business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

There’s an old maxim that there are no bad questions, just bad answers. Sadly, I have to disagree. In a recent meeting with a group of retailers from outside the US, I was asked the mythical bad question. The only problem is that I’m afraid it’s a question many others would like to ask.

The question came after a wide-ranging discussion I was leading for the group on different strategies and ideas to build customer loyalty in the middle of today’s volatile times. Nearly the entire group was involved, discussing the changing meaning of value. Suddenly one retailer said he had heard too much. He didn’t want to hear a discussion or a variety of choices. Rather, he wanted one thing:

A sure-fire winning idea and nothing more.

Don’t we all. The problem is, that answer doesn’t exist. If you only want the one answer that works, you can’t possibly find it because you aren’t prepared to wade through all the ideas that don’t work. It’s just that simple. The only sure thing is that there is no sure thing.

We get a great lesson in this from Lance Armstrong and his incredibly tough sport of bicycle racing. (I cannot claim to being a fan at all, but Armstrong is extremely compelling. How does he do what he does?) A recent article in the Wall Street Journal about this challenging sport made me think twice.

Bicycle racing is an enormously demanding sport, stressing every part of the body beyond belief. But what the Journal found so interesting is the challenge of what would seem to be the easiest part of a race: going downhill. The Journal article explained that in downhill runs the riders go at extremely high speeds down sharp declines that are loaded with tight turns. On skinny racing tires it’s apparently quite hairy. Sounds a little like business doesn’t it?

Here’s what got me. Most riders expect to fall; in fact they even practice falling correctly to avoid breaking bones. Apparently you can’t win if you can’t fall properly.

That’s not an entirely new concept. There have been countless athletes, scholars and generals who have talked about the importance of losing and - no small point - the lessons that come from defeat. In many ways those incidents far outweigh victories.

Learning to fall or lose is just as important in business. Since there is no sure thing we are all guaranteed to fall and fail again and again. All we can do is make sure we understand falls and failures so they don’t take us out of the race. Dealing with losing will help us win.

Vision matters too. July 1 marked the 30th anniversary of possibly the least necessary invention ever, but one that we’ve all come to love and continues to grow in use worldwide (even though Apple’ iPod clearly has surpassed it on the “cool” scale). Thirty years ago the head of Sony had a personal request that varies depending on which reports you find. Some say he was an avid tennis player; others say it was about lengthy airplane flights. Either way, he wanted to listen to classical music without disturbing anyone around him. Prior to 1979, you may recall, the only way to do that was by hooking up a weak little earpiece to a transistor radio, which hardly allowed you to program your own music.

With that request, the Walkman was born. It was an item that actually tested poorly with focus groups because no one knew that they wanted it. But because it had a powerful backer, the Walkman was produced and today, as we all position the ear buds of our iPods, we have to be very glad for that moment.

At no point was the Walkman or the iPod a sure thing. In fact, both could have been colossal failures, but by taking a chance two companies harnessed incredible success.

In short, they dared to fall.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
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