In praise of the relentlessly curious

One of my favourite books is Tribes by Seth Godin. I’ve read it a few times and each time I think it resonates more and I get that little bit extra from it. It’s about how change and innovation and leadership are opportunities and even the responsibility of everyone. It’s nearly 10 years old now and while the world has changed a lot since Godin wrote it, it is his message that is still very pertinent to what is happening in the world, and at Octopus.

Really, it can probably be distilled down to one quote:  be wary of anyone that tells you “because that is how you are meant to do it and we have always done it that way”. What is that? It’s fear talking, and fear can destroy a business in a number of different ways. Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:

  •  What people are afraid of isn’t failure, its blame. Criticism.” 
  • The fear of hearing “I’m surprised you launched this without doing more research” is enough to get many people to study something to death and then kill it. Hey, at least you didn’t get criticised.
  • It’s uncomfortable to stand up in front of strangers. It’s uncomfortable to propose an idea that might fail. It’s uncomfortable to challenge the status quo. It’s uncomfortable to resist the urge to settle. At the point you identify this discomfort, you’ve found the place that it is needed. If you’re not uncomfortable at some point, it probably means you are not reaching your full potential.
  • It’s easy to underestimate how difficult it is for someone to become curious. For seven, ten or even fifteen years of school, you are required to not be curious. Over and over and over again, the curious are punished.”
  • The first rule the music business failed to understand is that, at least at first, the new thing is rarely as good as the old thing was. If you need the alternative to be better than the status quo from the very start, you’ll never begin. Soon enough the new thing will be better than the old thing. But if you wait until then, it’s going to be too late.

Keep challenging the status quo

Godin points out that questioning the way things are done is the only way businesses can (a) protect what they have and (b) continue to flourish. But complacency, greed, fear of change, and playing safe to avoid undermining what you have, are basic human traits that have all caused huge businesses to disappear. Here are some examples of real-world outcomes resulted from following the well-trodden path:

  • Nokia “didn’t do anything wrong” apart from laughing at innovation and not challenging their own business model
  • Kodak invented the digital camera – but didn’t commercialise it as they were scared it would cannibalise their existing business
  • Telecoms companies didn’t move quickly enough. Between 2012-2018 its estimated $400 billion of revenue will be lost from telecoms companies to the benefit of apps like WhatsApp, Skype, Lync, etc.
  • Blockbuster used to be worth $8 billion, and at its peak had 9,000 stores worldwide and more than 84,000 employees. But they got greedy. In 2000, two years before Netflix listed, Blockbuster was charging £800 million (16% of revenue) for late fees. They filed for bankruptcy in 2010.

So, what can businesses do to prevent winding up on this list? Well, by being aware of this fear we can start to see that following all the rules, pushing really hard but not getting very far is because we spend too much time simply following directions and not understanding why we are following them. Consistently underdelivering is not good, whereas having a go at something new and it not working out is great – as long as we learn from the experience and move on to new things.

Within Octopus Labs, we have a lot of people trying to create an environment that actively encourages fearless thinking, and thinking about everyday business challenges in new ways. But we can always do more and with all these things challenging of the status quo has to be done in the right way. Within our ‘motivated tribe’, no single person’s opinions or experience is worth more than another’s and challenging conventional thinking has to be done respectfully.

To me, big change is just a series of little changes. So, if every week or month we change something, improve something or ask the question “why do we do it this way”, that will build up over time and you’ve put in place the tools you need to be successful. Or as Seth Godin puts it: "Remarkable is fun, exciting, profitable. Feeling bad wears off!

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Octopus Labs
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