The Pitfalls of Incremental Success | SupportBiz

Managing Growth

The Pitfalls of Incremental Success

One has to periodically reinvent oneself, says a leading Executive Coach.

For the new age executive, Monday morning blues are passé! They breeze through the first two days by drawing upon the energy reserves from the weekend before. Problems held over from Friday are resolved in a jiffy, weekly targets are recalibrated and work accelerates at full throttle. Come Wednesday evening and ennui sets in; energy levels deplete and rejuvenation is some way off. By Thursday, ambitions are but distant dreams. Running the show becomes an end by itself.

It was on a Thursday that I received a call from a good friend, a highly visible CEO of a fast-growing mid-sized enterprise. The conversation started with us inquiring about each other’s business and ground to an unexpected halt when I asked him about his own affairs. “Well, I was hoping to have a coaching session with you,” he said. The voice at the other end sounded less than cheerful so, I instantly agreed to this unscheduled coaching session.

We began the coaching session and true to expectation, the topic of discussion veered around to his future. Having built the company over the past seven years, he felt completely engaged, had a great team and was financially well rewarded. “I know this may sound weird as I seem to have everything going for me. But, somehow I feel something is missing,” he said. I prodded him further upon the matter by asking him pointed questions on his dreams, aspirations etc.

As the conversation moved on, I was able to ascertain a sense of discontent. Not so much from the work he was doing but from the manner in which he was doing it. As an effective manager, he had created an aggressive work culture with new product introductions, tight delivery schedules and periodic reorganizations. The team was kept engaged and there was a constant buzz around the company. I summarized my understanding of his work schedule and my friend nodded his head vigorously to show that he agreed with my understanding.

“Incrementalization leads to fossilization,” I pronounced rather grandly and was greeted by stoic silence from the other end. Realizing that I had not made myself clear, I added, “It is a question of periodically reinventing oneself.” I reminded him of the hectic pace he had set for himself at work and asked when was the last time he had stepped back from his busy schedule to stop and think? “Can’t readily recall,” he said with a sheepish laugh.

“Would it be right to say that over the past few years your company has largely been doing the same work with minor tweaks but the impression you get and, which you propagate in turn, is that these changes are exciting and innovative. By continuing to work on these incremental improvements you are gradually being driven to a fossil-like situation,” I ask him. He considers the question carefully, agrees with me and says, “Well, this is what has kept us going over the past couple of years.”

I bring in the example of a car manufacturer who releases a new model each year; makes for sound business sense except for the fact that each of the new models has small or incremental design changes… a superior seat, a smarter looking dashboard, aesthetically pleasing rear lamps etc. Now consider what happens to the company over the years. The so-called ‘new’ models stop generating the buzz and the company starts losing market share. The model gets fossilized thereafter.

The concept, I tell him, is hardly restricted to products and market places. An international tennis player finds his recent spate of defeats to a rival eroding his popularity. To reverse the trend, he trains harder, appoints a new coach and fitness trainer and switches to a new racquet. Soon, he discovers that these incremental changes bring little or no results to his performance. In fact, he starts losing players who are ranked much lower. Is he too becoming a fossil?

Both these situations are unique. The remedial measures might appear sound but could prove disastrous in the future. “Yes, I do see the point but can you tell me how to make a difference to my own situation,” asks my friend, who seems keen to push the envelope. I refuse to be drawn into a counseling mode and reiterate my illustration by suggesting that “a company that innovated incrementally could consider an innovation paradigm shift.”

My friend is persistent and asks for specifics. “Well, as a starting point why don’t you ask yourself some questions,” I say and list out a few to start the process…

• Is the work I am doing now meeting both my personal goals AND long-term vision - the vision with which I originally started my business?

• What am I not doing to realize my full potential? What more can I do?

• Where should I expand and grow towards realizing my dreams?

The conversation grinds to a halt. Even through the phone, I can feel that he is internalizing this discussion. A keen sports enthusiast himself, I believe the example of that tennis player has struck a chord. After a prolonged silence, he says, “I agree that a state of reinvention requires a paradigm shift in thought. I need to work on this aspect of my life. Let me start off by asking those questions to myself,” he says, more to himself than to me.

He closes the conversation by asking me for another favor, “I hope you won’t mind me calling you again to carry this discussion forward.”

The author readily agrees to the CEO's request. Next Thursday is still seven days away, he tells himself!