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« Planned prosperity Vs lucky breaks | Main | Stressful Decisions »

Beware: Cliches Ahead.

Sometimes there’s a reason the road less travelled is not congested.

It’s easy to come up with slogans to explain success. Management commentary is full of them yet they often describe a singular success that isn’t easily transferred to another business.

“Sticking to your knitting” might be a successful strategy for one firm but not for a competitor. You could say it works for Walmart, but it didn’t for Sony. It stuck to the Walkman way past the arrival of the MP3 player. A better cliché might have been “when the horse is dead, get off”.

Sometimes your knitting isn’t what you think it is. Avon started out selling books door-to-door. Their strength however was direct sales, not books. Their success came when they started knitting cosmetics.

Nor should knitting be static. General Electric started making turbines but its leasing activities eventually saw it morph into a financial behemoth. Times change. In recent years it has shifted focus back to its industrial roots.

The trouble with clichés

Slogans can lock you out of more successful strategies. Sometimes they justify inappropriate tactics. Take “the good is the enemy of the best.” There are times when getting to market quickly is more important than getting it perfect.

A medical software startup I invested in built a “best in class” Rolls Royce product. It was indeed excellent but it was overtaken by a nimble Volkswagen, which offered about 80% of our functionality but was easier to use and simpler to install.

Aiming for the best is all well and good but perfectionism often means nothing gets finished. Sometimes, good enough is just that. It may be that “the best is the enemy of the good”.

At the same time, first mover advantage is a risky way to justify any strategy. It’s backed up by lines like “the scenery only changes for the lead dog.” What if the lead dog goes over a cliff? The scenery would clearly shift for the second dog. Maybe he’d have time to change direction.

The best side might be the other side.

Do you really “learn more from failure than from success”? I’d say they are a chance of being equal. I once listed five failures and five successes on a napkin and drew a line down the middle, looking for what worked and what didn’t. There were plenty of learnings on both sides.

Sometimes it’s a thin line between an innovation and simply “reinventing the wheel.” You could argue the iPod simply reinvented the Walkman. Both were mobile music players. One just knitted them differently.

Rather than accept clichés at face value, check whether the opposite of their intended meaning might be more relevant. I know people who started a business because “equity owners make more money than employees”, or they “wanted to spend more time with their families.” They didn’t. They usually spent even more time on business and often made less money.

Success may or may not bring contentment. Money can’t buy you happiness, although it does seem to keep you in touch with your children. 

Before you explain it all with a cliché, check it out both ways before you use it. It might save you embarrassment, financially or even socially. A closed mouth gathers no foot.


Reader Comments (4)

If it's not one thing, its another.

May 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRobbie B

Most of these slogans are applied after the event. Landmark books like Good to Great and Built to Last are all based on hindsight. Excuse the cliche but their analysis is about correlation, not causation.

May 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMarion McDermott

I've been so successful that all my children have moved back in.

May 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHermann S

You might be right about the need to look at the opposite meaning, but I've often found a cliche can jolt me out of my mindset. They help me get moving.

May 20, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterRannie S

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