Originally created 05/16/04

Make sure old ways of doing things are still working

Two weeks ago, I talked about one of the five key attributes of successful businesses. This week, I would like to share with you the second of the five.

Every successful business I have been involved with has the ability to routinely challenge the assumptions on which the business is built.

Think about that for a moment. It's like asking you to question your belief that you selected the right career in life or whether the political view you hold is correct. It is the essence of the one thing most of us resist, exploring the possibility of change.

Is it really that important for businesses to think "outside the box?" In the late 1960s, GM, Ford, Chrysler and American Motors held almost 95 percent of the American automotive market. Less than 35 years later, there are only three and they own less than 40 percent.

How many of you remember when there were only three television stations? The "networks," as they were called, owned all the markets. In just under 15 years, they no longer dominate. In fact, the world leader in news is CNN, sports is ESPN and Fox is dominant in national news.

If you notice, none of these companies lost the share to its existing competitors. They lost it to people who didn't share their assumptions. The Japanese didn't believe that Americans wouldn't buy a small car. CNN and ESPN thought their product was important enough to be a 24-7 business. Major market share loss is rarely lost to existing competition. If the auto makers and the "networks" had held the same assumptions as the newcomers, it would be a different world today.

There's a great story that illustrates this phenomenon. A newly married couple had invited the husband's parents to Easter dinner. The husband was in the kitchen with his new bride as she prepared the ham. When the wife cut off the butt end of the ham before putting it in the roasting pan, he asked why she did that. She responded, "My mother taught me to do it this way."

After the husband left, she called her mother and asked the same question. Her mother thought for a moment and then told her that was the way her mother had taught her. After the mother hung up, she called the young bride's grandmother and asked why she had always cut the butt end off the ham before baking. The senior matriarch replied, "I did it because the only pan we had was too small to hold the entire ham."

Get your team together as often as you can and list the key assumptions that are the foundation of your business. Challenge them and see whether they are still sound. An answer of "it must be right because all of our competition is doing it," doesn't work.

Reach Dale Bunce, the founder of Consulting Frim International Market Development and former president of Honeywell-Sharecom and the Chubb Cos., at dale@openmarkets.com or (804) 642-5544.


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