Smoke jumpers are highly trained, highly evolved, elite firefighters who parachute into difficult terrain to put out wildfires. They need to have an extensive resume in remote terrain firefighting and be skilled in all of the tools of the trade. They must be in excellent physical condition and possess a high degree of emotional stability and mental alertness.
In the last century, 15 of the bravest smoke jumpers were battling a fire in a deep canyon when suddenly the inferno turned and raced right at them. The men tried to retreat, scrambling up the steep walls to get away. Tragically, 12 souls were lost.
The testimony of the three survivors and a review of the scene revealed a surprising finding. Large poleaxes, shovels and 12 heavy backpacks, in all some 115 pounds per man of professional gear, were on the ground hundreds of yards from where the smoke jumpers first turned from fighting the wildfire to race away. Only three dropped their gear early; the rest couldn’t let go until it was too late.
This is all too human. Those tools represented who they were. Dropping them was like abandoning their knowledge and relationships for uncertainty. It was a hard choice, and the majority of them never had a second chance to learn how to make the right choices in the future.
The same is true of all of us. When we’ve got something we want, we’ll resist like hell before letting go.
During research for my book, The Reinventors — How Extraordinary Companies Pursue Radical Continuous Change, my research team and I identified nine skill sets shared by organizations that have mastered the art of embracing continuous change. Here are three of them.
Yesterday’s breadwinners: Every product or service has a natural life cycle that begins with an introduction, followed by growth, maturity and inevitably a decline as it becomes yesterday’s breadwinner. There are no exceptions. One would imagine any highly intelligent business leader would be quick to offload its crumb bearers, but history repeatedly demonstrates that even the best companies — much like the smokejumpers — find it impossible to let go of their legacy services and products and frequently hold onto them so long they end up destroying the enterprise.
Thirty years ago Kodak was warned by its own engineers that digital photography would eventually replace film, but leadership couldn’t let the legacy go and endured decades of downsizings, layoffs and plant closures, managing to stay alive only by suing other companies. Blockbuster refused to abandon a brick and mortar business model that relied on late payments for most of its profits and was upended by Netflix, which is now getting its own butt kicked by Redbox because it also refused to let go.
Ego: Egoism maintains that individuals always act in their own self interest. Egotism means having an exaggerated sense of self importance and narcissism. Both are equally dangerous. Until leaders replace egotism with healthy ambition, stop doing everything in their own self interest and begin doing everything in the interests of the organization, no good change will occur.
Conventional wisdom: In recent years, most Western economies have only grown by 2 or 3 percent annually, and most forecasts predict more of the same. Conventional wisdom dictates that if every company gets its fair share, achieving a 2 or 3 percent revenue increase would be acceptable. Most companies find the prospect of such anemic growth unacceptable and instead strive for an unconventional 5 or 10 percent growth target. Then, they do something really dumb and employ conventional wisdom in hopes of achieving an unconventional result.
To achieve an unconventional result, unconventional strategies and tactics must be employed. As writer Oscar Wilde said, “For any positive change or improvement to take place, look to the unreasonable man or woman. Reasonable people will just go along with the status quo.”
It’s the CLO’s responsibility to make certain that letting go of yesterday’s breadwinners, ego and conventional wisdom are a core part of any learning curriculum and become part of the organization’s guiding principles.
Jason Jennings is the author of The Reinventors — How Extraordinary Companies Pursue Radical Continuous Change. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.