retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Every business strives or should strive for constant improvement. We all know that competition, like so many other forces on Earth, is always evolving. The status quo becomes increasingly irrelevant.

But is there a time when incremental or evolutionary changes aren’t enough? When that happens, what do you do?

That’s a question many businesses are facing these days thanks to the incredible leaps brought about by technology, global competition and even shifting economic patterns. What made for exceptional performance a few years back means mediocrity or worse these days and we can all name countless companies that fell from market dominance. (How about Kodak, Sears, or A&P, just to start the conversation.)

As a resident of the Washington, DC, area I get to watch a classic example of this each fall in the form of the local NFL team. (Both its name and performance are somewhat offensive.) Once one of the top franchises in the league, the team has become stuck in a cycle of mediocrity, with a revolving door of management, operating philosophies and star players.

Let’s be clear: sports offer highly imperfect examples for business because the way success is measured is so clear (wins and losses) and the financial structure so unique. But still there are lessons to be considered.

For example, Tony Kornheiser, a former Washington Post sports columnist and now the host of shows on ESPN and local radio, recently offered up a radical solution for the team. Essentially, he suggested, tearing it apart and starting in an entire new direction.

One of his suggestions is for the team to abandon the traditional methods of talent evaluation and move to the mathematically based Moneyball approach now used by so many baseball teams. As he explained recently, the team is clearly not succeeding with traditional scouting and drafting mechanisms so the only hope is a radical shift.

As a sign of the problems the team has, Kornheiser later reported that Washington ventured down this path a few years back and abandoned that idea within weeks. So lesson one: if you are trying something new at least have the courage to stick it out for a little while.

But let’s look beyond that.

For example, businesses have to understand if the problem is strategy or a culture that inhibits execution? Consider that Washington has repeatedly changed coaches in the past 20 years with each promising a new operating philosophy and none lasting more than four years. Even with the hiring of two extremely successful coaches, both of which previously won multiple championships, the team’s fortunes barely changed.

Countless minds greater than mine have reminded us through the years that culture far outweighs strategy every time. But if the company culture is so poisoned that it defeats every change, maybe it is time for radical housecleaning. To quote Sean Connery's Jimmy Malone in The Untouchables on the issue of a bad culture: “If you are afraid of getting a rotten apple don’t go to the barrel. Get it off the tree.”

If you don’t think it can happen simply remember another Apple, the computer company. In the late 1990s, the company was nearly dead before Steve Jobs returned, radically attacked the existing product mix and spawned a culture that lead to the iPod, iPhone, iPad and dominance.

Now the change in your company or team may not require anything as rash, but it probably requires something. With a New Year looming, what a great time for bold honesty to frankly address what is and is not working. But don’t stop there.

Take the time to really consider what’s causing mediocre performance. Is your team good enough; is your management style right for what’s necessary; are you providing a relevant product or service to your customers; are you constantly doing things the same way and hoping for different results?

Those are tough questions, but that’s exactly what’s needed in tough times.

As Washington's NFL team clearly demonstrates: doing anything less can leave you just as mediocre as you were before.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
KC's View: