Marginal improvements make a business stronger, without the need to shout about it
I recently received a piece of corporate bumf brimming with dreaded words such as “striving for excellence” and “thinking out of the box”. It was making its way into the garbage when, with the sort of reluctant fascination that descends in reading a Donald Trump tweet, I read on.
The author or authors of this verbal diarrhoea were manifesting a pattern of behaviour that is somewhat adorable in small children but is tiresome among grown ups.
Children try to secure attention by claiming to have done something that in their minds is quite extraordinary. When that fails they may resort to shouting or jumping around, but the really clever child knows all about flattery and coyness to gain adult attention.
This piece of corporate bumf contained all these childlike elements. It included claims of exceptionality that were described as being “very unique” – as the actual meaning of unique is one of a kind, this presumably meant what exactly? Anyway, it was a big claim matched only by its nonsensicality.
Then there was the shouty use of capital letters and underlining; presumably designed to bang home certain points but ending up as a typological mess.
And, like the attention-deprived child, the authors of this document were not averse to trying a bit of flattery, suggesting that the reader was smart and shared their lofty ambitions.
Presumably this kind of thing works but in my book people or corporations who spend a great deal of time telling you how marvellous they are or how clever they are (Donald Trump – again, sorry) ain’t that marvellous and certainly ain’t very clever.
Yet claims of omnipotence and great ability are widespread and have been known to work. They do so because people like the idea of something that’s instantly going to solve their problems. For example, folks may yearn for a single pill to cure all ailments and they yearn for a plausible sounding leader who claims that everyone else has got things wrong, but he (it’s usually a he) is uniquely, or even very uniquely, able to cut through the crap and get to the heart of the matter.
The other reason this stuff works is that people actively want to believe that things can be improved rapidly and by uncomplicated means. So if someone comes along and says they have a magic formula for this, hallelujah.
Reality, however, is complicated, often boringly so and quick fixes are few and far between. What really achieves change, sometimes almost imperceptibly, is marginal or gradual change. A concept admirably summed up by David Brailsford, who attributed the success of his British cycling team to “the aggregation of marginal gains”.
He was not claiming a great piercing insight, just commonsense, although surveying the deluge of twaddle about “earth shattering breakthroughs” and the like, it seems that many people are dogged in their belief in rapid and revolutionary transformation.
But evidence from the corporate world overwhelmingly shows that companies with staying power are companies that are notably reserved in terms of self-aggrandisement and are devoted not to giant leaps but to steady improvement.
A case in point is the Coca-Cola Company that was founded in 1886 as a purveyor of a syrup marketed as a patented medicine. After a while it became clear that the real selling point of this product was its taste as opposed to its supposed medicinal benefits but what made it into a worldwide corporation was the brilliance of its subsequent marketing techniques. Slowly but surely the business grew, brought in a wide variety of other beverages, many by way of acquisition, and then developed an extraordinary franchising model, which fuelled expansion financed by other companies. It is now one of the world’s best known brand names and it is hard to find anywhere on the globe where Coca-Cola is not sold.
This massive corporation has no need to shout about its success, it is there for everyone to see and has showed how an initial good idea can gradually be worked up into something which may not be unique (the Pepsi people might have something to say about that) but it is clearly distinctive. Along the way Coke has experimented with products that have failed but crucially, the company has remained firmly committed to the core product and a policy of step-by-step progress.
Coca-Cola operates on an unusually large scale but there are literally millions of smaller businesses that are successfully following a pattern of growth that is focused on marginal improvements making them stronger by the day.
It certainly helps to start with a good idea but there is no need to agonise over whether it is unique or not; what matters is how that idea is executed, preferably without accompanying shoutyness.
Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster