Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Cracking It

Much to my amazement my son sent me a card recently (an unusual occurrence as he is an email sort of fellow, if he bothers to make contact at all) – the message on the card was a version of Groucho Marx’s quote:

“Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light”.

I’m not sure if I should be flattered, because he thinks I am open to ideas and/or can guide and illuminate others, or concerned that he sees his mother as deranged.

The connotation of something being cracked seems to imply that it is damaged.  However, it is often from potentially damaging and difficult circumstances that we can learn the most.  Being able to grasp opportunity and understanding from apparent adversity is a blessing.  I was at a wonderful dinner last night to celebrate the start of Chocolate Week in the UK.  Eight of us sat round our table, enjoying an amazing dinner – I’ve never eaten lamb with capers, anchovy and chocolate before, but it was delicious - and I was struck by the success that a number of the diners had achieved, despite unusual or difficult starts:

  • ·         One is a co-founder of the Grenada Chocolate Company Ltd., which was established in 1999, to create an organic cocoa farmers' and chocolate-makers' cooperative.  He is an Engineering degree drop-out from NYC, the son of Eastern European immigrants to The States.  He arrived in Grenada with little cash and lived for a decade in a simple bamboo hut that he created in the rainforest.  He is creative, good at devising economical and practical solutions and cares passionately about the world in which he operates.  His latest venture is linked to Sustainability – he has teamed up with some innovative Dutchmen and will be delivering consignments of the cooperative’s cocoa and chocolate both to the USA and Europe on wind powered, commercial cargo boats, taking advantage of the Trade Winds – a pioneering and environmentally responsible approach that has not happened for more than a century.  With modern technology it is now possible to have commercially viable sea-born delivery and, as traditional fuel becomes increasingly expensive, damaging and scarce, wind, tide and solar will have to be the way of the future.
  • ·         Another inspirational dining companion is the daughter of Chinese émigrés to New York – her parents worked in menial roles in restaurants and call centres to earn the money to educate their daughters.   She studied in Hong Kong and at a leading Ivy League university, before securing a role as a trader on Wall Street.  Despite being highly successful, she had a passion for chocolate and wanted a job that would satisfy her on many levels.  She followed her dreams and, after a stint at INSEAD, she has transferred her skills into becoming a powerful strategic thinker and is working with our hosts to evaluate all aspects of one the UK’s most eminent artisanal chocolate producers.

Both of these individuals broke away from what was expected of them, to do what they knew was right for their own satisfaction and success.  It is often necessary to break away from long accustomed behaviours and attitudes in order to improve. Sometimes it only takes a small shift in thinking or presentation to make a significant difference. 

Over the past week the papers and screens have been full of memorials to Steve Jobs – an inspirational man who both built and later resuscitated an extraordinary global business – not always the pioneer, but consistently an innovator who improved on others’ concepts to create a desirable product and hence dominated the market (e.g. the iPod after Sony’s Walkman initial breakthrough, the iPhone following Nokia’s dominance of the mobile phone market for the decade before its release and the iPad after various tablets and think pads had failed to excite the public).  Not only did/does Apple provide products that meet consumers’ desires, usually before they have even articulated what they want, but the service approach for direct customers is exemplary (from experience, it’s not so good through an intermediary).  Steve Jobs did the initial voiceover for the first “Crazy Ones” ad in 1997, which was devised as part of the “Think Different” advertising campaign. The words he says are as follows:

“Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently.  They’re not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo.  You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.  About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them, because they change things.  They push the human race forward.  While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.  Because the people, who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.” 

If you’d like to hear Steve Jobs speaking these words, here’s the link:

Later, the actual advert used slightly different wording, but the message remains the same.  It is those who dare to be different, who are able to be creative and who follow their own instincts that are most likely to bring about positive change.  We live in a time when change is required more than ever – socially, economically, environmentally, politically, etc...  It concerns me that organisations are increasingly retreating into their comfort zones, especially in areas such as recruitment or the selection of individuals for redundancy.  People are screened out because they are not seen as an obvious fit.  People without degrees are deselected for an opportunity without even a discussion to see what they might be able to offer (Steve Jobs had no degree, nor does Richard Branson nor my Grenadian Cocoa Cooperative founder described above).  People who have not worked in a specific industry are considered inappropriate for a role in a new sector because the recruitment firm advertising the role has “received applications from candidates whose experience more closely match their client's specific requirements”.  We are missing out on individuals who can bring a fresh pair of eyes and perhaps improve things.  Part of the reason that a number of businesses are not coping well in these difficult times is because, as the reality of the bottom line confronts them, they are reverting to type and focusing on what they have always done or trying to encourage actions that have proved successful in the past.   The world is changing.  Much of what we did in the last century has resulted in some of the issues that we are now trying to combat.  I am not convinced that perpetuating the old approaches will provide a secure route to success and sustainable business.  We need to encourage “the crazy ones” who have the vision and drive to change things.

We are facing problems that have never been confronted before.  The fact that many are of our own making does not mean that we should not try to crack them.

Be the one brave enough to stand out and make a difference or support those who can.

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