It takes a certain amount of gumption to stick to an endless task. But if what you're doing is persisting in the same old thing when it isn't working, that's not gumption. But that's exactly what most companies still do. They get bogged down, over and over again, in valuing stoicism over inventiveness; this costs them. As my friend Howard Safir said, when he first took over as Commissioner of the New York City Fire Department, "100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress."
But in current market conditions, the only way a company can do more than stoically survive is by being innovative. Sisyphus might have developed a strong will, but he'd be broke in business. Sometimes we just lug things around because we think we have to—like cans of paint. Ever carry a few of those around? How about trying to pour from one without making a complete mess? Paint cans have been a kind of boulder that never went away—until recently.And it took a new brand of thinking to get it done. Dutch Boy is one of the oldest names in the paint industry, in business from the beginning, when there were just 15 colors of paint to choose from (today there are close to 1,500). Dutch Boy was still pushing the boulder of the messy paint can while newbies like Martha Stewart and Target jumped in with designer paint, changing the market from utility to aesthetic.
Dutch Boy's response? The company didn't have the brand genius to compete with Martha Stewart and Target on the aesthetics of home design, so it thought bigger: not a new color, but a new can! The company transformed the boulder of a can into a lightweight, re-sealable plastic jug that opens easily, pours easily, and creates no mess. Dutch Boy, through transformative thinking, got to the real pain for its consumers, most of who did not want to slog through templates of more color choices, but who simply did not want to struggle with those darn cans. Not surprisingly, sales took off.
To lead in business we have to look for the boulder and transform it. Examine the premise of the business you are in, and ask yourself: What is weighing the whole thing down? Don't think about new features, gimmicks, or promotions. Think in terms of process. What is the process that customers have gotten used to in the course of interacting with your product or service? What is the boulder, that pain in the neck that everyone in your company has come to stoically live with, and that you, by default, have asked your customers to live with? Whether your customer realizes it or not, she has grown very tired of living with the boulder. As soon as someone offers to take it off her hands, she will gladly accept.
Wal-Mart just stopped carrying VHS tapes. The need to rewind VHS tapes, the boulder that the inventor of DVDs identified and transformed, contributed to that industry's demise. In pharma, the birth control pill is regarded as one of the biggest innovations of the twentieth century. The daily dose was made easier by accommodating packaging dispensers. But the need to take the pill everyday turned out to be an unconscious boulder. As soon as the birth control patch came out, the class changed.
Companies thrive by moving from one innovation to the next. Leaders know this and spend their time not by keeping ahead, but by setting the pace. As the business you're in continues to add bells and whistles to products or services, do not look to join in the fray and win the sprint. Instead, look to interrupt and upend the entire premise and win the marathon. Leadership in business is a long-term proposition, and being good at it requires more than the stamina to move boulders. It requires the transformational thought to change the slope of the mountain.
Sander A. Flaum is managing partner of Flaum Partners. He can be reached at