Inverted Swans

I recently had the privilege of visiting an organisation that I first visited ten years ago.  Then, as now, the place was a hive of activity with numerous meetings taking place, suppliers coming and going and people rushing to and fro with arms full of important-looking documents.  The interesting thing is that in all those years, and despite the relentless activity, very little appears to have changed in terms of profitability, market positioning or market share.

Given this apparent disconnect between endeavour and results, it makes me wonder what it is that all those people have been doing?  The same thought occurs to me whenever I visit organisations where meeting rooms are fully booked, people are working long hours and secretaries tell me their bosses are “back-to-back” whenever I try to book a meeting with them.

I call organisations like these ‘inverted swans’.  Swans always look so calm and serine as they slowly glide across the water with the frantic activity of their feet hidden from view.  The term inverted swans therefore refers to the fact that the frantic activity is on display while the results of that activity are none too obvious.

But not all organisations are like this.  Some seem able to produce dramatic results without seeming to break sweat.  Arguably the exemplar company in this category at the moment is Apple.  Since the return of Steve Jobbs as CEO in 1997 Apple has made computers ‘cool’ with the launch of the iMac, it has revolutionised the music industry with the launch of the iPod and the first commercially viable (and legal) music download site, it has overtaken Blackberry as the largest supplier of smartphones and has recently created an entirely new market for ‘tablet computers’ with the launch of the iPad.  And it has achieved all of this with a worldwide headcount of less than 40,000 people!

So what is it that separates the swans from the inverted swans?  In my opinion it is all down to vision.  When a company has a strong and clear vision its employees work in a more coordinated fashion, their resources are better targeted, inefficiency is reduced and success is more easily obtained. 

Where a company lacks a clear vision departments pull in different directions, initiatives are launched and scrapped on a regular basis and project timescales move out as a result of constant revisions.  Although people work hard and the intentions may be good, there is no clear sense of ‘we know where we are going’.

Take Microsoft as an example of a company that has turned from swan to inverted swan.  In its early days the company was tightly focused on producing a good quality operating system to support IBM PCs.  Following early success it set out its vision as ‘A PC on Every Desk’, and during the following years it achieved that goal, with the Windows operating system taking around 90% market share.  They therefore decided to extend this vision to include the words ‘… and in every home’, but the statement lacked focus as by then most US and European homes already had a computer, and outside of the western economies, most homes don’t even have electricity.

Since then Microsoft has been on the back foot.  It failed to anticipate the growth of the Internet, it reacted to the success of Google by trying but failing to purchase Yahoo, it reacted to the success of the iPod by launching the poor-selling Zune, it has been late to react to the market for smartphones and even in its core operating systems business suffered a landslide of criticism following the disastrous launch of Vista.
Whereas in 1996, following the launch of Windows 95, Microsoft almost put Apple out of business, today Apple has a larger market capitalisation than Microsoft and achieves a higher turnover with roughly half the number of staff.

The question for you therefore is whether you are a right-way-up swan, or an upside-down swan?  If you have set out a clear vision for your team or organisation then well done, if not, how do you know where you are going?


About the Author
Alistair Schofield is Managing Director of Extensor Limited.