Chapter 2: "What's Going on Here?"
Irresistible Force Stalls and Their Causes
It is better to know some of the questions than all of the answers.
This chapter explains how irresistible forces adversely affect enterprises, often stalling progress and success in those organizations. When an irresistible triggers strong emotional reactions, such as fear or paralyzing denial, incorrect actions or inappropriate inaction often follow. If these responses occur routinely, bad habits develop that make the situation worse. This discussion also includes a preview of the most harmful and common stalls that arise in enterprises due to irresistible forces. In this chapter you can begin to learn how to overcome these stalls so that your organization can use irresistible forces to achieve irresistible growth instead.
A Scenario: Weather Knots Opportunity
Anyone who travels by air has surely suffered a delay because of inclement weather. The following story describes an unusual experience that authors had in traveling from Boston to a city in the U.S. Midwest. It may seem incredible, but keep in mind that the truth is often stranger than fiction. If you read and consider the whole story as though it is happening to you, you'll be rewarded for your perseverance with some interesting insights. You may even be able to use some of the maneuvers described here if you ever find yourself in similar circumstances.
Imagine yourself in a situation where you and your organization find the irresistible force of changing weather affecting your plans. You and your colleagues have planned and prepared carefully for the most important presentation your organization has ever made, a presentation that may establish a relationship that will lift your organization to future success (you hope) beyond everyone's wildest dreams. You are justifiably excited and are looking forward very much to the meeting. Although the presentation is not scheduled until 11 a.m. on Wednesday, you take no chances and plan to fly to the far-away city early the preceding Tuesday afternoon. You have carefully watched the weather reports and see no reason to expect any difficulties. In fact, the weather forecast is a good one, for unseasonably warm temperatures.
The whole team leaves for the airport only 12 miles away an hour early on Tuesday, in the bright sun. You arrive to discover a blinding fog enveloping the airport, something that occasionally happens during spring when warm air passes over the cold ocean water located next to the airport. Feeling a little concerned, you check the airline's monitors and see that all flights for the rest of the day have already been canceled. With wide eyes, you rush toward the ticket counter to find hundreds of people already in line.
Seeing no hope there, you quickly call your travel agent to find out what your alternatives are. Bad news! The fog is getting worse and is expected to last through Wednesday. What to do?
No problem, you think. You can drive to another airport and fly from there. More bad news! All major airports but one within 300 miles are also fogged in (they are all located near the water in similar weather conditions). Every flight for days has by now been booked from that one open airport. What do you do?
Well, you can handle that. You'll just drive to an airport 500 miles away and get a plane there. It'll take most of the night, but that's all right. Then you encounter still more bad news: There are no flights from that airport that will get you to the meeting before 6 p.m. on Wednesday. The situation is starting to get a little tougher. What next?
You and your colleagues decide to charter a plane to get you to the meeting. You find the Yellow Pages and start calling every charter company listed. Too late! Many people have called before you, and the closest plane that is available is 1,600 miles away. Plus, it has to find someplace to land in order to pick you up and then to take you where you want to go. What now?
You decide to just call the people you're meeting with, explain what happened, and offer to reschedule. They're reasonable people. They'll understand. Worse news! They can't meet again for several weeks, and that is too late for them to work with you. Even more disturbing to you is knowing that they may be meeting with some of your key competitors in the next few days. There must be something you can do. What?
How about a video conference or a teleconference instead? No good. Their video conference facilities are tied up and they don't want to go to a public facility. They think a teleconference is a bad idea. They implore you to get there on Wednesday, and they will stay as late on Wednesday as needed in order to meet with you.
Wow! You have to do something! What do you do now?
You call back that air charter outfit that had one plane left to see if they'll fly to the one open airport 100 miles away. If they will, you can then fly down early on Wednesday morning and still be in town before the day is over. Awful news!! The plane has to get a crew first, which will take several hours, before the flight can start out toward that airport. And there is a bad rainstorm in their area that may delay takeoff for additional hours. There is a curfew on the airport where you want the plane to pick you up, so they may not be able to arrive before tomorrow morning. By then, the flight crew could be over its allotted flight time that the government allows and not be able to leave on Wednesday.
