Have you ever tried to describe your work to a 90-year old?
These days, it’s a definite challenge. It is certainly not a matter of intelligence – the fact is, they built, defended, and laid the foundation for the world we all enjoy today.
Mechanically, they could run circles around our best today. Creatively, they certainly leave us in the dust. In terms of manual labor, they have undoubtedly worked harder physically than any of us. They’ve seen the infancy of the automotive industry, the growth of the rail industry, and the invention of air travel – from its unstable beginnings to the landing of astronauts on the moon and beyond – to where we are today.
They have survived one world war, a Great Depression, several other wars, and 9-1-1. They survived the gas wars of the 70’s; they had avocado green refrigerators, beehive hairdos, and leisure suits. They had phones attached to walls and TVs with antennas. Some still have both of those. They saw the birth of technology and now its adolescence. They saw the market heaving to extreme levels, and they saw the wave come crashing down.
Throughout their careers, there was a different business world – a world of tangibility, where products were produced and services were related to things you could see, touch, smell, hear, and taste – things like food, cash, and books. Service providers were people they knew locally, and friends were people they actually saw face to face.
So when you try to explain to a 90-year old that you run your business, do your marketing, trade stocks, provide services, buy and sell, and conduct meetings via your computer, you’ll have to excuse their expression.
If you had to describe the business world today in one word, it would be “intangible”.
Big businesses, many of whom operate on a very tangible brick and mortar model, find it challenging to be nimble and lean enough to move about quickly in a world that demands more and more, faster and faster.
Personally, I believe at some point, we will have to swing back to tangibility in some areas in order to survive. Our level of dependence on international markets has reached an unhealthy level.
I also believe we can take a lesson from the “intangible businesses” that are successful and create a hybrid business that works both tangibly and intangibly.
How can you, as a business leader, add the intangible factor to your tangible business?
Go beyond the cutting edge.
It’s all about ideas. Know your people – know them so well that you know what they need before they do. This was Steve Jobs’ greatest gift – the vision to see beyond anything we could even imagine.
This has likely been the discussion in Amazon think-tank sessions for some time now. They know that we have become an instant society, and that the company that gets closest to “instant” wins.
The days of waiting a month to take something before the Board are quickly fading. Decisions must be made as quickly as possible. Technology must be adaptable, and the IT team must stay ahead of an ever-moving curve. Processes must be looked at from top to bottom, with efficiencies created at all levels. Manufacturing processes must be simplified and streamlined in order to deliver at the speed society demands.
Focus on quality.
Like previous generations, quality matters. But unlike previous generations, it must be delivered faster than ever before. In business, you must strive to have the most efficient model while also having the highest quality. Social media and ease of research with access to reviews require a good business name now more than ever. The best way to achieve this is to have employees operating in their strengths at least 70% of the time. There is no time to train them to overcome weakness. There is only time to support them as they work in their strengths.
The fact is, business today is all about connections. It is about defining your mission and vision – and then making the right connections to do the work – technology connections, marketing connections, media connections, sourcing connections, and people connections.
Focus on people.
While this may seem counterpoint, it comes down to this. Despite all the intangibilities, business is still very much about people. It is about employees, vendors, and customers. Good relationships with these three groups underscore success. There are many changes through this last century, but this one stands the test of time.
In the best of worlds, we would have the tangibility and ingenuity of our grandparents’ day – plus the intangibility of connections, ideas, and streamlined processes of today.
Are you, as a leader, up to the challenge?