Big vs. Small - Part I

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copyright 2005 Olivier Blanchard

So... what happens to great little companies once they reach a certain size? Why do so many of them stop thinking like the bold and creative little commandos that made them who they are? Why is it that the balance of power between risk and opportunity in the decision-making process shift from "let's do it" to "don't fix it if ain't broke."

(I know... I know... I'm just quoting.)

As with many initially broad questions like this one, you kind of already glimpse the answer before you've had time to finish asking it... and in this case, my mind kind of flashed back to my childhood and some of the wonderful little lessons that a certain Mr. Lafontaine was kind enough to drive deeply into the French psyche. Let me explain.

Most kids here have never heard of Lafontaine's Fables, but in France, that's basically how most kids are introduced to both poetry and philosophy. From a very young age, you start learning some of these fables, and they follow you well into high-school with all their lyricism and valuable life lessons. To this day, I can still recite verses from "Le Corbeau et Le Renard" and "La cigalle et La Fourmi". In every poem (or fable, as it were), the characters are animals. Not to get too Jungian or anything, but each animal represents certain archetypal aspects of human personality. Every poem also tells a story, and each of these stories ends with a moral. Very simple but relevant stuff.

And yes, if you've studied your classics, you've probably figured out that Lafontaine completely ripped off this old dude by the name of Aesop. But I digress...

So. Lafontaine. The Fables. Complascent companies. I'm actually going somewhere with this, although probably not where you think.

When I asked the question earlier (and this was before I started writing this post), my mind flashed back to Lafontaine's work... but more specifically to one of his favorite characters: The fox. Now, in case you aren't familiar with Monsieur le Renard (Mr. Fox to the rest of you), he's the shady little furry guy who can smooth-talk just about anybody into giving him what he wants. When that doesn't work, he can usually trick his mark into letting their guard down long enough for him to rip them off. And incidentally, the fox doesn't always win. Sometimes, he gets sloppy... because on those occasions, he just isn't hungry enough to make sure he's 100% in the game.

So, let's leave Lafontaine to little French schoolchildren for now, and let's consider the fox for a bit: He's small. He's swift. He's cunning. He knows he can't fight off a dog or a barn cat. So he has to be creative. He has to be nimble. He has to be confident. The fox is a renegade. He's a guerilla fighter. He thinks his plan out, easily improvises when he has to, takes chances, and more often than not, he gets away with it.

Even when the farmer tries to keep the fox out of his henhouse or rabbit hutches, the fox figures out a way to get in there. If things get too tight, he moves on to the next farm. He's an opportunist, he's a survivor, and he's wicked clever.

Why? Because his life depends on it.

Now... given two foxes scoping out the same farm, one having just eaten a nice juicy chicken and the other being hungry... Which one do you think will come home with dinner later that day?

Okay... you never can tell. Fair enough. But I'd be willing to bet that the fat fox isn't going to take the kinds of chances his hungry counterpart will. Why? Because he doesn't have to. He's already eaten. He's comfortable. He doesn't have to put out today. (And that's where I'm going with this.)

All right, fine. I know. It's an overly simplistic way to look at the question... but I haven't really gotten to the meat of it yet. I'm only just scratching the surface here. This whole diatribe is about the first impression my mind conjured up when I asked (in a very broad way) what happens when small companies get BIG. Why do they often become (for the lack of a better term) 'corporate'? Why do they so often become watered-down versions of their old selves?

(We'll get to other more specific aspects of what happens a little later.)

At its core, the motivation to drive business and innovation really boils down to necessity. Sure, you have other elements like vision, ego, greed, ambition, imagination, passion... and I'll get to those eventually (oh... deja-vu). But first, you have to recognize the importance of necessity. You do. Really. No joke.

If a business needs to be aggressive in order to survive, to grow, to overcome obstacles, then it will be aggressive. It will take more chances when it comes to creative and strategic direction. It will pay greater attention to detail on every project. It will treat its customers and clients with particular care. It will do what it has to to compete against the big dogs. It's a matter of survival. It's a matter of necessity. If it doesn't do this, it will become a statistic. Another failed business... or possibly worse: a mediocre one. So, okay. Aggressive. Nimble. Creative. Fearless. Confident. In complete control of its game.

And let me let you in on a little secret about the fox: he gets a kick out doing his thing. He loves it. It is his nature. (Remember that, boys and girls, because this topic WILL come up again.)

On the other hand, the big company with decades of growth and huge resources, the big brand name that people know by reputation before even doing business with them... well, for them, all is well. There's no need to take chances or push the envelope... or test the waters beyond their market's comfort zone. Any risk it takes, any change it makes to its current formula carries with it a serious risk. Something could flop. The balloon might get deflated. The brand could suffer a terrible blow. All it takes is one black eye. Definitely two. Why risk it when there's no need?

Fat fox vs. hungry fox.
Risk vs. opportunity.
Big vs. small.

... in a nutshell.

Don't worry, this discussion is far from over. Next, we'll look at inefficiencies that are inherent to large organizations, and we'll discuss the scourge of antiquated hierarchical models.

(ooops... big words. Sorry.)

Let's see... instead of foxes, next time howzabout we use... dinosaurs and toy soldiers? Wanna?


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