11 February 2022
Post COVID, can businesses rewrite the rules by implementing a new, 'sieze the day' approach
Many of you will, of course, be familiar with the works of Elvis Costello. If not, I commend him to you.
He has just produced his 32nd studio album, The Boy Named If, which is an invigorating mix of hard charging rock n’ roll and beautiful melodies. And it is this ability to move effortlessly between musical genres, and bring wit and subtlety to his lyrics, which is so notable. In 2003 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1983 he released a song called “Every day I write the book” and it strikes me that, as we (hopefully) emerge from the pandemic, this is an important theme for each of us as individuals. Can we get up each morning and, in the course of the day, do something fresh - get out of our comfort zone - so that at bedtime we can run the credits on a day that was different from yesterday? Can we really seize the day? As Sartre said: “There is only one day left to us, always starting over. It is given to us at dawn and taken away at dusk.”
It is also an important theme for business. The slow-motion shock of the last two years has affected supply chains, altered buying habits, accelerated awareness of global warming and changed attitudes to work. Business is having to adapt to all this - rewriting the book every day.
What might the building blocks of this daily renewal look like in practice?
It has often struck me that for something to go well, it has to start well. Presumably this is why the New Zealand All Blacks start their games with a Haka https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yiKFYTFJ_kw.
A few years ago, at a birthday party, I decided that I would try to play Mustang Sally with my cousins before the actual band started their set (I was going through a Commitments phase). With the aid of many demonstrations on YouTube I did a lot of practising. The big moment came and I got the third and fourth chords the wrong way round - and so they remained for most of the song. The moment was saved by my musical cousins but the experience did emphasise to me that a good start is important.
So, each day should start well - maybe with an invigorating run or, as restrictions abate, a lively breakfast meeting - to bring the right kind of momentum to the rest of the day.
It’s the same of course for business transactions. An IPO which goes to a discount on day 1 often struggles to recover and a classic example is Deliveroo which closed 26% down on its float price of 390p on the first day of trading and now sits at around 145p. There is also the striking statistic that, of the 396 companies which went public in the USA last year, 80% are trading below their listing price.
When you get up to dance you have to, as Uma Thurman said to John Travolta, dance good.
Purpose and kindness can together be an important guiding framework for each new day both for individuals and for businesses:
If this is done well it drives employee and customer loyalty.
Purpose fans have, however, had a difficult few weeks. Terry Smith’s criticism of Unilever over the purpose of its Hellmann’s mayonnaise seemed to strike a chord and generate an anti-woke chorus. I fear that this is an example of the power of the sound bite. Whilst we can all raise a sardonic eyebrow at the idea of mayonnaise with purpose, and we must be wary of gratuitous virtue signalling, we should not allow that to distract from the reality that for businesses to be sustainable in the long run they will have think and act in purpose terms to grow the pie.
As James Harding from Tortoise has observed:
“Alan Jope’s vision for Unilever – namely proving that a business with ambitious social and climate commitments will attract the best talent, build consumer loyalty, open new markets and then deliver a greater financial performance over time – is better for the company, not to mention confidence in capitalism, than Smith’s formula, which itself pits planet against profit and dismisses sustainability as PR.”
Turning to kindness, I drew up at a petrol station on Sunday to fill the nearly empty tank in our Fiat Panda, with my 91-year-old Mum on board. I was alarmed to find that the petrol filler cap had disassembled itself. The top half was hanging off and the bottom half was stuck in the top of the tank. So, I reunited the two parts, only to find that the filler cap would not unscrew. I then started wrestling with the entire item, trying to wrench it off. A charming man at the pump next to me noticed that something was wrong and came over to help. With time and more strength than I could muster he got the cap off. Day saved.
So, this was the kindness of a stranger. Very life-affirming.
This plays into the business world of course because employers who treat their employees with consideration, respect and kindness will reap the rewards. As Larry Fink of Blackrock says in his 2022 Dear CEO letter; “Our research shows that companies that forged strong bonds with their employees have seen lower levels of turnover and higher returns through the pandemic.”
Day in, day out, where do good ideas come from? This is the subject of this fascinating TED talk by Steve Johnson in 2010 https://www.ted.com/talks/steven_johnson_where_good_ideas_come_from?referrer=playlist-where_do_ideas_come_from. He takes us from the role of coffee houses in the 17th century as factories for ideas to the discovery of GPS, which began as a lunchtime chat between colleagues in 1957. Other examples which he gives explain that ideas often emerge over time, the “slow hunch”, and build upon conference-room conversations. As he says, “chance favours the connected mind”.
Whilst the last two years have not seen patent and trademark applications fall off a cliff, as some feared, Steve Johnson’s talk does underline that even in a post-Covid hybrid-working world the daily writing of the book will benefit from time spent “live” with colleagues and friends. Bartleby’s comments in The Economist on the Beatles’ documentary film “Get Back” are in point.
He observes that the film shows a team of superstars sitting together and embracing the ethos of taking risks, learning from other and innovating by “playing the songs of other bands, grabbing ideas like magpies and happily taking the advice and help of outsiders”.
For most of us, evolution is the norm - punctuated by revolutionary events such as getting our first job, buying a home with our partner, the birth of a child, changing jobs, retiring.
So, the daily challenge we face is to make the evolution as fulfilling as may be and to manage well the post-revolutionary phase after a periodic revolution. This means “grabbing ideas like magpies” and leaning into variety, just like Elvis Costello or Lady Gaga.
In the business world I was interested to come across recently Evolution and Revolution as Organisations Grow, a Classic Harvard Business Review article by Larry Greiner https://hbr.org/1998/05/evolution-and-revolution-as-organizations-grow. Whilst much has changed in the 50 years since the article was first published there are three interesting takeaways in relation to the growth trajectories of companies:
This rhythm of evolution to crisis/revolution, whilst of course a hefty generalisation and subject to blurring of the boundary lines as enterprises have grown more complex, is an interesting reflection on renewal and puts us in mind of the saying that we should “never waste a crisis”.
Method and process are important. They can seem dull, but they matter to outcomes and to making the most of each day.
Many of you will have read Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair. In it the hero describes what was in fact Greene’s own working method:
“Over twenty years I have probably averaged five hundred words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and the correction of the typescript. I have always been very methodical, and when my quota of work is done I break off, even in the middle of a scene…..and however late I might be getting to bed…I would read the morning’s work over and sleep on it. So much of a novelist’s writing takes place in the unconscious.”
I find this a very compelling idea - 500 words every morning, sleep on it overnight, one novel per year. It’s a system which gives manageable, bite-size, shape to a big undertaking and leaves room for other interests. If ever I “get that book out of me” it’s the way I’ll go.
Periodically I go through a phase of sitting at my desk every evening before bed and writing in a notebook “the rewarding things that happened today”.
The thought is that we tend to take for granted the good things and focus on the more difficult stuff. Pausing before bed to freeze dry highlights as the last chapter of today’s book is a pleasing exercise.
Mary Chapin Carpenter has it right in Passionate Kisses:
Is it too much to demand
I want a full house and a rock and roll band,
Pens that won’t run out of ink
And cool quiet and time to think.
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23 August 2021
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