For some years now I have included that "law" in a lecture at The National Institute of Christian Leadership. I have also lectured on its balancing reality, called "outrunning your market," but that is for another column. There are two questions you should be asking yourself right about now. What does the law mean, and how does it relate to me and my leadership?
It means that cornering the market on some product or service is not a business advantage if that market is disappearing.
Imagine the Acme Scroll company's 1445 board meeting. What I know about entrenched thinking makes me believe that the largest scroll manufacturing company in Europe read about Gutenberg's invention and the stir it was causing and said, “Well, they may sell a few, or even a lot of these printing machines, but there always be a need for scrolls.” Then some years later, the president proudly announced to the board that in the previous year every scroll sold in the all of Europe was an Acme scroll. The next year, Acme went out of business.
Kodak serves as a cautionary non-fictional example. When they were the last film company standing, were they gloating or were they terrified? I was not in the board room, but one must ask, did the disappearance of film catch Kodak's executives by surprise? Was the board prepared and fore-warned or were they shocked and dismayed?
One wants to believe visionaries at Kodak saw it coming from way back and had a plan in place. However, when I recently drove past the vast but nearly empty Kodak plant in Rochester, NY, I saw very little sign of a plan B.
A shift is what causes a market to change or even disappear. There may be many such shifts. Here are three to which leaders must pay attention.
1) Technology shifts. The move from film to digital or from scrolls to printed books are just two examples. There are countless others, of course. I wonder who still has some 8-tracks and on what do they play them! Cassette recorders? Remember them? And what about phone booths? Remember them? In fact, it's not just the primary product itself. There may very well be supporting products that will disappear as well. Somebody once manufactured the cords for telephones.
It is no honor to sell the last unit of some piece of technology that everyone else quit manufacturing a long time ago. I am not suggesting you should always try to be the first passenger on every train to leave the depot, but technology loyalty is useless in a world that is changing minute by minute, not decade by decade. There is a major difference between a fad and a trend and those who know the difference will survive.
2) Cultural shifts. Manners, style, decor and etiquette also change. Clinging to the classical too long, too dogmatically can make your organization and your way of doing business look antique even if you are actually on the cutting edge in other ways.
This can create a stuffy and even stifling internal atmosphere for your youngest employees. Even worse, it can cause a loss of customer confidence. You may have a splendid new, high tech product to sell but if your sales force is wearing Homburgs, spats and sleeve garters, who will listen?
3) Language shifts. The functional vocabulary of a market can change so dramatically that a failure to keep up can cause devastating damage. I do not want to be a slave to political correctness but there are some words which I simply no longer use.
Niggardly, for example, is a word that has absolutely no connection to the lethal N word. It just means stingy or as Mirriam-Webster defines it, "grudgingly mean about spending." It is a perfectly good word that has no racial overtones whatsoever, and its loss to the English language is a shame. Even so, I will never use it again. Facing up to the prevailing ignorance and emotional volatility of the listening public, I have abandoned the benign old word. It's better to just say stingy.
In business, communication or the ministry, sleeping through these shifts can be costly if not fatal. The church that uses hymn books or a slide projector is not wrong or bad, or, by the way, right. There is no right or wrong here. They may, however, look old timey and out of touch to the younger market they claim to want to attract. By requiring the girls in your Christian school to wear skirts you may hope to teach Christian modesty but the lesson may make absolutely no sense to any but your most legalistic clientele. Such a dress code may send a message that your school is outdated and therefore the education is second rate. MAY, I said. Before you lose your temper. MAY. Finally, the vocabulary you use in advertising or in the pulpit may be doing more damage to your growth than you think.
I am not young and I know that sometimes my own vocabulary is way to the right of “hip.” I have discovered I can only adapt it to a certain extent without a major reprogramming. Therefore I'm willing to sound a bit "classical." It's become a part of the Rutland persona. Having said that, however, I refuse to be the last preacher on earth to use the word niggardly from the pulpit. The market that would understand me may have already disappeared.