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  • Writer's pictureTara Kenyon, PhD

Data Have a Voice. Are You Listening?

With a bold approach to your business, one must see that the present state is ever-changing.

And the future is up to you.

We’ve all had those moments of clarity, sobriety, and sanity. Sometimes people refer to them as epiphanies or Aha! moments, but no matter what you call them, they are like waking up from a deep sleep, becoming fully awake, and realizing the solution to the problem that’s been gnawing away at you.

The Ever-Changing Present

Change is inevitable. It’s always here.

If you are near a window while reading this, take a moment to look outside. Note where the sun or moon is, how the light plays on the shadows of the terrain, or which birds are singing…

By the time you get to the bottom of this post, all that will have changed. Unless there has been some sort of cataclysmic event, they will be subtle changes. Nothing huge, but changes will have occurred.

I have noticed over the years that most business leaders seem to consider change management as something upon which to call when there is a new initiative, a new strategic plan, or a new business launched.

Most of us don’t see change management as a daily business activity. We just see it as a necessary evil that goes along with the new initiative.

Managing change, however, should be something that we deal with every day. You must learn how to manage change as a way of doing business, not as a project or initiative. It’s only in boldly approaching change that we become fully awake.

Three Types of People

There are basically three types of people in every organization: (1) people who are happy with the way things are and the way things have always been, the "Influencers," (2) people who continue to look to the future, to that place where the grass might be greener, the "Theorists," and (3) people who are detached from what’s happening right now, those willing to observe but not participate, the "Intuits."

There is a problem inherent in all three types: none live in the present.

To boldly approach anything, you must regard the present fully. It’s OK to plan for the future as long as it keeps you focused on the here and now. It’s fine to remember past triumphs and successes, but it’s imperative that you abandon those practices that won’t work today. It’s never OK to be detached, however. You’ve got to take not only authority for today, but you’ve got to take responsibility for today, too.

Regardless of which camp you fall into, it’s imperative that you find that point of sobriety, that Aha! Moment, so that you can become fully awake in the present.

Awaken to the Present

The inevitable reality of being in the present is that there’s always a future with potential that could branch off onto one of two paths: 1) to ignore change and make your business extinct, or 2) to become more energized, competitive, and optimized.

The cycle continues. The next future, even a positive one, always becomes the present. And that present state continues to follow these two paths.

I’m not here to give a commentary on Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” I’m here to discuss the phenomenon of time, which is simply something we all know: time doesn’t stand still.

American author Washington Irving wrote a short story published in 1819 called “Rip Van Winkle.” The story is set in late 17th Century America about a man somewhat detached from the current state. He stumbles across some mysterious men, drinks with them, and falls asleep in the Catskill Mountains. When he wakes from his drunken slumber, he finds that he is 20 years older and missed the American Revolution. He’s no longer a British citizen, but an American one.

We too can become detached from the current state, running on automatic pilot, if you will. But we certainly don’t want to be in that spot where the current state becomes stale, movement becomes static, and eventually, our business becomes extinct.

The Path to Extinction

Your organization is a living, breathing thing, because it is made of living breathing things: you and your team. There can only be two reasons why a company heads down the extinction path, neither of which bring success, competitiveness, and vibrancy. It experiences either a failure-to-thrive or active inertia.

Failure to Thrive

Adult failure to thrive is most-often a terminal decline seen in older adults. It is typically found in people with multiple chronic medical conditions. Failure to thrive results in a downward spiral of poor nutrition, weight loss, inactivity, depression, and decreasing functional mobility.

I had a client who shared with me some of his experiences going through Stage IV cancer. He had surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. After nearly a year of full recovery, he was declared cancer free.

His particular battle ranked among some of the worst cancer battles. But being a young man with children at home, he did what he could do to get well.

Shortly after he was declared cancer free, however, his health began to fail. He told his wife that he just didn’t want to live like that anymore. Most failure-to-thrive patients are elderly. Although he was relatively young, he said that quality of life was much more important than how long he’d have to live, as many elderly patients say.

Even though he was cancer free, his post-treatment quality of life was quite poor. After a while, he failed to thrive and succumbed, not to the cancer, but to the cancer battle.

A business can suffer from failure-to-thrive, too. Remember that Sunday Afternoon Gloom I mentioned earlier? If it’s widespread within the organization, that’s a symptom. If you can recognize the symptoms early enough, there may be a way back from the brink of extinction.

But unfortunately, there may be no coming back from organizational failure to thrive if nothing changes or if failure-to-thrive is far advanced. If the organization has been around for a while, it may have multiple and chronic “medical” conditions.

Chances are your organization is nothing like that. If not, you still have the ability to change and keep up with the times.

Active Inertia

You may think that the problem is paralysis, a failure move. Companies don’t always fail only because they don’t react to change. They fail because of something called “active inertia.”

Active inertia is a term coined by Donald Sull in his Harvard Business Review article, “Why Good Companies Go Bad.” Sull states that “the problem is not an inability to take action but an inability to take appropriate action” (emphasis mine).

Active inertia is an organization’s tendency to follow established patterns of behavior. This is where “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” comes in. It’s assumed that things that worked in the past will work in the future. William Holler’s sales strategy of adding chrome to every Chevrolet model, for example, wouldn’t work with today’s safety standards and fuel efficiency codes.

It’s a matter of knowing who the enemy is. It’s assumed that the enemy is paralysis—no action. But the actual enemy can be the action itself.

Successful leaders must investigate their assumptions before acting. They need purpose, potential, and proof. To stay successful, they need to evaluate their intent (or purpose, the company’s raison d’être), hire for potential not status quo, and have the data to back up future actions (proof).

Taking inappropriate action is like using a shoe to hammer a nail. It’s not that you don’t have a hammer, you just don’t want to take the time to retrieve it.

Rather than following established patterns of behavior that are stuck in modes of thinking and working that brought success in the past, companies take the wrong path.

Whatever your problem is, data have the answer.

The Path to Vibrancy: Customer Relevance

“What the future holds for us, depends on what we hold for the future. Hard-working todays make high-winning tomorrows.”
~ William E. Holler

You have probably heard of Henry Ford, the American pioneer of mass production in the automobile industry, but do you know who William Holler is?

Henry Ford was famous for saying that you can have a Ford in whatever color you want—so long as it’s black. Howe

ver, William Holler, vice president of General Motors and general sales manager for Chevrolet from 1933 until his retirement in 1945, believed in innovation. In contrast to Ford, he believed that customers’ requests should be heard.

Holler once went to Chevrolet executives and tried to persuade them to add chrome to their cars, but they weren’t interested. Consequently, Holler customized a Chevrolet with chrome—paying for that customization out of his own pocket.

When he unveiled the chrome-clad Chevrolet at a dealer show, everyone wanted one. And in 1939, under Holler’s guidance in listening to the customer, Chevrolet surpassed Ford in sales for the very first time.

Always seek customer relevance. When you dominate on one attribute, customers seek you out. When you differentiate on another attribute, customers prefer your goods or services. You just need to be competitive in the other three by operating on par. (The Myth of Excellence)

Excellence may be a myth, but customer relevance is not. What is your data telling you about your customers? Data have a voice. Are you listening?


Crawford, F. A., & Mathews, R. (2001). The Myth of Excellence: Why Great Companies Never Try to Be the Best at Everything (1st ed.). New York: Crown Business.

Sull, D. (1999). Why Good Companies Go Bad. Harvard Business Review (July-August 1999).

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