Cheese, Giants, and Air Force Colonels

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In the last several years, I've read three different works that really seem to get at the same thing. In my mind, that thing is the notion that you can get a significant edge if you are able to practice agile creativity. I was originally going to say “do unconventional things quickly” in that last sentence, but that doesn't capture the idea. Just going in one direction at a high rate of speed doesn't seem to be the key. You have to be able to make sudden turns – turns that are not easily (or at all) expected. A person or group capable of making those sudden, unexpected turns can adapt quickly to change, run rings around powerful opponents, and just generally maintain a high-performance operation.

Adapting quickly (and adroitly) to change is where the cheese comes in. You remember that book, Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson and Kenneth Blanchard sold just short of a kazillion copies, and even though I wasn't particularly inspired by the book, I can recognize where it got things right. As I remember, the book basically comes down to the idea that change is something that you have to deal with, but you don't have to be frightened or unduly burdened by it. At best, though, I think the book only implied some bigger ideas. I think that one of those lessons was that a hunger to experience and drive change, and to do so very snappily, has tremendous advantages. If you're hungry to experience change, then you will have no trouble hanging on to the tail of someone else who is driving the change. You can stay right there with them as they twist and turn; you will easily stay competitive. If you're hungry to drive change, and drive it quickly, then everybody else has to keep up with you to stay competitive. (Please note that this shouldn't imply a lack of collaboration, or imply predatory practices. Being the lead dog does not and should not necessitate walking the path of jerkdom.)

Okay, great, but how does that relate to giants, and running happily around them while they can't get their hands on you? One of the themes in a favorite article of mine from The New Yorker is that giants get used to using overwhelming power in a defined way. Malcolm Gladwell's article, “How David Beats Goliath,” hits on how powerful a group of people can be when they quickly embrace an unconventional method. The established giants, who are very likely to be complacent and inflexible, just can't get turned around fast enough to catch the upstarts who are willing to implement a novel strategy. If you can make it so the rules that applied on Monday suddenly cease to apply on Thursday, you're in a very good position to differentiate yourself.

I realize that this is sounding a bit abstract at this point, so here's an object example. Earlier this year, a couple of companies brought out some very nifty digital mixing systems. Both systems are designed to leverage the iPad, and both use some control schemes that you don't see everyday. When those projects were presented, did you or someone who works for you get to work on how those might provide an unconventional and exciting approach to your projects? If not, do you see how doing so, and being able to come to some conclusions quickly, would make you more competitive? If you immediately set to work figuring out how to leverage new products to make your services more compelling, you stand a chance of gaining an advantage over all the folks who “do it this way, will always do it this way, and just aren't impressed by that newfangled toy over there.” (Didn't somebody say that TV would just be a fad?)

To wrap all this up more completely, I want to restate it in terms of a book that I dearly love. It's a biography of Colonel John Boyd, now deceased, who served in the U.S. Air Force. Robert Coram's Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art of War is a great place to see these ideas in action. For instance, Colonel Boyd came to realize that a great fighter aircraft wasn't necessarily made by having great “straight line” speed. Rather, the ability to turn quickly, to gain and lose and regain energy quickly and at will, to have what aerospace parlance would term “fast transients” - these were the keys to a successful fighter aircraft. Further, Boyd realized that this ability to make quick changes extended beyond just physical combat tactics. In a much more general sense, one's ability to assimilate information quickly and then act on that information in a blinding flash allows for you to mold a competitive situation as you will. If your decision cycle is faster and more flexible than your competitor's decision cycle, you can consistently get ahead of them and act more effectively. Lastly, a major part of your ability to implement this kind of agile creativity hinges on how good you can become at destruction and creation. (In fact, “Destruction and Creation” is an essay written by Colonel Boyd.)

In this context, what destruction and creation means is an ability to visualize a novel reconstruction of what you have at hand. This is not always literal, of course. For instance, let's say you have a PA system. You “destroy” that PA system, and end up with some bits and bobs. The mixing console is in pieces, but a couple of inputs and a summing bus have survived. The digital crossover made it through in one piece, as did a pair of power amplifiers, but only one loudspeaker enclosure survived – gutted, except for the drivers. The destruction is now accomplished, so what can you create from it? Find a way to put all those parts together, and now you've got an active, biamped loudspeaker with multiple, mixable inputs on the front end. That's destruction and creation in action. In a metaphorical sense (and sometimes literally), when a new technology or implementation hits the market, you stand a good chance of doing very neat things...if you're willing to tear down all your existing systems and then recreate them with both new and old pieces. (Remember that I emphasized “metaphorically,” please.)

I want to conclude with words of due care. Quick action does not mean rash action. Creativity does not mean force-fitting a new toy into a role that it can't actually do well. Leadership and competitiveness does not mean devouring everyone else in your market. Rather, agile creativity means that you've cultivated the ability to make wise decisions at a rapid pace. Creativity means knowing exactly what your tools can and cannot do. Leadership and competitiveness means that, having arrived at the front of the pack, you try to pull others along with you.

Danny Maland has experience in both the recording studio and live-sound reinforcement worlds, and has found that he prefers the immediacy and intensity that live-sound offers. In the last few years, he was a key player in establishing and operating "New Song Underground," an all-ages music venue offered as an outreach by New Song Presbyterian to Salt Lake City, UT. He is currently a "freelance inconveniencer of electrons and air molecules." Maland holds a vocational diploma (MRP II) from the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, and also a Bachelor of Science: Information Technology from Western Governors University.


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