What the heck, it's only money! You tell them to get the plane to the airport and bring an extra flight crew if necessary, and you take your team to the car rental counter to get a car to take you to the other airport. No luck. You call ahead and find that there are also no hotels with available rooms near that airport. You all decide to go home and drive to the other airport early the next morning in your own cars. In the meantime, you'll stay in touch with the charter outfit and your potential strategic partner to keep both informed of your progress and plans.
The next day, you turn on the television and find out that the fog is gone at the airport. What good luck! You can fly down on a regular flight this morning. You head with your team to the airport. Oh, no! You can't believe your eyes; all the flights are canceled this morning, too. But the weather is perfect. You finally learn why: There are no planes! Before the fog closed in, the airlines took off with every plane they had (planes can take off in fog conditions that don't permit landing). The first flights will arrive around 11:00 a.m. and thousands of people are standing by for these flights. You have no reasonable hope of getting a commercial flight until Thursday. That will be too late! You quickly call the charter outfit, who agrees to divert your plane to this airport so at least you don't have to drive an extra 100 miles.
You head over to the charter terminal. Time passes slowly. You keep getting updates assuring you that the plane will arrive at 11:15 a.m. But 11:30 comes and goes, then 11:45. Now it's noon. You keep calling your potential partners. They say, "We'll wait for you." Finally, the plane lands at 1:15 p.m. You start to rush out. The pilot stops you. "We have to refuel, first." Finally, the fuel truck arrives, you refuel, receive a long air traffic control delay, and eventually take off at 2:30 p.m.
You call your potential partners and tell them that you are about to take off and will arrive in their city at 4:00 p.m. local time. They agree to hold the meeting as soon as you arrive at the offices, around 5:00 p.m.
The charter pilot is very helpful and asks you if you want to have a taxi waiting when you land. There is a good catered lunch on board. It's a beautiful day for flying. You are grateful. Life is looking better.
You arrive at the potential partners' office at 4:45 p.m., and they are not quite ready for you. At 5:15 p.m., they troop in and thank you for getting there. They seem quite amazed by your story, as well as somewhat skeptical. However, the meeting goes well. They promise you a reaction in a few days.
On the following Tuesday, your contact calls to tell you that everything has gone through smoothly. Hooray!!!! He then says that they had decided to check into your travel story and were able to confirm that you had indeed gone through everything you'd said on behalf of their company. In fact, it was your response to the situation that impressed them the most and allowed you to be a bigger winner with them than you would otherwise have been.
Although it seemed that the irresistible force of the weather was impeding your progress (and it had certainly been delaying your flight), it actually provided you with an opportunity to show what you can do as a resource. Many people would have simply given up because the situation seemed hopeless or overwhelming. You resisted stalled thinking and persisted in turning the irresistible force into your tailwind.
Action and Reaction: To React Is Human, to React Positively Is Divine
Irresistible forces drive enterprises in directions that are usually unanticipated and unplanned. The organization can become disoriented, as sometimes happened to sailing ships rounding Cape Horn during monster electrical storms with gale winds and towering seas. Shock, amazement, curiosity, smugness, groundless optimism, defensiveness, distrust, reckless risk-taking, and confusion are among the reactions that can result in the face of such forces. However, positive reactions can turn the power of irresistible forces to your advantage, as the travel scenario shows. Confronting your very human (and usually inappropriate) reactions to irresistible forces is the beginning of helping your enterprise to deliberately use irresistible forces for achieving better results.
Most irresistible forces don't create as much short-term frustration as did the weather in the travel scenario, but dealing with any irresistible forces can be equally time consuming and emotionally demanding. While reading the story, you may have felt many strong emotions, just like the authors did when they went through the experience. Those strong emotions can easily distract you from acting in the ways necessary to turn the irresistible forces to your favor. When the emotions divert you from pursuing your own or your organization's best interests, you have just experienced a stall.*
Psychologically, irresistible forces tend to take us back to our childhood, when almost every aspect of our lives seemed to be controlled by someone or something other than ourselves. Resisting the temptation to become an enraged two-year-old shouting "No!" to a seemingly hostile universe is important for progress. While unthinking habits of any kind can stall progress, these behaviors become much more harmful when they arise because of strong emotions. The magnitude of irresistible forces will often cloud clear thinking with negative emotional reactions that are experienced by those who lead and manage. And the danger is increased by the tendency of the individual or organization to be immobilized by the potential danger involved when first perceiving the irresistible force, a little like the victim who stared entranced by a cobra and failed to retreat to safety.
