Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Middle-Wait Class

My friend Harry always calls me an ambulance driver. I didn't realize how much the term had grown on me until I used it about myself when he wasn't around. He's sneaky like that.

I'll explain the term, by way of explaining how it came to be used. For a long time I have little phrases, some might say mottos, that I use when giving advice or talking on particular subjects. A simple interesting phrase allows me to anchor the idea or concept; then depending on the forum, the time available and the particular audience I can tailor the message appropriately in real-time. As someone who spends a lot of time in reflection, I found it helpful to have a handful of these anchoring statements to organize and summarize my worldviews.

The particular behavior that Harry observed, we spoke about frequently, and ultimate won me the label of ambulance driver was this:
It's either the gas or the brake, but it's all the way down.

I'm not sure if I heard it somewhere else, or like many of my phrases, it just spewed forth in some conversation one day and I liked how it sounded so it got added to the repertoire. In any case, it is definitely a frequently exercised one.

To be practical, a phrase like this shouldn't need much explanation, and I have found this one resonates with most people pretty quickly. Not that they agree, but that they understand and can see how I strive to apply this to my life. On the contrary, most people disagree with varying degrees of vehemence.

Generally speaking people strive to be risk averse. They want to compromise and counter their need for change with a passion for passivity and a sense of stability. We do this in our personal lives, we do this in our careers, and companies (which are clusters of individuals) do this with their strategies.

Sometimes understanding a new view on the world or being honest about the underlying views that are actually driving us, requires we step back and introduce some objectivity. To that end, let's examine the corollary to the previous motto that applies to design choices or corporate strategy:
The Middle Always Costs More
This one may have been so obvious as to be blinding so let's examine how this applies to companies.

Generally speaking innovation inside a market happens similarly every time. The first mover is often an outsider because they have the least to lose. They have no market-share to risk and much to gain with even small successes. The next group are the current leaders. Sitting on top of their market, they can generally afford to make the investments and manage the risks. They have the unique insight that is only accessible to the guy sitting on top of the pile. Lastly, those in the middle might work up the gumption to delve into the fray. Usually the just wait and watch to see how things shake out before moving.

This last group of middle performers, of compromisers, are the ones who need assurances and guarantees. Being afraid to fail, they won't move until it becomes clear (to them) where success lies, which 'bets' will pay off, or that their current plan really is pulling a Dodo bird.

When you only take 'bets' that are sure things, you aren't really betting. When you aren't betting, you can pretty much predict the mediocrity of the outcome. When you only move because you are forced to because the market is self destructing, you'll continue to sit in the middle of any market you make it into. And your company will be all the other mediocre middle-waits.

It is the ambulance drivers who get to the scene first. They are willing to take calculated risks. They drive fast but very controlled. They break rules, but within constraints and boundaries. They put a single focus first and set aside all other conventions and norms in the headlong pursuit to achieve it. And they do it without a racecar. They do it with all the tools and gear they'll need so when they arrive on the scene, they can really add value. They don't just get themselves there, they bring help with them.

Usually when I get on the scene, it is a big bloody mess. Sometimes the patient dies in the back before we get them to the hospital and that is sad but unavoidable. It's the valiant effort, the commitment to try, the desire to really help and to do it regardless of what everyone else sitting in traffic has on their agenda that makes an ambulance driver effective.

You might not always enjoy riding along with an ambulance driver, but everyone hates being stuck in traffic with all the other middle-waits.