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.”
Back in the day, when the battery died in my Datsun 210 hatchback, all I needed was a steep hill or a couple of friends willing to give me a push to get it moving again. A well-timed pop of the clutch would kick-start the engine and I’d be on my way. It sure beat hitchhiking.
It’s a metaphor that comes back to me each time my firm consults with a struggling company. Today, of course, it’s difficult to find a standard-transmission car, so kick-starting has become somewhat of a lost art. And because automobiles have become much more reliable, perhaps we all have some underlying psychological expectation that our organizations will rarely stall. But research suggests it’s a question of when, not whether, your company will get stuck in park.
Most struggling companies are in a lot better shape than my old Datsun was, but for one reason or another they’ve stopped moving forward. The task, in one sense, is to find a way to kick-start them. To do that you must generate some sort of positive momentum, meaning there are times when progress is more important that perfection.
To be sure, pursuit-of-perfection approaches like Total Quality Management and Six Sigma have their place, particularly when the cost of inconsistency or a breakdown is critically high. But those approaches are designed to improve business outcomes in normal circumstances by significantly reducing the probability that an error or defect will occur, and as a result they require very large data sets.
When a company is struggling, by contrast, it’s a data set of one. As is often said about families, every company is dysfunctional, but each is dysfunctional in its own way.
One common form of that dysfunction is a loss of nerve. Stalled companies tend to cut their marketing spending, trim their investment in R&D and prune their training budgets. More significantly, they lose their swagger.
Like a baseball player in a slump, a few failures at the plate sap their confidence, leading to more failures at the plate. They begin to question their swing, obsess about mechanics, and overthink every at-bat. What a slumping batter needs more than anything is to make contact with the ball. A hit, no matter how small, makes a batter a hitter again.
We recently worked with a franchisor that was struggling with increasing competition in a rapidly commoditizing industry. We helped the company clarify its challenge, focus in on a core segment of the market and refine its brand identity. We put it all together, gave it an intentional kick-start, and watched as the engine began to hum again.
"We couldn't have anticipated the positive effect the rebrand would have had not only on our company, but also on franchise relations overall,” said the vice president of operations. “Our relationships with our franchisees have done a complete turnaround and the energy here is amazing."
"The energy here is amazing." That’s the power of momentum.
Why does enrollment increase at universities that win national championships? Why are voters more likely to support a candidate who is gaining in the polls? Why do winning companies attract the most talented employees? Why do I always jump to another line in the supermarket when it appears to be moving faster? People intuitively value momentum, because an object in motion feels alive.
Beyond that, it’s easier to adjust the trajectory of an object in motion. That old Datsun 210 didn’t have power steering, and boy was it hard to turn the wheel when it wasn’t rolling. It’s equally hard to steer a company that isn’t moving, which is why turnarounds are about more than strategy; stalled brands often require a kickstart to get things going.
We all have limited resources, and we must choose whether to spend them in the lab or in the field. Sometimes you can tinker in the garage, but when your primary method of transportation breaks down the most pressing need is to get back on the road.
There’s no such thing in physics or in business as a perpetual motion machine, but that doesn’t mean momentum can’t be maintained. It just requires intentional effort.
Just as hitters hit, leaders lead. Momentum can’t happen without movement, so don’t wait until you have the perfect plan to proceed. Begin. Try things. Experiment. Be as strategic as possible, but remember that you can adjust on the fly. Seek to perfect, not to be perfect.
The bandwagon effect is real. People want to be a part of something when it’s moving forward. You can’t kick-start a car, or a company, without momentum. So get moving.