There’s a vicious pandemic running rampant through companies today. It can decimate profits, destroy morale and set a company on an uncharted path to complete destruction. What has this power to derail organizations and cause utter chaos to profits and revenue? The Flavor of the Month Virus.
Don’t worry, it’s not life-threatening, nor will it use up one of your sick days at work. No, this virus threatens your company’s health and is marked by a continuous push to pursue projects half-way—a never-ending cycle of coming up with good ideas, only to see them fizzle before completion.
It usually starts small—a new idea on the heels of an organization’s push for creativity, innovation and increased profits. It usually embodies the company’s rallying cry for greater performance and empowered employees, and before long, the idea will take hold and will even be heralded as “the next big thing,” or “the company savior.” But in the end, the project will never come to fruition.
It’s not that the virus-infected project is designed for failure—innovative ideas are necessary to sustain a company—but somewhere down the line, the project will come apart at the seams. As time goes by, the newness of the idea will wear down as the novelty wears off, and it usually happens around the moment of execution. Sure, goals will be set, meetings will be planned and steps will even be taken to create the beginnings of what looks like a project.
But, weeks will go by and the project will become an unending series of “next steps,” (which hardly ever lead to last steps or final results). Before long, the project will be put on “the backburner” and stay there. Sure, strains of the idea might be spoken of in staff meetings and around the water cooler. It might even pop up in an e-mail chain with the subject heading, “Checking in” or “Next steps,” but there is no denying it—the project is dead.
In the end, the project team will write the premature ending off to “resources that weren’t available,” “a time-frame that wasn’t conducive for success,” or even, “unforeseen needs that weren’t anticipated.”
Many a project has come to an untimely and abrupt end like this. And although it’s inevitable that not all projects pan out, a good percentage of failed initiatives can be attributed to the dreaded Flavor of the Month virus, a malady that impairs the ability of managers and project teams to create and sustain projects to completion. And although some managers view it as merely not enough “gusto” to get the project done, the virus actually goes much deeper than that and is an indication of faulty direction and focus.
The real deception of the virus is that appears on the outside to be merely a performance issue—the wrong people were on the wrong seats of the bus, and not to mention, the bus was probably going in the wrong direction. But this is what keeps the virus spreading. As leaders point the finger at project teams and even project managers, they overlook the real culprit—misdirected focus. It is in the misdirected insight (read: lack of learning) to pursue the new initiative that the virus is born, and the remedy falls into the category of learning and, subsequently onto the shoulders of the chief learning officer.
Diagnosing the Virus
The Flavor of the Month virus is hard to diagnose and even harder to track. The first and even second failed attempt at a new initiative do not necessarily reveal the onset of the virus. No, it’s not until the third, fourth or even 10th idea that starts fast, gains speed, then fizzles before it ever shows any promise of completion that you know you’re infected. In effect, you don’t know you have it until you’ve been working with it for months.
The virus usually starts on the heels of good intentions and often hides under the guise of “following the market” or “staying ahead of the curve.” It is born in the healthy habits of trend-spotting and simply trying to increase revenue in the face of a downturn.
Most critically, however, the virus is developed in the process of learning—as an organization learns more, its focus naturally spreads and if unchecked can lead to a massive outbreak of the virus. The act of seeking out innovation becomes a habit in and of itself and supplants the company’s direction, focus and culture.
Though it often goes undetected, the Flavor of the Month Virus poses a serious threat because it attacks the company at its very core—the vision, mission statement and organizational focus. It shifts priorities and diverts attention from the original purpose and vision of an organization. In time, the virus will supplant the company’s culture, and employees will come to expect that every new idea will come and go with no real promise of success. Each successive failed, virus-infected initiative inhibits learning and employee development, not to mention stymies employee morale and commitment as employees habitually learn to ignore every new initiative, whether or not it has real promise for success.
So, how exactly can you prevent a massive outbreak of the Flavor of the Month virus at your company? It starts with early detection and is cured with learning that is balanced with alignment to the underlying company objectives and goals.
Although not every failed initiative is born from the Flavor of the Month virus, there are at least five symptoms and warning signs that will allow you to spot the virus before it has any chance of infecting your company:
1. 1. The decision to pursue a new idea is made among a small group of people.
