A is for alligator. B is for bear.
I’ll bet that wherever you grew up or whatever language your parents spoke when you were little, you had a picture book that worked something like this, using animals to help you learn the alphabet and the alphabet to learn about animals.
There’s another lesson that you learned from these books that’s so obvious you probably don’t give it much thought. These books teach us every animal has its own unique set of strategies for thriving in the world, as each adapted to the unique challenges and opportunities of their environment.
The only difference between these strategies and the strategies we talk about in business is that animals are born with their strategies baked in, adapted to the characteristics of a specific environment. When a species’ strategy no longer fits its environment it goes extinct.
We humans on the other hand have carved our niche in the world largely with a single trait – our ability to adapt. Each of us is here because some great-great-great grandparent somewhere figured out how to endure a change in temperature, find new sources of food or deal with a new predator.
This adaptability is also what makes us good entrepreneurs as we respond to the challenges and opportunities that we observe in the marketplace.
The problem is for most of us the marketplace is continually providing new inputs, and that can lead to one of two problems. Some of us experience overload paralysis and respond by doing nothing. Others get the business equivalent of ADHD and can’t focus on one idea and continually shift from one strategy to another.
While both options are bad for your business, the second can be particularly dangerous because the constant change can create the impression of progress when it’s really the opposite. For any strategy to work it takes some time to get established into the environment. An animal that tries to be a fish one day, a bird on the next and a tiger on the third will never thrive because it’s always scrambling to figure out how to exploit its strengths.
That’s why the next time you have a couple of minutes to think about your business from a big-picture perspective, I encourage you to think about what it would look like in that children’s picture book. Are you fast and lean? Smart and agile? Strong and domineering? Do you have big, sharp teeth or a cozy fleece?
When you know what type of animal you are, you have an automatic answer to any question that comes up, and one you can pass along to your managers and employees. So that whatever comes up, you simply have to ask “What does a [fill-in-the-blank] do here?”
I used to think this was too simplistic until one day I heard a talk by someone in the Army Special Forces. He said they were each trained to identify the three traits they believed were key to their success in life, which they were instructed to repeat to themselves whenever they found themselves in a tough spot. One example was, “I notice what other’s overlook. I break problems into small, achievable goals. I act decisively.”
But it didn’t matter what those traits were. The key was that when in doubt to always have an answer to, “What do I do now?”
If it’s good enough for the Special Forces and the entire animal kingdom, it’s probably OK for you and me.