The Relentless Pursuit of Sameness

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“Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don’t much care where.

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.

Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.

The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Change or die.  That is the mantra of our time.  Everyone is trying to work out how to effectively deliver more change than they have in the past.  As a result we are seeing more and more people working to improve their innovation processes and agility.  These efforts are business wide and in many instances organisations are looking to adapt Agile development type processes across their entire business.  Speed is of the essence.  

This is an understandable reaction to the ever increasing pace of change and the need to stay relevant in the face of this change. On the surface of it this striving for increased speed makes sense,  everyone can benefit from increased agility and innovation but I can’t help but wonder, speed and agility for what purpose? I also wonder if a lack of speed and agility is the real issue and if getting faster is the real solution?

Why is that?  To me many organisations seem to be like Alice. They don’t really know where they are going and they don’t much care, all they know is that they can’t stay here because if they do they will get disrupted by the ever increasing pace of change. So they are seeking to change and change quickly. But as the Cheshire Cat tries to point out to Alice which way you go, which changes you pursue, very much depends on your desired destination.  

The impact of not knowing where you are going means many organisations end up like Alice. Wandering aimlessly, wondering what’s about to happen next and left with nothing to do but worry and react to circumstances. Some of the things that happen are fantastic, some very dangerous (“off with her head!”) and in Alice’s case some just strange.

The problem is that in an organisational context this aimless wandering leads most organisations to simply react to what others are doing.  All they end up doing is replicating everyone else.  They can do “A”!. Oh no, we have to be able to do “A”.  They can do “B”!  Oh no, we have to be able to do “B”.  In the end the relentless pursuit of agility leads organisations to get better and faster at change, but if you boil it down, all most are doing is spending millions to ensure they are the same as their competitors.

Sure, change and agility are important, they might even keep you in business, but you are unlikely to create greatness simply by replicating others. It’s the business equivalent of “keeping up with the Jones”.

The real problem for most organisations is not a lack of agility, it’s the lack of a clearly defined destination and a resulting lack of uniqueness.  Look at every great organisation and you will find an organisation that is unique in some way and if they have been able to maintain their greatness for any length of time it is because they have successfully maintained and leveraged that uniqueness again and again. Companies that were great but are no longer great have allowed their competitors to catch up, to cancel out their unique advantages and in some cases to surpass them. What was once unique and valued is now common place and commodity as organisations lose their edge. The answer however is not the relentless pursuit of ever faster reactionary change. The answer is to rediscover your uniqueness and leverage your uniqueness in the marketplace.  Yes, do it at pace and be agile so you can keep your unique advantages, but focus on what makes you unique.

Every organisation at it’s core was born out of uniqueness, whether that is uniqueness of purpose, uniqueness of vision, or uniqueness of strategy. It had to be, that’s why they became successful in the first place. If you want to get back to your great days and thrive in this age of digital disruption, rather than simply surviving, then start focusing on and building your uniqueness.

This article is based on an excerpt from Owen’s upcoming book.

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