Unfortunately, the dynamics of small group decision-making render every decision susceptible to the virus. This occurs on a number of fronts. The most notorious of which is the case of the business leader who takes decisions on by him or herself, which is a very common occurrence in small group settings.
It gets worse when the leader is revered by his or her employees as an opinion leader or “superstar.” I witnessed this firsthand as the communications specia for a company founded by a best-selling author. In our small six-person staff meetings, the employees would bow down to him and his ideas on a regular basis, leaving no room for any objection and plenty of room for the Flavor of the Month virus to flow unstinted. We went through a seemingly endless of new ideas and initiatives, each one dubbed as “the next big thing” for the company, but not one of them ever saw the light of day. In the end, the leader was forced to downsize his company to one, himself, and live off his own consulting and speaking engagements.
While dangerous, overly revered leaders aren’t the real problem of small-group decision making. It’s the checks and balances that are regularly devoid in small groups that pose the real problem. Small group decisions rarely have to face the objections of a Devil’s Advocate. Without someone to raise a counter perspective of a project’s potential, faulty decisions and poor strategy are inevitable. Every small business needs full participation by its staff, and merely agreeing with the leader doesn’t count. Unquestioning harmony on every decision leaves the Flavor of the Month virus free to roam throughout the company and infect every initiative.
2. The idea is not linked to company vision.
Flavor of the Month decisions rarely relate to the company’s strategic direction, and if they do, it’s either a rationalized after-thought or done on an ad-hoc basis. This is an incredibly easy symptom to point out—after the fact, that is. Most new ideas are spawned in the wake of a new push for innovation, and little regard is ever given to the company’s original mission or goals. It’s a subtle process, as the Flavor of the Month idea first appears to complement the organization’s mission and supporting rationalizations are given on how the new direction will not only save the company, but will help it fulfill its original mission.
Although this type of innovation is never bad, per se, and straying ever-so-slightly from the company’s original mission in the name of growth can be beneficial, it’s dangerous. It’s never a good thing to disregard what’s worked for you in the past, and initiatives that are not tied to the company’s original mission (or are relegated to an ad-hoc explanation of how it “would’ve” fit the organization’s mission) will only ensure short-term success at best and leave the future in disarray and even doubt. Leaving “what’s worked for us in the past” in the past will put your company into an endless and confusing tailspin of chasing new project after new project just to stay alive—the veritable definition of the virus itself.
3. Increased revenue is the war cry behind the decision.
When an idea’s creation primarily revolves around revenue, long-term objectives and stable company direction are sacrificed for get-rich quick innovation. This is most often a by-product of the previous symptom—a failure to link the project to your company mission or vision.
Many companies in dire straits jump the boat and try to pull out all the stops to increase revenue, but in doing so, they tend to throw the baby out with the bath water. Their all-out attempts to earn the company more revenue actually divert the company focus from crucial long-term and stable objectives to a fruitless attempt to go where the money is. Oddly, companies can’t afford get-rich-quick ventures, no matter how cheap to come by they are.
4. The idea is justified as “following a market trend” or “thinking outside the box.”
If the new initiative relates to a current trend or a hot-button topic, red flags should go up because the project could launch you into a never-ending cycle of Flavor of the Month ideas. Trying to keep up with the Jones’s is never a good business strategy and will always keep you one step behind your competition.
Don’t get me wrong, chasing market trends is not bad, in and of itself, but it’s also the easiest way to contract the Flavor of the Month virus because with each new trend you “uncover,” you look for more until it becomes an addiction and your entire business strategy revolves around beating the market and standing atop the innovation hill.
5. It’s dubbed as the savior of the organization.
In their most critical state, Flavor of the Month projects turn into all-or-nothing affairs, supplanting long-term organizational goals and eating away at the company’s culture until the never-ending cycle of failed initiatives marks the company’s identity. The last-ditch, sink-or-swim project that is meant to save the company is the sure sign that the Flavor of the Month virus has fully consumed your company. Because for every idea that will purportedly save your company, there are dozens that will grow your business one step at a time. Patience is a virtue, even in business.
