Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”
Business is entropy. You are gravity.
“If it wasn’t for me this place would fall apart.” Admit it. You’ve said that, or something very close to it. Sounds pretty arrogant.
But it’s also true--more true than you may realize.
There’s a reason that, over the course of an average decade, more than half of all companies stall. There’s a reason why brands that grab headlines today will be footnotes tomorrow. There’s a reason why some of the brightest professionals in business unwittingly sacrifice their joy, their health and sometimes even their families trying to keep things together. This stuff is hard. As someone once said, if I didn’t have to work for people, or with people, business would be a snap.
We all have to deal with difficult customers, colleagues and competitors. In fact, that’s what leadership is really all about; seizing opportunities, yes, but more often (and sometimes more importantly) dealing with the stuff life and business continually throw at us. It is, in fact, the way of the universe. In physics they call it the second law of thermodynamics, otherwise known as entropy.
The formal definition of entropy is “the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity.” I prefer to think about it simply as the tendency for everything in the world to fall apart. What’s true of the universe is true of a company, a marriage, or even a friendship; left unattended, things tend to go awry.
When I was still wet behind the ears as a professional, I thought what marked a successful company or career was the willingness to take a risk and overcome obstacles. I’ve since learned that taking a risk and overcoming obstacles only qualifies someone to take more risks and overcome even bigger obstacles. There’s never a time to rest, we never “arrive,” and the risk/reward cycle never stops. Nor does the need to persevere through obstacles, big and small.
The first step in dealing with entropy is to adjust your mental framework and recognize that what you’re going through is normal. Otherwise, it’s easy to let frustration lead to exasperation and even burnout. The problem with that (beyond the years it takes off of your life) is that it’s never more critical to think creatively than when something goes wrong, and it’s difficult to seek creative solutions when your mind is in negative space.
The good news is entropy isn’t the only law of physics. There’s another property that works to prevent the universe (or a company) from disintegrating into nothingness: Gravity.
Gravity is the unseen, ever-present, persistent force that keeps things from falling apart. Gravity keeps the earth in its orbit, the air in our atmosphere and our feet on the ground. In your company (your marriage, your friendships), gravity is you.
This realization has helped me deal with many a formerly ulcer-inducing problem. Instead of anguishing over its mere existence or feeling sorry for myself in having to deal with it, I recognize that problems are the way of things, and without them my contribution might not be necessary. They’re entropy. I’m gravity. It’s all very normal.
In some ways, I look at it as job security. Since entropy never ceases, neither does gravity. There will never come a time (in this world) when everything is in its place, never to be disturbed. If we swim in a sea of frustration every time something goes wrong, we’ll be gasping for breath in no time. Better to accept that the second law of thermodynamics is the way of things.
Yes, things would indeed fall apart without you. That’s not an empty boast; it’s a fact of life. Entropy happens. If you recognize that in whatever corner of the world you inhabit your role is indeed to hold it all together, even problems make perfect sense.