In the early 1900s, a man named August Englehardt became convinced that eating a coconut-based diet would grant immortality. He wrote poems about the life-giving powers of coconuts, including “How to Become a Coconut Palm.” He used his inheritance to buy a coconut plantation in Papua New Guinea, soon attracting and handful of followers.
Within two years, nearly all of his followers had left or died. Englehardt himself died, malnourished and covered in sores, in 1919. His last follower died a week later.
Fortunately, the coconut cult only lasted a few years. Unfortunately, coconut cults are common in businesses of every size.
Here’s how they happen: Corporate leaders unveil a vision of the future and organize the company around that vision. Entire divisions are born and die. Cuts are made here to hire more there. Exciting slogans are printed on banners and shipped to remote locations. Marketing sends out a cool video.
And then, the demoralizing and drawn-out denouement. The market isn’t buying the vision, but corporate leadership presses on. Front-line workers grow frustrated with lack of consumer response and pressure from management. The PR team scrambles for positive press coverage. The CEO says something stupid at an industry event and the entire company gets ridiculed online — not for its failure, but for its delusion.
Think of RIM’s insistence in 2008 that full QWERTY keyboards were the hottest trend in mobile phones, even as the iPhone was swallowing the entire market. Or consider the hype around 3D TVs, which were designed to ride a wave of 3D entertainment spurred on by Avatar but fizzled in just a few years because, well, nobody really wanted one. The world is littered with businesses that failed because they tried for too long to make reality conform to a corporate vision.
Coconut cults are avoidable, but only if the organization follows a few key practices.
In 2008, RIM CEO Mike Lazaridis boldly declared that QWERTY keyboards were the hottest trend in mobile devices, just as BlackBerry’s share of the market peaked.
Business Agility as a State of Being
One of the fundamental principles of business agility is the avoidance of dogma. Agile organizations encourage new ideas — including those that end in failure — but instill several practices to avoid pursuing ideas that are not working. In particular, agile organizations follow two basic principles:
- Change is the norm
- The data will be your guide
Change is the norm
Change is difficult, especially at large organizations, and not for the reasons we think. Business leaders often assume that the obstacle to change management is people, despite reams of evidence to the contrary. For example, Harvard Business School professor Joseph B. Fuller and his colleagues recently surveyed over 11,000 global workers in roles likely to be affected by disruptive technology, and discovered something profound: Not only were these workers not afraid of the disruptive forces that could put them out of work, they actively embraced them.
Both automation and technology, they felt, heralded opportunity on those fronts—by contributing to the emergence of more-flexible and self-directed forms of work, by creating alternative ways to earn income, and by making it possible to avoid tasks that were ‘dirty, dangerous, or dull.’
Beyond celebrating simple human optimism, Fuller’s observation unmasks a central truth about the modern workforce — that they are ready for change as the norm, not as a project. In fact, argues organizational philosopher Niels Pflaeging, it is precisely the insistence on treating change as a “project” or “initiative” that dooms so many to fail.
“This approach misrepresents change as a ‘controllable process’ composed of a sequence of discrete stages, phases or steps; and it deludes us into thinking we have to make a map for getting from the current state of affairs to the desired state. So this approach also trivializes change,” he writes.
When change becomes the norm, people inside an organization are more willing to accept new ideas — even those that contradict the status quo.
The data will be your guide
The coconut cult strived for everlasting health but found malnourishment, festering sores, gout, dysentery, and misery of all kinds. In a business context, those afflictions would be data points suggesting that the ultimate outcome, immortality, was unlikely to be accomplished. In an agile business context, those data points would have been tracked rigorously, shared broadly, and forced a change in strategy before things got any worse.
Some of the most successful agile organizations enforce this practice regularly. WeChat emerged as China’s pre-eminent social network around 2013, but has since evolved into the country’s dominant access point for entertainment, financial transactions, and more. Tencent, the corporate parent of WeChat, knew from its days managing desktop messaging app QQ, that frequency was the key to dominating the enormous mobile opportunity in China.
With a relentless focus on innovation, WeChat added everything from payment services to ride-hailing and even gambling features. Tencent has now branched into television and movies, evolving into one of the world’s most formidable technology companies.
A data-driven discipline produces better results by reducing or eliminating underperforming initiatives early, redeploying resources to other initiatives on the fly. At Catalant, we know from experience. Our company started as an expert marketplace to help companies find experts for short-term projects, but when many customers asked to use our software internally as a tool to prioritize, organize, and connect their most important initiatives with the people and capabilities necessary to execute quickly, we disrupted ourselves. The results are massive growth and a leading position in a brand-new market.