How To Prepare For The Unexpected Jolts

Having The Ability To Recognize When The Improbable Is Happening To You

If assumptions keep you safe, comfortable, and stagnant, then jolts are their counterpart. Jolts are the earthquakes and the tsunamis, metaphorical and occasionally literal, that you either don’t or can’t see coming. Jolts can be terrifying; one day you wake up and a fundamental assumption about how you do business has crumbled away. Its absence can leave a hole in your understanding about what you do and how you do it.

Learning how to navigate the jolts is a key element in the innovation process. Look at it this way: A big jolt will put a hole into how you do things, but also in how your competitors do things. If you already have the “jolts happen” mind-set in place, you can leapfrog over your competitors who may be in numb denial about the unexpected shift. This is an opportunity for you, and you need to recognize it and act fast.

So, a key part of using the Killer Questions is to challenge your organization to prepare for unpredictable events that can seriously affect your business. It is also about opening your eyes to ways in which you can do something so unexpected, so jolting, that it throws off your competition, thereby giving you a competitive advantage.

There are two kinds of jolts that can affect you. The first is the unexpected jolt, and the second is the competitive jolt. Notice I said “affect,” not “damage” or “harm.” Jolts can be devastating if you are unprepared to deal with them, and the nature of a jolt means that you won’t see it coming. But a meaningful jolt can open up major opportunities if you have the fast reflexes and confidence to respond to them in a proactive way.

Unexpected Jolts

What’s the worst-case scenario for you or your company? What situation is so dire that you know it will never happen? Something so unrealistic that it seems pointless to prepare for it?

Consider Johnson & Johnson’s situation in 1982, when seven people in the Chicago area, three from the same family, died after taking Tylenol capsules that had been tampered with by an unknown saboteur. Though an arrest was never made, a suspect was identified, and it seems likely the poisonings were part of a poorly conceived extortion attempt against Johnson & Johnson. More than 31 million bottles of product had to be recalled, and at one point police officers were driving through residential streets in Chicago using bullhorns to instruct people to throw away their Tylenol.

Johnson & Johnson, like all drug companies at the time, did not protect their product from saboteurs because no one had ever tried to compromise their product before. The packaging could be opened and resealed, the capsules could be easily pulled apart, tampered with, and reassembled. The Tylenol murders could have destroyed J & J, but they didn’t. Why? Because Johnson & Johnson made bold moves and disregarded how things had been done in the past. In the space of a few months Johnson & Johnson had a new imperative: We must protect our products and our customers from tampering.

They ordered a $100 million recall and designed antitampering packaging that has since set the standard for the industry. They also realized they needed to phase out the easily compromised capsules in favor of caplets, though it took another scare in 1986 to pull the last capsules off the shelves. Even so, for a company as large as J & J, this was swift action. So, what would be your Tylenol scare?

Competitive Jolts

Yahoo! is a good example of a company who was blindsided by a competitor making a quantum leap in improving their core product. In the late ’90s Yahoo! thought they had “search” in the bag. They developed a search feature where websites were rated by people who individually curated and ranked pages. Sure, it was laborious, but it allowed for accurate search results. Yahoo! never seemed to put serious thought into what would happen if a rival came up with a much better search engine. We know what happened next. A couple of guys from Stanford came up with the idea of automated page-ranking rather than human organization, and Google was born.

That’s a big shift. Yahoo! was essentially offering a very modern service (an Internet search engine) that was curated in a very traditional way (by humans). Google came along and said, “There is a better way to do this.” They devised a system where the popularity of a page, and the number of links or views it garnered, decided what level of influence it had, and where it fell in a search listing.

Yahoo! was prepared for a competitor who could improve on their product, but they assumed they’d be dealing with an improvement of 5 or 10 percent. They were completely unprepared for a total change in how search results were gathered. Google then went on to develop an entirely new business model in terms of selling advertising, and the rest is history. Bear in mind that in 1999, Google was in negotiations to sell itself to Excite for less than a million dollars. Things change fast, and knowing how to anticipate and (in some cases) create jolts can help you stay on top of unexpected changes. This question is about thinking about “what happens if our fundamental business changes, either for better or for worse?”

Recognize The Improbable

Take a few minutes and think about your personal history, and the history of your organization and industry. Have you ever experienced a jolt in either a negative or positive way? It’s critical to understand that your business will be shaken by unexpected events, as well as by your competitors making sudden, “out-of-the-blue” advances in the products they offer their customers.

It’s also imperative that you have the ability to recognize when the improbable is actually happening to you. We’ve all seen the horrific images of the Balinese (and now Japanese) tsunami and the unfortunate people standing transfixed on the beach, watching the water slowly get sucked out before it returned as a killer wave. It’s easy for us to think “Run!” but the reality is that when you’re standing there, looking at the water, it’s much easier to believe “Nothing bad is happening, really, this is fine. Weird, but fine.”

You have to be open to seeing the warning signs, the things that are saying “This is your fifteen-minute warning; you need to run now.” Keep your eyes open for the weak signals that let you know something unexpected is coming. Yahoo! ignored the weak signals they were seeing, and they didn’t do anything. Don’t get lulled by a seemingly slow change and tell yourself that you can handle it, because all of a sudden you could find yourself being washed away.

There is a risk to being number one in your market, because it can make you feel you have the right to finally relax; after all, you’ve gotten to the top of the mountain! The reality is that you are constantly being challenged by the person climbing up behind you. But if you aren’t careful, you’ll fall into the trap of simply trying to stay ahead of the number-two guy who’s trying to catch up with you rather than focusing on moving forward on your own.

Playing Defense or Playing Offense?

Remember, dealing with jolts isn’t just about playing defense, it’s also about using them to your advantage, or even creating jolts yourself if they will help you to disrupt your competitors and get ahead of them. Use the questions as a guide to list possible jolts, and devise ways that you would survive and even profit from them.

The first step toward innovation is shaking loose your assumptions about your organization and preparing for the unexpected jolts that will inevitably come. Apply a critical eye to your own industry. The point isn’t to decide that “up equals down” but to shake things up and open your eyes to opportunities you weren’t even aware that you’re missing. Now, bear in mind that assumptions have an upside, too. We assume certain things because waking up every morning wondering if the basic nuts and bolts of our lives still hold true would waste a whole lot of time and probably cause us some unneeded stress on a daily basis. So it’s safe to assume you should follow the basic laws of civilized society. If you run a red light, you’ll probably get a ticket. That’s a good assumption. There are “good assumptions” within the business world too, but I’m not going to list them for you; it’s up to you to run these exercises and do your own filtering to determine what assumptions are beneficial to your work or not.

The point is to keep questioning your assumptions because even good assumptions may go bad. If you constantly ask yourself questions that challenge you to evaluate what you do, how you do it, and who you do it for, you will automatically be ahead of your competition.

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