A few weeks ago, I attended the bat mitzvah of a close family member. Bat and bar mitzvahs celebrate the coming of age into adulthood for Jewish kids and occur when they turn 13, or soon thereafter. It got me thinking (during a brief moment when I wasn’t immersed in the service, of course!) about how traditions endure.
For example, 13 seems pretty young as the marker of “adulthood.” But given that this is the year 5783 on the Hebrew calendar, it probably made sense in a time when life expectancy was around 35. Now that life expectancy is north of 75, 13 feels different.
But, as the song from the musical suggests, “Tradition” carries a lot of weight.And when it comes to cultural celebrations, that’s usually just fine.
It’s not so fine in business. Here, ideas in use every day are sometimes based on underlying assumptions and conditions that, while once true, no longer are. Further, the market’s strong hold on staying the course can get in the way of solutions that are clearly superior.
In today’s (mostly) post-pandemic world, many organizations are working on “back to the office” initiatives. Those with long business careers may be remembering the positive aspects of having teams together in the office every day… and there are several, of course.
But there were plenty of negatives, too. Assuming that things will “return to normal” because that’s how it used to be, flies in the face of what many employees clearly prefer, especially those for whom the last three years represent a significant portion of their total working lives.
Regardless of what may have worked in the past, organizations that push too hard on this point may drive key players to put their resumes out on the market. A more purposeful evaluation of what works best is a smarter approach.
Years ago, in the startup I co-founded, we hurt our chances of success by making (poor) assumptions about prospective customers. Because while we were offering an effective solution to a known and painful process, and despite having received terrific feedback from industry leaders and others regarding our value proposition, we completely misread our prospective customers’ willingness — or, as it turned out, lack thereof — to change course.
In this case, it was our customers’ tight grip on tradition that got in the way. Our solution was better, but not clearly enough to inspire them to change their behavior.
In my strategy classes at Boston University, I often ask my students to estimate the percentage of US retail sales today that happen through e-commerce. Some guesses are 60, 70 or even 80%. The correct answer is 15%.
Likewise, many organizations overestimate how quickly their customers or potential customers will adopt a service offering based on an emerging technology. For example, years ago, Ford Motor Company CEO, Mark Fields, was fired for not paying enough attention to sales of its iconic F-150 pickup truck while investing in future-oriented initiatives. Even today, that model provides needed funding for their electric vehicles and other future endeavors.
What to do?
#1. Adopt a “Challenger” Mindset
Traditions linger unless challenged. Especially when making new plans or budgeting for future years, consider whether your “facts” are actually assumptions. Can you identify the source of these to uncover whether they are still valid? If not, it’s time to dig deeper.
#2. Offer a “Minimum Viable Product” (MPV)
It’s one thing to ask prospective customers what they might do. The MVP concept suggests offering a slimmed down variation that lets you evaluate actual behavior in the real world.
For example, the founders of Wanderu believed there was a market for a KAYAK-like service for people seeking travel by bus or train, rather than airplane. So they created a basic website and bought Google Ads to promote it. Searchers who clicked through to their site were greeted with a message that the service was not yet available, but if they left their email address, the company would notify them as soon as it went live. A substantial number of site visitors did so, which confirmed a real level of interest in the market.
#3. Listen Closely
Following tradition often equates to no longer paying attention. Asking those who are involved — and listening carefully and with as little bias as possible — is as useful today as it was 5,000 years ago.
On the question of what employees want regarding “back to work,” engaging them in frank, two-way conversations about how to make work both meaningful and productive is sure to lead to better results than simply mandating a schedule.
Traditions and the assumptions that underlie them are a natural, useful, and often enjoyable aspect of what it means to be human. We can’t take the time to reevaluate everything every time from the ground up; these mental shortcuts play an important role.
But, if we don’t look more closely at them from time to time, they can also blind us to both opportunities and risks.