In Business & Bobsledding: Think Beyond the Trends

How many of you remember the 1993 Disney movie Cool Runnings? It’s the feel-good movie about the first Jamaican bobsled team overcoming adversity and competing in the winter Olympics. While not exactly an Oscar-worthy movie, there is a specific moment of the film that has always struck me. During training, Jamaica’s team captain watches the venerable Swiss team, counting in German, “eins zwei drei,” to get synchronized before launching their sled down the track. In an effort to make his team more like the elite Swiss team, the Jamaican team captain implements this ritual. Not surprisingly, this change is met with distain from the rest of the team, since they don’t speak German. Eventually, the Jamaicans adapt this practice into something each team member can actually internalize rather than replicate with the well-known and titular “Feel the rhythm! Feel the rhyme! Get on up, its bobsled time, Cool Runnings!!!”

In business, and in bobsledding, there are a lot of good ideas and people to be admired and to learn from. I often see organizations try to take a methodology, organizational structure, or other management trend straight from the pages of a book without adapting it to their unique business-only to fail. It can be tempting to implement the latest trend you read about in Harvard Business Review or a book you picked up at the airport. The trick is to think beyond the trend, understand why these approaches work and then adapt your approach to your business’ unique culture, products, customers, and circumstances. That can be challenging.

Zappos recently accelerated their transition away from a more traditional hierarchical structure to one of self-managing teams, largely based on the concepts of Holacracy and those found in Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organizations. A natural response to reading about their transition to such an innovative structure could be to say, “let’s do what Zappos did.” However, one of the things that has been central to Zappos’ transition is that they customized ideas they read about and observed in other companies, and made them their own. Self-managed organizations often utilize a formal conflict resolution process that employees can use to solve their own problems instead of relying on management. Zappos saw this and internally developed a six-step conflict resolution process that fit their needs. In addition, they recognized that self-management is something that doesn’t work for everyone and offered all employees a minimum of three months severance if they decided that they didn’t want to be a part of the new organization, which 18% of their workforce took. Several other organizations have tried and abandoned self-management based on a rigid implementation of Holacracy taken from someone else’s rules. Zappos, on the other hand, is working to figure out which pieces work for them, which need to be adapted, and what unique things have to be created in order to fit their culture.

Contrast Zappos’ approach with a recent-ish blunder of JC Penney under CEO Ron Johnson. As Apple’s former head of retail, Johnson implemented a number of drastic retail changes at JC Penney that had originally made Apple a huge success in the retail space. Johnson implemented things like consistent “fair” pricing by eliminating sales and coupons, removed fixed point-of-sale stations, and rebranded the company JCP. He tried to make JC Penney into the Apple Store without taking into consideration their target audience. It failed miserably, and Johnson – as well as most of his changes – were gone in less than two years. This case study has become a classic cautionary tale of what works at Company A doesn’t always work at Company B.

At the risk of sounding self-serving, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you see or read a business trend that you want to try out. Reach out to colleagues in other companies who have tried it before, both successfully and unsuccessfully – there is a lot to be learned from both. Or talk to a consultant, many of us have the luxury of working with a variety companies that have tried a lot of things and there is a good chance we’ve seen it before. If you do go the consultant route, make sure you find one that is willing to learn and be flexible with you. I’ve worked with a lot of consultants who failed at making changes within organizations because they were rigid with their approach and assumed that because an approach worked for one client it will work for another. A consultant who tries to fit a square peg in a round hole is likely to contribute to the problem rather than help. Regardless of the idea or where you get help, it’s important to ask yourself if what you are trying to implement makes sense for your company.