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A Stitch in Time Saves Eighty-One

Sep 10, 2008
You see things; and you say why?
But I dream things that never were; and
I say "why not?"

--George Bernard Shaw

Let me tell you about some perspectives I developed about how mindsets can encourage rapid improvements. Here's the starting point: Extreme optimists, like me, are naturally drawn to the subject of perfection, the extreme optimist's ultimate objective.

I had help in learning about extreme optimism. Any disinclination to perfection I had was overcome by having a mother who often found achieving mere aspects of perfection to be unsatisfactory.

Here's an example: I routinely earned straight A's in junior high and high school for my subject grades. We also received grades in effort and citizenship, which we quickly learned were never seen by anyone but school employees, our parents, and ourselves. Those grades obviously were like writing in the sand in the beach and would eventually disappear. Most students simply ignored these extra marks.

Like many 13-year-old boys, I decided to try a little misbehavior that was sometimes aimed at teachers who annoyed me (such as the man who insisted we memorize over 300 dates and events from World War II). That teacher decided to send home a message. I earned my usual A as a subject matter grade, but I also got a D in effort and a D in citizenship.

My mother's feet didn't seem to hit the ground for days as she went crazy with anger over her "perfect" son not working hard and misbehaving. I got the message, and the A's spread across the whole report card after that.

From then, my focus shifted: I began to look for ways to gain perfection by making less effort without anyone noticing. Here's an example: I had to take a driver's education class to graduate from high school. My mother insisted that I take typing as well during the same summer school session.

We had a lot of homework for driver's education, and most of my friends didn't want to be bothered doing it. I offered to type up the homework assignments for a fee. In this way, I would get extra typing practice while earning some money. I also breezed through typing class because of the extra practice I got at home every night.

My budding approach to perfectionism with minimum effort was taking root and provided a firm foundation for my work as a business consultant. Later, my consulting clients often asked me to check out all of the new trends I could find that might affect their businesses. The solutions were often so terrific that there was no way that the current approach would survive. It was exciting and fun.

After having done these kinds of assignments for a time, I found that I began to accumulate perspectives from prior meetings that the person I was interviewing didn't seem to have. Curious, I began asking my interviewees if they knew about such-and-such that related to their field. Seldom had they heard of the related development. In most cases, they didn't even bother to note down what I mentioned. I came to appreciate that while John Donne was convinced that no man was an island spiritually, there were plenty of people deliberately living on isolated islands of knowledge.

Consultants are often described as being like bees. Here's the description you often hear: Bees (consultants who work with lots of organizations) gather pollen (new information and insights) from one flower (person or organization) and carry the pollen to another flower (person or organization). In the process, bees (consultants) help create new hybrids (combinations of factors that previously didn't exist). The flowers (people or organizations) would usually not have propagated with each other at that time.

The reality can be a little more complicated than that. Consultants often see ways that a large number of flowers could propagate with one another to create a superior offspring that shares many combined traits. That's not just a hybrid (which has two parents) but, rather, a whole new species.

Here's an example of the thought process consultants might go through to create a new species of business: During the heyday of minicomputers, Digital Equipment Corporation led the market. The company grew over 40 percent a year for many years. That success was built around a simple business model: Use the latest advances in electronics to deliver more speed and functionality at the same price through installing new components in compatible computer hardware that runs on operating software you've already developed.

Rely on partners to develop useful application software to make good use of the improved hardware. Count on smart customers who are engineers and scientists to make any adjustments that are needed to gain a good result. Offer proprietary hardware and software operating systems so that competitors can't provide compatible substitutes of your offerings in existing accounts.

If you looked toward the future at that time, it was clear that minicomputer functionality would eventually reside in something like today's personal computer due to improved, less expensive electronics. That solution wasn't of interest to Digital Equipment. The company looked upstream instead to the mainframe computer makers and created cheaper versions of mainframes built around its minicomputer base technology. The trouble with that concept was that the high priced minicomputer could eventually be replaced by a server that cost about the same as a personal computer.

I was asked by another computer maker to study Digital Equipment and design a competitive strategy that the minicomputer maker could not resist. Putting together the trends and the best practices in the computer industry, it was clear that software used by businesses on personal computers operated by inexpensive hub machines (servers) was going to be the big winner. If the same software could work on the machines made by different companies, software makers would earn substantially more. In fact, they could expect to exclude many competitors that way.

As a result, we recommended a business model for the future that was the exact opposite of what Digital Equipment was pursuing. Why? We had been able to verify a future vision of perfection by talking to those who were driving the major trends such as chip manufacturers, software vendors, and computer users. In fact, the business model we described then is very close to the one that Microsoft soon adopted by becoming the outsourced supplier of software for the original IBM PC.

What happened to Digital Equipment? It made several reluctant, unprofitable forays into providing personal computers. The market for many minicomputer applications, and profits began to disappear at Digital Equipment. The company's founder was ousted.

New management hunkered down to focus on slashing costs and eventually sold the firm to a personal computer maker, Compaq, for the value of maintaining essential services for Digital's existing customer base. Compaq in turn was acquired by Hewlett-Packard as part of Carly Fiorina's controversial strategy to diversify away from the profitable personal computer printer market. Carly Fiorina is no longer CEO of Hewlett-Packard, but the company eventually improved its position under new CEO, Mark Hurd. The consequences of Digital's obsolete business model continue to rebound throughout the computer industry by having opened important doors of opportunities for newer companies.

What happened to our client? They never entered the software business very seriously. After all, they were hardware people. Today Microsoft is worth four times what our client is. Perhaps it would have been worth our client's while to add some software people back then. But they didn't do so.

As you can see from this example, a consultant can show the vision of future perfection by combining several trends and best practices, but the clients may not act. Why not? It has to do with those pesky attitudes and behaviors that delay all kinds of innovation. Unlike bees carrying pollen to female flowers, what consultants have to share may be rejected even when the approach is sound.
About the Author
Donald Mitchell is an author of seven books including Adventures of an Optimist, The 2,000 Percent Squared Solution, The 2,000 Percent Solution, The 2,000 Percent Solution Workbook, The Irresistible Growth Enterprise, and The Ultimate Competitive Advantage. Read about creating breakthroughs through and receive tips by e-mail through registering for free at

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