There once was a big buggy whip factory that had just made some major improvements in their process and means of manufacturing buggy whips. They made the best quality whips, priced just right. They were getting better and better at buggy whips; in fact, they set the industry standard. Unfortunately, the leadership of the business did not give much heed to Ford and his mass manufacturing of horseless carriages. They were the best at what they did, and they were out of business in very short order.
The problem wasn’t that they were not purposeful in their behavior; they had great clarity of purpose. The issue was that they mistook a means and way of doing business for their purpose and reason for being in business. Yet, if you pause to think a moment, what was the purpose of a buggy whip? The ultimate purpose of the buggy whip manufacturers was really vehicle acceleration. They forgot about the ultimate need of their customers and began to think that their purpose was more and better buggy whips, rather than better and up-to-date means of helping vehicles accelerate. They were thus left in the dust by a transformative technological revolution instead of being able to cash in on the new wave in transportation.
While this seems a bit outdated, consider a more modern version: Microsoft holding on to and being so intensely focused on its personal computing business; Sears pursuing an old agenda and formula of success that had been made obsolete by Walmart; GM ignoring the “small car” companies of Japan and seeing “quality” as a quaint fad for far too long.
Futurist Joel Barker cites the example of the Swiss watchmakers, who in 1967 were in command of their industry. They accounted for a sizable share of the market and earned over 65 percent of the profits. In ten short years, though, they plunged to just a fraction of the market share and only 10 percent of the profits. They had to lay off 50,000 skilled watchmakers out of a total workforce of 65,000. What happened was that they assumed the way they had been manufacturing and approaching watchmaking was their purpose. The shifting paradigm to the battery-operated, quartz, digital watch did them in. They lost sight of their ultimate purpose and fell in love with a means, confusing it for the purpose. What makes it even more amazing is that the Swiss themselves invented the very watch that Seiko of Japan and Texas Instruments used to undermine Swiss dominance. The Swiss watch manufacturers simply couldn’t see the value of the new invention. It did not fit their beliefs and expectations about what a watch was about.
The practice of continually focusing upon the substance of what we are about in an enterprise is essential and drives the process of realizing the vision. The critical function of focusing upon the purpose is that of orienting and aligning all work efforts. The emotional state that goes with this function is one of confidence – confidence that we are doing the right things and doing them together. This means leaders must continually be ready and able to challenge their own and the organization’s paradigms for success and what the business is all about.
It is not enough to simply formulate and articulate a vision. The day-to-day awareness of each and every person in the organization must be focused on that vision. This is facilitated by the development of purpose statements at both corporate and departmental levels. Such purpose statements need to be clear, focused, and user-friendly. They also must do something, rather than just say something.
The goal is for all work-related behavior to be tied to and measured against the purpose statement. A key question then becomes, “Is that action or planned action ‘on-purpose’ with the mission we all agreed upon?” This creates a higher court of appeal and a considered, agreed-upon standard by which to make decisions and gauge actions.
Had that buggy whip manufacturer focused on their purpose – how to make vehicles accelerate faster – rather than their process – they might be still be in business today.
This post has been excerpted from my book The Heart of Leadership – 12 Practices of Courageous Leaders. It is available on Amazon.