In addition, organizations often view irresistible forces as temporary aberrations that must simply be overcome for the time being. The usual approach is to cut costs and work longer and harder, which can be like trying to keep the Titanic afloat by bailing water by hand.
Understanding that irresistible forces must be dealt with from a long-term viewpoint, being aware of the dangers, and recognizing the stalls that are likely to result in harmful responses to irresistible forces are the foundations for irresistible growth breakthroughs.
Recognizing Common Stalls: No More Tilting at Windmills
There are just a few stalls that are almost always responsible for causing inappropriate reactions to irresistible forces. The worst stall is to be unsure of your enterprise's purpose and direction when facing irresistible force headwinds. The effect of the irresistible force can leave everyone confused because the organization finds itself constantly shifting in new directions with remarkably different choices and opportunities. This circumstance especially arises when a business performs so poorly due to irresistible forces that its leadership is constantly being changed. Each new management team has a different idea of what needs to be done, and less and less idea of what works for this type of business. Confusion reigns amid continuing frantic activity. The situation is like being knocked off your feet by a large wave while wading and finding yourself lost underwater, wondering which way is up.
Others may experience the stall of trying to discount the irresistible force, preferring to believe in a friendly future that matches their preferences for the organization's environment. As is well known in the business world, that viewpoint is held by most paper companies, despite their having suffered from poor profitability for decades. (You will learn more about how to use these poor conditions to your advantage in chapter 4.) Still others may simply feel overwhelmed and be stuck on the spot, immobile, as though Super Glue had been applied to the soles of their feet. Many retailers from physical stores reacted this way to the first inroads from Internet-based competitors.
Some organizations may react primarily by withdrawing and turning within. This response can take the form of simply trying to limit the harm of the irresistible force rather than turning it into a benefit. Department stores have often taken this approach when confronted with discount specialty retailers who provide more variety at a better price. Or the organization may choose to try to adapt solely with its own people and knowledge, something that will provide less flexibility than using a variety of resources. IBM, for example, initially fell behind in developing the first personal computer until it overcame this stall through outsourcing. Other organizations may become entranced by the plans they are pursuing and that fixation can render them inflexible to the actual business or organizational environment. General Motors' tremendous loss of market share in the 1990s was influenced in part by this sort of stall.
One of the most negative of responses to irresistible forces is to try to pretend that nothing adverse is happening and to cover up any damage so that no one else knows the damage has occurred. Many of the larger Japanese companies took this route during the 1990s, delaying their eventual adjustment to a changed competitive environment for their island nation. This understandable human response leaves the organization at risk for greater damage and can even destroy the enterprise.
Even if the enterprise decides to adapt to irresistible forces in positive ways, these forces are very powerful and can shift rapidly. Riding the trend may be like staying on a bucking Brahma bull. You have to match your organization's approach to irresistible forces by considering their strength and volatility compared to your peoples' ability to work with such forces. Initially faced with irresistible forces in both retailing and financial services, Sears probably made the right decision by trimming down to focus its attention solely on retailing issues.
These various responses to irresistible forces are dealt with in detail in chapters 3 through 10 and are designated as the following stalls:
"Where Are We Going and How Do We Get There?" - The Directionless Stall (Chapter 3)
Many organizations drift in a set direction and then find themselves lost when an irresistible force suddenly pushes them at high speed in a new direction toward a different destination. By not knowing whether they want to go to that new destination, they leave themselves open to inaction and indecision.
Borders' slow commitment to online commerce is an example of this problem. The company had been trailing Barnes & Noble in the area of large retail book and audio stores. Consequently, its management was occupied with opening new stores and adding financial resources. Published reports suggest that Borders' management was unsure about adding online commerce as a business. By waiting until both Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com were operating before opening its own Internet site, Borders increased the likelihood that its cost of acquiring customers would vastly exceed those of its two key competitors.
"But That's Not the Way I Thought It Would Be!" - The Wishful Thinking Stall (Chapter 4)
Most enterprises act as if they can anticipate the future with a great deal of accuracy. When an incorrect assumption is made, actions become inappropriate for the real situation. Acting on this viewpoint is like following an out-of-date road map that doesn't show road closures, new roads and junctions. You may find yourself diverted in unexpected directions.
