Keeping Up With the Joneses
Keeping up with the latest in any field is considered a necessary for success. Yet it holds the seeds of future failure.
We have the old saying, "He can't see the forest for the trees." We are keeping up with the details of tree discovery, cataloging the details of which species grows taller and which grows wider. We focus on the number of leaves per branch and what distinct changes we can make to tree nutrition to affect the details. But we don't back up enough to see that we are dealing with a forest that has its own ecological rules. And we don't notice that the forest's rules have more effect on the long-term outcome than our small detailed efforts.
I see this same phenomenon in companies and organizations built to solve a problem. Whether it is potholes in a street or the treatment of a deadly disease, we start an effort with a goal. During our work, we refine our efforts to best meet that goal. Over time, as we solve the bigger barriers in our way, the problems we face become smaller and smaller. We become more focused on the details. It takes much more detailed work to get the next 5% progress than it did to get the last 5% of progress. Regardless of whether it's the growth of a company's revenues, or the number of followers on twitter, it takes more to match last month's growth than it did last month.
This phenomenon brings us further into the weeds. We get more detailed in our view of the problem. We are more focused on keeping up with small things. This is the dangerous place most successful organizations find themselves in at some point in their growth cycle. They are at the top of their field, everything is in the details, and they are focused. It's exactly the time when the old Cajun saying is most important, "It's the gator you don't see what gets you."
We get so busy winning, so busy keeping our growth going, that we don't even bother to back up and ask, "Should we be doing this anymore?" We get so busy being successful that we don't see the next big wave that's coming from behind. We get so busy building the best treehouse, we don't realize the whole forest is on fire.
Every organization needs a big view person, someone who is constantly asking the big question, "Why?" Why are we doing this? Are the assumptions we started with still valid? Have we grown to the point where the assumptions are no longer true for us? Have we gotten to a place where our reason for existing has changed?
And the why has to be communicated. This person needs to be able to communicate to the whole organization why they are there. People, once they are paid enough, need another reason to come to work. They need to be part of something greater than themselves. Anyone can do a job; a truly great organization is filled with people on a mission. The person at the top needs to understand the why, be able to communicate it to everyone else, and inspire them to make it their own. Without that, no matter how good an organization is at details or even growth, it is eventually going to zero. While it's excelling at the details, someone else who gets the "why" will be building in the background. And they will come and take it all away.
This has happened over and over again at multiple levels, from petty neighborhood tyrant to great empires. It's happened to mom and pop establishments and Dow 30 companies. It's happened in business and in science. It seems to be a fractal law of the universe that operates at every level, that when we lose sight of the why, no matter how excellent we are at operating the details, we will fail in the end. It may happen quickly or slowly, and it is in that aspect that we find the will to ignore this law and continue with our mindless efforts. There are enough people who succeed without a "why" for long enough to make a profit and leave, make a name for themselves and retire, create an empire and pass it on to let it fail in the next generation. We don't, as a species, recognize the need for the why at a deep level because our ideas of success are limited in time and space to things that don't matter in the long run.
If we back up, and ask ourselves why we are doing this, why our country was founded, why we were put here, we reach a scale of thought that puts into accurate perspective the actions of our day to day lives. What does it matter if we are keeping up to date with an academic field when the why of the field is pointed in the wrong direction? What does it matter if we are making the detailed laws of the community up to date when the why is not aimed correctly?
Take a few moments, put this down, and close your eyes. Ask yourself why you are here. What's the great purpose of your life? Are your day to day efforts still aimed at that goal or have you been focusing on details? Take a moment to back up and see the forest. Make sure you aren't doing great work on a tree in the wrong one.