Becoming Better Than Ever

No doubt, there is ample evidence in your life to show that you’ve grown the most in times of struggle and challenge. If that’s true, the opposite must be true as well—you’ve grown the least when things are easy and comfortable. Even so, for most of us, simply knowing these truths doesn’t adequately supply the motivation to shed the yoke of comfort in exchange for difficulty. Sometimes though, that decision is made for us.

What do you do when your world is on hold? Sure, there’s plenty of elevator music to pass the time, but you can only watch so many YouTube videos or play so many board-games without feeling the hangover, right? What then? Maybe then it’s time to think about the new normal, to contemplate how life might change when the dust settles.

Envisioning the new normal can be intimidating because it involves a great deal of guesswork. Each of us moves in many different directions, making it nearly impossible to weigh the ramifications of global disruption on every aspect of our complicated lives.

But maybe that’s the whole point. Perhaps that’s what we’re supposed to be learning—that our lives, along with our business, run in too many directions. We’ve all discovered what it means to slow down. We’ve all experienced how different life can be when you focus on one thing instead of ten things. Finally, we’ve learned that with single-minded focus, you can change the trajectory of a curve.

So how do we capture the power of this important lesson as we move forward? In his famous book, Good to Great, Jim Collins unveils something he calls the Hedgehog Principle. Why Hedgehog? Because the hedgehog employs a simple, consistent method of defense—curling into a ball with quills pointing in every direction, effectively staving off an attacker. Just to be clear, Collins doesn’t advocate curling into a ball (although that’s my first instinct in crisis). What Collins does promote, though, is simplicity. The Hedgehog Principle is a tried-and-true method for businesses to focus on the intersection of what they are great at doing, what they are passionate about, and what they can make money at.

After studying several companies that had experienced a good-to-great transformation, Collins discovered they all adopted the hedgehog principle. And when they did, life grew simpler, and they were finally able to harness the power of focus—that amazing tool that turns normal light into a steel-cutting laser beam.

Jim Collins’s lesson on hedgehogs has transformed our thinking at Van Ladder, not only in business but in all of life. We don’t pretend to be experts at too many things, but we’re gradually becoming experts on hedgehogs. So here’s the first question to ask yourself while the dust is settling: What is it that our company does really, really well? Come on; you know what it is. Your employees know what it is, too. Your competition knows it. But maybe you need to draw a circle around it and say, “Let’s focus on doing this even more, even better. Let’s figure out how we can make a great living doing this.”

The next question: What aspect of your business do you and your people love? I mean, when this particular thing is on your calendar, you spring out of bed and sing on your way to work. Heck, if you could do this thing every day, you wouldn’t even need your 401(k). What is that thing?

Last question: At the intersection of what you’re great at doing and what you’re passionate about doing, where is your highest potential for profits? The answer to this question helps you define your target market. And once you’ve pinpointed your target market, you won’t be moving in every direction anymore, and your what-will-this-look-like-after-the-dust-settles questions become more manageable.

Let me apply this to Brinks Manufacturing.

Question 1: What do we do really, really well?

Answer: We make a bucket truck with a low cost of ownership that can handle both service work and a high percentage of installations with one person.

Question 2: What are we passionate about doing?

Answer: We are passionate about making sign and lighting work simpler, safer, and more efficient.

Question 3: Who are the customers that are most eager to purchase our product?

Answer: We have three target markets:

  • Larger (regional) sign companies who currently send out two technicians with a large truck to hang a paper patterns and install 50 lb channel letters.
  • Lighting maintenance companies who need inside cargo space and a generous payload to stock inventory for servicing their customers without running back and forth to the shop very often.
  • Smaller sign companies who want to start handling installations in-house, or give their installers a better tool than extension ladders or a beat-up bucket truck.

For us, the answer to questions #1 and #2 haven’t changed. But what we’re trying to predict is this—how will this global pandemic affect the target markets outlined in question #3? This crisis that our world is working through has already inhaled tremendous resources, effectively clipping the wings of both governments and businesses. We believe most companies will need to run lean for quite some time. For many smaller sign companies, that could mean continuing to farm out their installations until their finances recover. On the other hand, more of the larger sign companies might consider purchasing a Van Ladder now, hoping to accomplish some percentage of their work more efficiently than their big trucks will allow.

So we’re taking time now, in the throes of our Netflix hangover, to reconsider our hedgehog strategy—because none of us can afford to waste resources in the days to come.