Consider that computer makers for many years believed that their profits would primarily come from selling the hardware. As a result, they would not make their software available to those who purchased other hardware. They waited for the world to beat a path to their doors, and the world went elsewhere. Apple Computer is a good example. The company had an operating system for its Mac products that was years ahead of what Microsoft had available. Apple chose not to make this software available to those with IBM personal computers and their clones. Based on the recent stock market values of Microsoft and Apple, this was an expensive error, costing Apple shareholders hundreds of billions of dollars.
"What Do We Do Now?" - The Helplessness Stall (Chapter 5)
When the familiar and predictable environment becomes hostile and unfamiliar, those responsible for an enterprise's progress often feel unable to regain control. They become hamstrung as a result of feeling overwhelmed by events.
For example, an auto parts supplier grew mightily during the automobile boom leading up to the second oil shock (the one that almost destroyed Chrysler). When the price of gas soared and demand for cars plunged, colleagues reported that the CEO spent day after day sitting frozen at his desk, unable to make decisions. Fortunately, they seized the reins temporarily and made the necessary adjustments to survive before it was too late. However, millions were unnecessarily lost in the meantime.
"Circle the Wagons!" - The Defensiveness Stall (Chapter 6)
Although some organizations avoid being left helpless by irresistible forces, they may still be harmed by introversion and focus on creating bulwarks against the impact of the irresistible force. By focusing on a defensive posture, they delay adapting to the new conditions and risk falling behind or even not surviving at all.
Many companies whose stock prices carry low price-earnings valuations will proudly describe what they are doing as a "value-improving" strategy. When asked about the fact that investors are deserting this strategy in droves, the CFO will often confidently reply that it will all turn out well in the end. On further inspection, the strategy's consequence is more often being taken over by another company at a bargain price. The new owner will immediately initiate a better strategy that does translate into significant, sustained stock-price growth. Usually, this improved strategy is one that the earlier management could also have done.
"We Can Do It All!" - The Independence Stall (Chapter 7)
When new irresistible forces arrive or existing ones change their impact, enterprises may find themselves compelled by the need to adapt as quickly as possible. In their rush to respond, the organization's leaders may tend to rely on people or practices that have worked successfully in the past. They may not stop to consider whether the enterprise has the right resources to accomplish the now-required tasks.
Many Internet start-ups, for example, have a sound marketing and customer value model, but do not yet understand how that model has to be supported with effective sourcing, supply, and service. Soon they find themselves falling further and further behind in meeting customer expectations with no clear idea about how to solve the mountain of fulfillment problems.
How Can We Miss?" - The Overoptimism Stall (Chapter 8)
A sense of certainty about success or that an enterprise is well prepared for the future, or simply viewing the world through rose-colored glasses, can result in rigid commitment down the wrong path. Successful enterprises are most likely to become subject to this stall, which is one reason why they often have such a hard time anticipating and adapting to new circumstances. Everyone in the company assumes success and is slow to perceive that progress is not occurring from the organization's new initiatives.
Digital Equipment's decline illustrates the consequences of this stall quite well. Press reports indicated that Digital Equipment founder and CEO, Ken Olsen, had little regard for the potential of personal computers, likening them to toys that would never be serious tools for engineers. During this time, Digital dominated the market for minicomputers and had been successful in replacing mainframe computers in many applications. The same forces that allowed the company to prosper as a minicomputer specialist doomed the company to being replaced by competitors making smaller, cheaper machines with the same functionality. A few years after Olsen was replaced by the board, the company was sold to Compaq Computer, one of the producers of those smaller, cheaper machines. Compaq, in turn, had problems with wishful thinking, and as a result had trouble integrating the two companies and keeping up with Dell Computer's build-to-order business. Compaq's CEO soon lost his job as profits and market share faltered.
"Throw Me a Towel" - The Cover-Up Stall (Chapter 9)
It isn't unusual for apparent failures or setbacks to receive the so-called mushroom treatment (put it in a dark place). Yet unexpected problems and successes often contain the seeds of opportunity to build on the power of irresistible forces. Too many organizations treat these circumstances as though something shameful has just happened, which would be better off left alone and not talked about.