The best example of this symptom I’ve witnessed came at a publishing company struggling to make ends meet. The sales were down and the leader was known to point fingers more than inspire (a deadly combination as it is). At each staff meeting, a new idea was cooked up to save the company. At first, it was a bold initiative to increase reader base and advertising revenue (which, naturally, fell in line with the mission of a controlled-circulation publisher), but then it expanded into ideas that included selling the company’s staff out as speakers, modeling the company after a successful infomercial and even downsizing by selling the company’s building and outsourcing key functions. While most of those “save the company” ideas came to an end no sooner than the next staff meeting, further fruitless ideas continued to pore in like rain.
On the outside, this appears to be a mere performance issue, as many leaders will find it easy to blame the people involved for a project’s demise, uttering the accountability-ridding words, “If only I had more committed employees,” while shaking their fists in the air. Ironically, however, employee performance is only a symptom of a more serious issue and subsequently the cause of the virus—a lack of directed learning.
In reality, the Flavor of the Month virus is a learning issue—a directed learning issue. In work environments that depend on the innovation and performance of employees, a company cannot afford to leave its future to random and even uninformed, scatter-brain ideas and decisions.
The cure is simple. Employees need directed learning—learning with the proper focus on three areas: your industry, company, and customers. And it is up to the chief learning officer to lead the charge.
All too often, employees spend their work lives in a box as they perform their functions without a real knowledge of the industry around them. And the only periscope to the outside world usually resides in the manager’s office. While employees rely on their leaders to stay abreast of what’s going on in the industry, leaders often unintentionally keep their employees in the dark but require them to come up with great new ideas anyway. This disconnect inevitably leads to faulty, misdirected innovation and the beginning of a long spiral of Flavor of the Month ideas.
CLOs must ensure that employees are up to the minute on news and industry trends. Employees must be able to see their ideas in the context of the industry around them and be able to weigh ideas against what has worked, what hasn’t and where the industry might be heading.
Additionally, they must also be able to recognize the difference between a sustainable trend and mere passing fancy. CLOs can abate this problem with newsletters and industry update meetings throughout the company. It needn’t be an overblown affair, but it should ensure that employees know what’s going on their industry.
One of the key roles of learning is to ensure continuous and open-knowledge sharing across the organization. As employees share company information, knowledge grows, and employees align themselves with the company mission, vision and overriding objectives. In order to block a potential outbreak of the Flavor of the Month virus, every new initiative must be tied in some way to the organization’s mission. And the only (and best) way for this to happen is for the CLO to ensure that every employee is fully aware of and on board with company strategy.
The best way to do this is to take a quick snapshot of your employees’ level of knowledge and alignment with corporate objectives by sending out a simple survey with the late Peter Drucker’s five questions for organizational assessment: 1) What is your business mission? 2) Who are your customers? 3) What do your customers consider value? 4) What have been your results? and 5) What is your plan? Once assessed, you, as the CLO, will have an informed base reading from which to start on your own project to improve company knowledge sharing.
Perhaps the greatest level of learning every employee needs is a strong knowledge of the company’s customers, including customer demographics and reasons for doing business with the company.
The oft-heard statement everybody sells is more truth than it is mere credo. Every employee sells the company, especially those who plan and implement new initiatives. Without a focus where it should be, on the organization’s customers, innovation won’t work, and your company will be rendered ineffective as it ends up working for innovation by flooding the market with products and services that aren’t guaranteed to resonate with customers.
As the CLO, you must ensure that all employees understand both the company’s target market and their current customers. One of the most potent symptoms of the Flavor of the Month virus is that virus-infected projects neglect the needs of current customers in favor of a potentially bigger or more rewarding opportunity on the horizon. As Trendmaster and former VP of Product Development at Target, Robyn Waters explains, “You need to spend less time worrying about who’s knocking you off and more time learning who your customer is.” In order to implement ideas that reach your company’s target market, it is of utmost importance that employees understand the gamut of an organization’s customer spectrum.
While the tempting quick-fix to any sliding scale of failure-ridden projects is to replace the team members behind such projects, this remedy is snake oil at best. Only engaging your workforce in directed learning will inoculate your company from a massive outbreak of the Flavor of the Month virus.
Brian G. Smith is a brand marketing manager with Allied Business Schools in Southern California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.