they become almost sacred, and we continue to churn them out regardless of whether or not our audience — paying customers — is ready for something new and different. Take newspapers — they’ve been printed on large sheets of paper for centuries, but is that what customers want, or simply tradition? In this case, it’s the latter. The practice of large newspapers began in London, in 1712, because the English government began taxing newspapers by the number of pages they printed. Publishers responded by printing their stories on broadsheets to minimize the number of sheets required.
In 1855 the law was abolished, but the practice remained. A hundred years later, when one British company reduced the page size by half, circulation soared. Turns out people did want something new!
Peter Drucker, the original rock star management guru, coined the term “abandonment” to describe a method of periodically questioning what we sell, how we go to market, what processes we utilize, and determining whether change was necessary. He suggested you ask yourself this fundamental question: “If we weren’t already in this business, would we enter it today?” He also noted that in order to grow, and growth is an imperative for virtually every organization, “A business must have a systematic policy to get rid of the outgrown, the obsolete, the unproductive.”i Google, no slouch when it comes to winning the great game of business, is a firm believer in this concept. They conduct an annual “spring cleaning,” shutting down products that are draining resources without gaining significant traction. As their former head of people operations Laszlo Bock notes, “Innovation thrives on creativity and experimentation, but it also requires thoughtful pruning.”ii
Pruning can be a challenge, however, because the status quo exerts enormous pressure on all of us to continue down the same well-trodden path we’ve been walking without questioning whether it’s leading us where we want and need to go. But to generate long-term success, we need to exit that gravitational pull and take a long hard look at the way we do things, and the products and services that result from our key processes.
Here are some tips to help, as you dig out your metaphorical clippers and begin pruning your menu of products, services, and processes.
- Remember that performance objectives and measures should be considered as well
An old adage reminds us “What gets measured gets managed.” In other words, we tend to pay the most attention to what we’re currently tracking, regardless of whether or not those indicators represent a strategy of change and innovation necessary to stay relevant in our marketplace. Critically examine your measures and ask if they provide an accurate representation of your current strategic direction. If your measures are stale, your strategy may be similarly past its expiration date.
- Question your assumptions
What are you taking for granted about the current state of your processes, products, and services? Can you validate those assumptions with data? Have you spoken with actual customers about how they use your offerings? Get out of the boardroom and into the field to ensure your assumptions are in sync with reality.
- Formalize and celebrate the process
Like Google, make this an annual event, not a one-time endeavor. Ritualize the process so that people become comfortable with the idea, and even embrace it in the spirit of progress and innovation. And keep it fun: Start a bonfire of old processes, smash decrepit products with a sledgehammer, or recite a eulogy for an outmoded service.
Remember The Eagles, and never rely exclusively on your own back catalog of “hits.” Make it a discipline to periodically question the fundamental underpinnings of your business. Do so and in “The Long Run” you’ll avoid a “Heartache Tonight” and can “Take It (your business) to the Limit.”