The Guillotine or the Rack: You Choose

I’ve been in Paris for the last couple of weeks taking some time out to think and reflect on our illustrious profession.

There’s a place not far from our apartment called the Place de la Concorde. It’s where 2,780 people lost their head to Dr Guillotine’s invention during the revolution of 1790’s.

Visiting this place reminded me of a thought expressed by Seth Godin in his book “Small is the New Big” when he suggested that in life and in business people typically fear advocating a product or process innovation because it’s accompanied by a risk of failure.

For this reason, he suggests, people will naturally tend towards the low-risk status quo. The status quo doesn’t have to be defended and because people are, by nature, optimists who believe the present will continue forever it is a safer refuge than advocating an edgy innovation no matter how important it may be to the future success and perhaps survival of the business.

Godin likens this to a preference for the rack over the guillotine. “… almost no one worries about the rack. We don’t quake in our boots about a layoff that’s going to happen in two years from now if we don’t migrate our systems before our competition does. We’re not afraid of stagnating and dying slowly. No, we’re more afraid of sudden death, even though the guillotine is probably a far better way to die.”

This might appear to be somewhat gruesome dialog but I think Godin is absolutely right. I believe one of the reasons so many organizations do not achieve greatness is because their people are intent on walking in step with the status quo. They will do this even when they feel in their bones that change is necessary if not to survive then definitely to get ahead of the pack.

Greatness is achieved when people think AND ACT outside the box. The status quo never lasts. Change is inevitable and firms that do something—anything—different are always the ones that end up leading the pack.

What’s really interesting about this is that it tends to be smaller firms that are the most innovative and who at the end of the day grab a lead in the “growth stakes” but then they get bigger and what got them there gets lost.