Think about what happened when Monsanto used secrecy to achieve a competitive edge in the genetically engineered food market. Monsanto had been a leader in the development of these new technologies. In the late 1990s, European consumers grew concerned about the safety of the new foods, provoking a widespread backlash against these products. As the company, in many cases, had even kept the use of its products a secret from consumers in the United States, it obviously had hoped that concerns about the safety of these products would just go away if it kept a low profile. The opposite result seemed to have occurred, because the secrecy was interpreted by some as meaning that the company had something dangerous to hide from consumers.
"Let's Take a Chance" - The Underestimation Stall (Chapter 10)
Organizations sometimes should take on the most extreme irresistible forces because their great volatility can provide competitive insulation, as long as a uniquely dependable method is applied for dealing with the volatility. Ignoring or underestimating that volatility, however, can result in disaster.
Only a handful of companies specialize in putting out petroleum fires. In case you're unfamiliar with this business, the best way to extinguish such a fire is to walk into the middle of the inferno carrying explosives and then to detonate them from a safe distance. This explosion uses up the oxygen that the fire needs, and the fire often goes out. If not, another explosion may do the trick. When the Kuwait oil fields were set aflame by the retreating Iraqi armies, these companies had little to be concerned about from new firefighting entrants. Few people had the skill and courage to take on that irresistible force. This same challenging opportunity could easily have proven disastrous for others who were less capable.
These stalls occur and persist in enterprises because human psychology often fosters a knee-jerk response to irresistible forces. By becoming a stallbuster, you'll learn to use irresistible forces to create breakthrough gains and success for yourself and your enterprise.
Stallbusting: Get the Better of Those Bad Thinking Habits
Because we are all human, stalls exist in both your personal life and your organization. Stalls are basically bad thinking habits. If you become aware of and can recognize these habits, then you can begin to consciously challenge them. Eventually you can change them into habits better suited for the irresistible growth enterprise.
What Are Your Bad Habits When You Confront Irresistible Forces?
You need to be aware of your own habits before you can fully comprehend the habits that your organization has. An organization has more bad habits than any single individual in it because the bad habits of each person are multiplied by the combined effect of the bad habits of other people. For example, in the early days of Dell Computer, Michael Dell had not yet recruited strong, experienced executives who had dealt successfully before with large, irresistible forces in fast-growth situations. As a result, many important issues about irresistible forces were not addressed until they became painfully large, as occurred when Dell first developed an unsuccessful line of portable computers in 1993. The bad habit was that Dell Computer was relying too much on Michael Dell at that point.
Now try some self-examination. Ask yourself the following questions:
How would you have reacted to the travel challenges described at the beginning of this chapter as you sought to meet with the other company? In considering your reactions, you'll learn more if you write down your thoughts. Begin by listing all the emotions that you felt strongly at different points in the story. Then, consider how those emotions might have affected your behavior. For example, think about these reactions in terms of what would have happened at your negative emotional peak. At what point would you have become irritable? At what point would you have become angry? At what point would you have gotten frustrated? At what point would you have given up? At what point would you have become stubbornly determined to go ahead?
What irresistible forces have you encountered in the past while working in your enterprise? Having seen quite a few examples by now, you should be able to identify some in your own situation. If you are having trouble finding any, here are some questions that can generate clues:
How have you personally reacted to irresistible forces that affected your organization in the past? With regard to this question, you'll learn the most if you pick the most painful and difficult experiences you have had, especially the ones that you would like to forget about. A real lesson for you will be to locate the circumstances under which you have made the worst errors, driven by negative or positive emotions. Be sure also to give yourself credit for what you did well. You can build on that success in the future.
How could you improve your ability to stay calm, open-minded, and effective in similar circumstances in the future? One answer to this question is to give yourself some emotional space when a situation first arises. Then while you are suspending judgment about how you choose to react, you can try to step outside yourself and examine yourself as a third person would. That perspective should help you become more objective about your situation. You may find it especially helpful if you imagine different types of people in that third-person role, such as an entrepreneur in a start-up, an executive you admire, a parent or other person you respect, or even your best friend.
What Are Your Enterprise's Bad Habits in Relation to Irresistible Forces?
