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What you know can hurt you

Here’s a shocker: Your brilliance might not be so brilliant, your insights might not be so insightful and your plans might not be foolproof.

6 min read


Steve McKee

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 and again in 2018. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

SmartBrief offers more than 200 newsletters, including SmartBrief on Leadership and newsletters for small businesses and marketers and advertisers.

All kinds of people post opinions on social media: Men and women, old and young, athletes and actors, liberals and conservatives, management and staff. Despite the incredible diversity such an arrangement spawns, they all have something in common: they’re right in their own eyes. It’s like how people believe nobody else on the road knows how to drive as well as they do — especially in the rain. Each of us has, shall we say, unreasonable confidence in our own opinions.

It’s true in business as well. How many corporate leaders have you heard remark, “Boy, is my strategy stupid!” or “The way my competitors outsmart me is impressive!” Business, like social media and the interstate, is full of people soaked in confirmation bias: the tendency to interpret events in conformity with our own brilliant view of the world. How many times have you patted your own company’s strategy on the back while scoffing at your competitor’s? I know I have.  

But when you consider that over the course of an average year nearly one in eight companies sees its revenue decline, and that over the course of an average decade more than half of all companies stall, something doesn’t add up. No CEO has ever called a staff meeting and said, “We’re planning to take it in the shorts this year.” Yet company after company does.

Here’s a shocker: Your brilliance might not be so brilliant, your insights might not be so insightful and your plans might not be foolproof.  Unlike in social media (where you may never have to come to terms with your misguided thinking), believing your business strategy is correct doesn’t make it so. The marketplace makes that judgment, and it’s a hard teacher.

A plan is never wrong until it is. Nobody is ever mistaken until they are. Doing business is less like emoting on Twitter and more like driving in the rain; no matter how well you think you can maneuver, you can’t fight physics. Sometimes your tires skid. Sometimes you misjudge the distance of the car in front of you. Sometimes it’s just your turn to hit the wall.

With that humble admonition, here are three tips to help keep your company from becoming a statistic.

Broaden your conception of competition. Ever hear of Gump’s? It was a storied, 157-year-old San Francisco department store that recently declared bankruptcy and closed its doors. It’s not hard to imagine why, given the intense retail disruption that has claimed household names like Sears and Toys ‘R Us. But get this: Gump’s actually reported in its court filing that because it specializes in one-of-a-kind items it didn’t have any real direct competitors. Hmm.

These days, everybody is competing with everybody. Five years ago, who would have put Netflix and Apple in the same category? Yet here they are, each spending billions to capture the elusive video entertainment consumer. McDonald’s is feeling the effects of HelloFresh, Walgreens is now competing with Amazon (who isn’t?) and Walmart is about to make life miserable for car dealers everywhere. Competition isn’t what it used to be. You have to look for it everywhere.

Question every assumption. Every assumption. Start with your business and marketing plans but don’t stop there. Go all the way up to your vision and mission statements. Re-examine every sentence. Challenge every word. Why did you put it that way? What does it mean? How may its interpretation have changed since you last looked at it? How may the world have changed around it?

There’s a reason why creative destruction rarely happens from within an industry: Current industry players are invested in the status quo — literally and figuratively. If you’re not careful, you could achieve your mission and still be disrupted out of existence.  Get ahead of the game by checking your assumptions the way you would proofread your resume: Read what you’ve written backwards. Stop on every word. Resist the temptation to skip the fine print. If you don’t, you may indeed be proofing your resume soon.

Embrace naysayers.  Years ago I wrote a piece entitled “When to fire your ad agency,” and I made the point that beyond obvious reasons (lying, cheating, stealing) there’s one overriding question you should ask yourself: “Has my agency stopped challenging me?” The same question could (and should) be asked of your management team, your advisors, your board of directors and even the person behind the bleary eyes you see in the mirror each morning.

I’m not suggesting your staff and advisors challenge your authority; I am suggesting that you make clear to them that part of their job description is to challenge your thinking. It doesn’t mean their ideas and opinions will always be right; it means that another perspective is always worth considering. Of course, the difficult thing about being challenged is that it’s, well, challenging. But it sure beats groupthink.

Broaden your conception of competition. Question every assumption. Embrace naysayers. These ideas are in no way exhaustive, and they’re certainly not foolproof. But they can go a long way in helping you understand where you may be off-base or missing something, and they can help prevent your company from getting left behind. I have found them quite helpful, and I believe you will too.

Of course, I could be wrong.