business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Back at the dawn of the Great Depression, an employee for what was then the Kroger Company sent the CEO a letter outlining a new way of selling food in a store that was heavily based on self-service and low prices. The note was ignored. That employee, Michael Cullen, quit and essentially created the modern supermarket with King Kullen.

A little more than 30 years later, the owner of 15 Ben Franklin stores did something similar. Frustrated with management’s reluctance to consider his ideas on cutting costs and expanding into rural communities, Sam Walton went off on his own. We know how that turned out.

Sometimes the best ideas are those right in front of us and yet they get ignored.

It’s possible that many of you are wondering why we’ve been spending so much time here at MNB examining the incredible tumult in the publishing industry. Think about it: In three days last week, the Washington Post, Boston Globe and Newsweek all changed hands.

Rest assured the reasons behind our coverage are good and go way beyond our personal interests.

Rarely do we get such a powerful example of a widely established and highly profitable industry getting torn apart and thrown into a world of chaos so quickly. But it has happened before and it will likely happen again, so attention must be paid.

For instance, consider the stories of both Cullen and Walton, two men who possessed visions of the future that were ignored by their companies. Ross Douthat, a columnist for the New York Times offered a similar story about the Washington Post this past weekend.

Douthat recounted the story of John Harris and Jim VandeHei, who left the Post in 2006 to form Politico, now a widely sourced Internet publication on the world of Washington politics. Douthat made the point that the pair successfully leaped to the new world of journalism, while the newspaper they left struggled.

In fact, he says, it may be the moment that history records as the tipping point for the Post.

Let’s be very straightforward about these three stories. First, these are the exceptions not the rule. No doubt the higher ups at Kroger, Ben Franklin and the Post heard thousands of suggestions through the years and wisely passed on most of them.

It’s never that easy to know which is the brilliant idea. The brilliant ideas, the earth-shattering ideas only look obvious in retrospect.

But even with that said, we can’t ignore these lessons. We’re aware that we live in a chaotic time when the pace of change seems as juiced up on steroids as certain baseball players.

More than ever we need to listen to these ideas and even build an environment where out-of-the-box thinking is encouraged. Then we need to consider the possibilities and ask the really hard question: could this work?

Ask yourself what happened the last time you were in a meeting and someone presented an unusual idea. How quickly was it slammed to the ground with the reminder “that’s not how we do things”? More importantly, try to remember if it was you who offered that response. Do you try to think of reasons to say no before you consider a reason to say yes or even maybe?

Sure, not every idea is a good one, but some are. Be open to it.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
KC's View:
There's a reference I've made here and elsewhere over the years, called "The Old Fart Rule," that seems relevant here.

Essentially, this rule says that The likelihood of an innovation succeeding increases exponentially with the number of old farts who refuse to endorse it.

You can't ever allow old farts to determine the future of a business ... and you can't ever allow yourself to be the old fart at the table who is unable to see the future, unable to accept the possibility that the present and the future may be at odds with your own world view. (The more clinical phrase to describe this is "epistemic closure," one of my favorite terms.)

If you allow this to happen, you run the risk of missing the moment, and missing the future.