Once you've taken stock of yourself, turn your attention to the habits in evidence throughout your organization. Use your answers to the following questions to determine your enterprise's strengths and weaknesses when it comes to managing irresistible forces:
What irresistible forces are already affecting your enterprise? A good beginning is to compile a list of the irresistible forces that you understand are already impacting your organization. You can learn a lot about your organization's likely future actions by studying how it has acted in the past. Be sure to consider any unique influences of customers, suppliers, competitors, employees, partners, new technologies, new social trends, demographics, economic factors, financial markets, governmental regulation, and community attitudes.
What has your enterprise done well in creating, anticipating, responding to, and adapting to these forces? It is important to see irresistible forces in a positive light in order to take advantage of their potential to help your organization. For that reason, it's necessary to carefully look for past positive responses. The classic example of a positive response to product tampering, which may occur again, was Johnson & Johnson's immediate recall of all Tylenol products. In making future changes, you want to keep these good habits in place or even build on them to create even more effectiveness. In answering this question, consider the timeliness of the response as well as its appropriateness.
Why did your enterprise do well when affected by these forces? Answering this question will help you get to the causes of your success. These may relate to the skills possessed by various employees, information your organization develops and analyzes, or an ability to focus as a common thread running throughout the organization. Keep asking "why" until you think you have the underlying causes. Johnson & Johnson has since used scenarios of possible future events and values reinforcement to help them be prepared should a product tampering situation recur.
What habits would have helped your enterprise to be more successful in past situations? You might try to rewrite history here to model what would have been an ideal response to the irresistible forces. Then step back to see what habits would have helped your organization to make that ideal response.
What existing habits are in conflict with the habits needed for success? Contrast your current habits with the ideal response habits. Remember when RJR Nabisco was purchased by KKR? RJR's CEO, Ross Johnson, thought the company was too large for anyone other than management to bid on. That belief caused the company to waste resources and stalled progress by fostering a false sense of security. Be careful not to overly model on past situations. The future could be quite different; in fact, you can count on it!
How Can You Replace Existing Bad Habits?
After identifying the existing bad habits, you'll need to work at eliminating them so that they can be replaced with the desired habits. Communication and learning about the bad habits are good ways to begin. Rather than just sharing the conclusions you arrive at, you'll get better results if you take other people in your enterprise through the same thought process of answering the previously listed questions. You'll learn something, too, because you'll often find that the perceptions of others will differ from yours. With more perceptions to work from, you're likely to get better ideas for how to improve.
One way to replace bad habits with communication and learning is to measure performance and share the results. For example, most companies would never acquire oil producing companies if they did the research and discovered that the inflation-adjusted dollar price of petroleum products has constantly declined over the long term. Seagram might never have bought Conoco had they known this fact, and earlier improved the company's acquisition habits while increasing the resources available for acquisitions. One bad habit that needs to be broken is succumbing to the influence of current "hot" fads and factors without studying the long-term context.
Start Becoming a Stallbuster Now
As previously mentioned in the Introduction, the rest of the chapters in this part of the book also contain personal and enterprise examples of stalls, sample solutions (stall erasers), and questions (or stallbusting action guides) to help you think like and become a stallbuster. Be sure to use the questions to relate the lessons of each chapter to your organization. If you haven't already started recording your observations now is a good time to begin. This book can be a valuable workbook, much like the exercises in a consultant's workshop, but only if you follow through by working on the questions as they arise.
In addition to answering the questions, make a list of your own improvement ideas as they occur to you. Keep the list with you as you read the rest of the book. You'll find that your ideas are apt to change and improve as you read more material and answer the questions at the end of each chapter. Likewise, make notes of how your ideas change. Doing so will encourage you to work more in the area of replacing bad habits because you'll have a written record to show you how much you've learned from when you started reading this book. Finally, identify where your thinking has been stalled so you can see where you need to take new actions. By translating your thoughts into action, the benefits of being a stallbuster will become tangible.
*For more background on stalls in general, their causes, and how to overcome common basic ones, see Part One of The 2,000 Percent Solution: Free Your Organization from "Stalled" Thinking to Achieve Exponential Success (AMACOM Books, 1999) by Donald Mitchell, Carol Coles, and Robert Metz. You can read excerpts about stalls and how to overcome them at www.2000percentsolution.com.