When you can avoid being caught by inertia

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Constant change makes some people and companies stop growing and become risk-averse. Here’s how you can keep thriving on your hunger for success instead.

THE STORY ARK OF AN IDEA…

Guy and Carl were both in college. Wondering what they would do for their Marketing class’ semester assignment. During one of their brainstorms, the idea of crafting an awareness campaign about the STD problem within the student community came to surface. Since the issue was related to people’s intimate/personal life, the two friends thought “Why not put ad boards in, both, men and women restrooms? With posters of the campaign in them?” This had never been done before. At least, at their college. Their eyes lit up, literally. Their “go-getter” nature and imagination kicked in. “Oh! We could do this, that and this to make it happened.” They became obsessed with the idea. Even more when it started to gain traction. First, among their friends. Then, within the student community. Ultimately, in the business community too. When the successful student project was turned into a business venture by Guy and Carl the following year. The two college friends were on a hunt. They got on a roll too. Even if, sometimes, it required a 2nd if not 3rd effort from them to convince, whether, a bar owner, a supplier, a financial partner or even a job candidate to get on board with them. The guys had an idea, they attached some goals to it, and wanted to do all they could to see things through. But as their now-company grew, things couldn’t get done “commando” or “guerilla style” anymore. Pressure was put, both by themselves and their financial backers/partners, for things to be more structured, “made in a certain way”, following different advertising industry’s KPIs (Key Performance Indicators). So the initial “fire” was slowly tamed. Guy and Carl’s hunger for growth and thirst for thriving was more and more bounded to certain “playgrounds” (products, markets) and rules. Again, not set by the market, the industry or the government, but self-imposed. As time passed, the tone of discussions within the team changed too. It wasn’t about “how big is the potential of this new opportunity and how much growth can we gain from it?” anymore. It was “how can we play it safe and protect what we have, on every possible front?”. Making a decision to move in a new direction, or even further on in an already taken one, was way more complex. It now had to go through different levels of approvals, have passed multiple financial & operational analysis, have all the required paperwork filled accordingly, etc.. “Because of all the possible threats a decision to move forward – in a given direction – might poses to the organization and the employees”. Opportunities with favorable odds were now being passed on. At the same time, other people were starting to chase what Guy and Carl had built and made for themselves; a successful business, earned successes, financial freedom and a group of fans. Success has a smell. It leaves a trail that others – in search of one – tend to follow. Some following it with more hunger than others. The once-hunters were now the hunted, but the once-hunters didn’t have the same drive (or hunger) as before. Figuratively speaking, the hungry and thirsty (that were Carl and Guy, when they started) had found their food source and decided to regroup, settle and protect what they had worked so hard to earn and gain. Why? For the fear of losing it. So, outsmarting and outrunning their competitors, as they liked doing for years, was definitely out of the question for Guy and Carl by now. Because the dire-competition kept growing, the “pie” was getting smaller and smaller in the “indoor ad boards” market. The number of new opportunities in it was also shrinking. The college friends’ company started to suffer from it. Not only financially. The mindset and vibe of the team had changed a lot since the early days. There were now more people leaving the company than new ones coming in. Even Guy left the company at some point. Leaving Carl at the head of it. It didn’t take long before the early financial backers/partners pushed Carl out of the company. Wanting to give it a “new push forward”, a “breath of fresh air” as they said. For the past five years, though, the new management team has been following a different strategy; dismantling the ad boards company Guy and Carl have built. Selling its products divisions, one by one, to different competitors. Leaving on the tracks, what now looks like a powerful engine caught by inertia. An engine that once was a striving machine. One sketched out of a simple idea that caught two college friends’ imagination and made them say “why don’t we build it”. Just to see where it could take them.

This story isn’t unique. At its core is the very basic human desire to fulfill ourselves.

Wanting to find an inspiring idea, a role in a team, a certain task to be taken care of, a problem to be solved or an opportunity we can make our own. Something that, just like an engine, will hopefully be good enough to take us where we want to be, if not further.

