Building blocks for business

5 min.

Trampolines, grandchildren and pearls of business wisdom!

There’s a trampoline in my daughter’s garden. I still don’t really understand why there is a trampoline in almost every family garden in Flanders. Our garden lies adjacent to my daughter’s garden with no clear border between the two. So I guess I can say that we have a trampoline in our garden.

We’re like everyone else! I’ve come to make peace with that trampoline, which has even become a source of inspiration.

I can see the trampoline from my kitchen table. It’s a large, sturdy, embedded trampoline, which means that it’s a safe trampoline. As a grandfather, I think that’s very important. You don’t want your grandchildren to be catapulted off the trampoline by accident. I also don’t want us to wake up in the middle of the night after a heavy storm to find the trampoline smashed through the window. I am concerned in the same way about people, planet and society. I feel responsible for at least seven generations after me, just like the Native Americans.

Sitting at the kitchen table, with my laptop before me and the trampoline out in the garden, I could watch my daughter introduce two of our grandchildren to this new toy. There’s nothing quite like the enthusiasm of those two girls climbing on to their new throne. It made me think how, in business, we hardly ever – if ever – get so blissfully happy when we discover something new. We prefer it when things stay the same and, even when we do try something new, we like to keep the old close at hand. It’s our buffer, allowing us to fall back on the old if the new isn’t as extraordinary as we thought or as it seemed. The result is that companies often end up between ship and shore, which is not such a nice place to be. It doesn’t tend to end well. My favourite analogy is that of a surfer who’s not afraid of big waves. On the contrary, surfers are always on the search for the ultimate wave. The bigger and more dangerous, the happier the surfer is to take on that wave. It’s logical if you think about it. If you’re good at something, you can only truly test yourself in challenging circumstances; you can only really improve if you push yourself to the extreme. No records have ever been broken by being average. When I tell this story, companies listen and nod their heads in agreement: “Yes, of course we want to be surfers”. Then they move on to the day’s agenda, which involves doing everything they can to avoid taking risks, to not get too far ahead of the rest and, mainly, to not try anything new. Their (perhaps unconscious) reasoning: trying something new is uncharted territory and uncharted territory can be incredibly dangerous. When I inspire businesses with new business models that I know have a lot of potential, one question comes up again and again: But are there already companies in our industry doing this successfully?

That’s the wrong question. Most importantly, it’s asked for the wrong reason: the fear of being at the forefront of change. To go where nobody has gone before – that’s simply something that businesses don’t do. You can ask that same question for the right reason, to make sure that nobody has taken that step before you. If it is indeed unchartered territory with a wealth of raw materials and energy – and thus profits – you will be the first one there. In the last few years, we have seen the true value and benefits of being that first mover. Had Elon Musk waited for someone to show him that there was demand for electric vehicles, he may as well have waited for Godot. And that would never have happened. Crucially, Tesla didn’t makes its move within a particular industry. That’s the mistake that ‘Tesla killers’ make, thinking that Tesla is an automotive company. Instead, Tesla invented a new industry, a whole ecosystem in which the car is simply a cog.

That’s when I hear: “Hang on a minute, Rik, how can you know that something can come of something that doesn’t exist yet?”. My simple answer: “My grandchildren”. Children look at the world through the lens of possibility, that’s how they develop at the speed of light. They don’t look at things as they are and as you perceive them to be; they imagine what they could be. I see my grandchildren doing this all the time. It comes naturally to them.

Children around seven years’ old are satisfied with what they observe around them – how things are – and they envision how things can be. They see things and possibilities, not just the current status quo that makes a thing into what it is now but also how it could transform into something else. I call this the ‘Cinderella principle’.

In the good old 1953 Disney film Cinderella, there is a wonderful scene where Cinderella wants to go to the ball. The problem is that she’s wearing rags and has no carriage, white horses or footmen to take her to the palace. When the fairy godmother arrives, she looks at a pumpkin, mice and a few friendly dogs and says to Cinderella: “Don’t see things as they are, see them as they can become”. With a flick of her magic wand, she transforms the pumpkin into a carriage, the mice into beautiful white horses and the dogs into footmen.

Now you’re probably saying: “That’s all well and good, Rik, but business is no fairy tale. We don’t have a magic wand even if we wanted to believe in such a thing. I don’t see myself waving a magic wand, chanting abracadabra and sprinkling fairy dust.” What a shame.

You already have that magic wand, you just need to want to see it. There is a new world emerging “governed” by entirely different forces and regulations. In that new world, we seem to be blessed with newfound superpowers. All you need to do is take things from the current world and transfer them into the new universe. That’s when magic will happen.

That’s why I often talk about what is possible with your building blocks. I’m not in the midst of it. I tend to have my head in the clouds, because I’m a dreamer. From my spot in the clouds, I look at your business and I see what you can do with it in this new world. It’s not difficult. Believing in it is not difficult. You just need to get started.

Companies think that not taking risks is a safe solution. However, if your surroundings change as profoundly as they are going to in the next decade, then not taking any risks and not moving forward is the biggest risk you could take. You’re just not aware of it. In essence, you’re doing what Nokia’s CEO confessed in 2016: “We didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow we lost”. Even though you’re not doing anything wrong, you’re also not doing the right thing, the thing that will prevent you from being overtaken left, right and centre. One day, you’ll realise that the market has been completely wiped clean. My youngest granddaughter is not yet two. She has never been on a trampoline, but when she does, she will get on it full of expectation. Not a hair on her head will even consider the possibility that things could go wrong. This story was one thing that came to mind while watching my granddaughters on the trampoline. But there’s more to come…