Once we find this idea or opportunity, “making it happened” tend to follow a story ark. A series of stages that many endeavors go through:

Finding an idea. Convincing ourselves that it’s worth “seeing it through” (while getting other people’s validation along the way). Starting from scratch. Experiencing a few fails. Earning a first success. Thriving on more successes. Finding a comfort zone. Realizing (through a random event) that what we have worked so hard to get might not last forever, that we might start losing it soon. Doubting ourselves, our skills and the idea we’ve invested so much in so far. Wanting to preserve/secure what we have. Becoming more and more risk-averse. Getting caught by inertia.

OR WHEN A CURVE BECOMES A PLATEAU

Guy and Carl simply got comfortable”, “They lost their balls”, “They weren’t really hungry.” For having worked with both guys, while they had this company, they sure were hungry and driven.

Reaching a point where you “lose your appetite” or “run on an empty tank” sure is possible. Even more when you’ve been pushing an idea or a cause forward, for a while. It happens to the bests in any field, industry or sport.

Troubles start when you reach what appears to be a plateau. A stretch that might just precede another ascending part of the trail you’re on. It’s during that time spent on the plateau that our perception of reality gets tricked. That fear sets in. “Things aren’t really moving lately. I don’t see as much improvement as before. What’s happening? (…) Shit! My stride might not last forever! I might start losing what I’ve worked so hard to get…

When fear sets in, many people (and companies) tend to regroup and shield themselves from whatever threat is out there. Just like an armadillo (see image on the right). Taking any measure that will give them a feel of security. Examples? Heavy bureaucracy, multi-level analysis, complex and lengthy decisions approval processes, multiple committees and sub-committees, “firewalls” (e.g. policies and regulations that prevent a department from sharing information with others in an organic way). All things leading to paralysis by analysis, over time. Or in Guy and Carl’s case, in being caught by inertia.

This shift from hunger to fear can have important consequences. On ones’ capacity to keep thriving and improving, for starter.

Not ALL ideas’ story end like Carl and Guy’s own. Many do but not all. It’s how people (and companies) react to this “it might not last forever” that influences the most how things unfold afterward.

In fact, many individuals, entrepreneurs and even teams have found a way to avoid being caught by inertia… and keep moving forward and thriving instead.

YOU CAN STILL ACT ON IT…

Among the strategies that proved to be useful, there’s what I call the “Owl’s pause”. You first press “pause” on any major decision or change. Then, you take the time to list all the things, the hints that led you believe you’re in trouble, that something is threatening what you’ve worked hard to get. Then, you fact check every item on your “threats list” in the most honest and transparent way. At the end of this, you now have a clear survey not only of your surroundings but, more importantly, of where you really are. Just like owls do, at some point, during their flight from A to B. So “pressing play”, to start moving forward again, comes naturally then. Because you’ve gained back a perspective on things (like your finances, health, consumers habits or industry) you might simply have lost in your daily tasks.

Another proven strategy is controlling the risk of a new venture by protecting the downside. “What is at risk if this doesn’t work?” An approach that, both, Richard Branson and Warren Buffet have learned, mastered, and built massive successes with. Richard Branson famously used such tactic for the businesses he built under Virgin’s brand. In this 2014 article [read here], he recounts how “protecting the downside” worked for Virgin and its employees when the decision was made to launch a new airline; Virgin Airlines.

Put in perspective, to go through a change or a shift in our inner drive; from “hunger for success” to a “fear of lose”, is normal. It’s human. This happens when we lose sight of what’s really happening out there. Making our view and understanding of the dire-situation more prone to be tricked by partial or incomplete information.

TO REACH THE NEXT STAGE

The most fun part isn’t that you get to act like an amarillo, when new doubts and fear make you worry about your future. It’s that you can actually do something about it. Like any engine does on its way from A to B. Set a time for one (if not a few) “pit stop” in your schedule, catch your breath, check where you’re at, refuel with new insights, and adjust your itinerary to reach the next stage of your inspiring idea’s journey.

Not sure how to adjust your itinerary? Here’s the best compass that high achievers and companies refer to when they need some sense of direction: remembering why they put themselves on the tracks or path they’re on.

When you look at your personal or professional situation, what are the areas you feel inertia is starting to get a hold on you?

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Photo credits: Bill