What a prickle in the foot taught me about business

What a prickle in the foot taught me about business
There's nothing like a few prickles in the foot to force a rethink in the mind.

There's nothing like a few prickles in the foot to force a rethink in the mind.

Over the holidays I spent 11 days with one sneaker in the car and one back home, buried in a pile of dirty laundry.

Why I didn’t wash the laundry before I left is none of your business, but the missing shoe is a reminder that it takes two to tango, particularly in business. You need buyer and seller, problem and solution, empty stomach and smoked pork sausage before you can ring the cash register.

what a prickle in the foot taught me about business

ILLUSTRATION: Angela Keoghan

‘It takes two’ is such as simple idea that it must just be true, right? You could certainly make a song out of it. But as I removed prickles from one foot I was struck how often business metaphors are wrong. Remember this: ‘a fish rots from the head first’, meaning that company failures stem from senior management. The latter may well be true but the biology of fish decay is wrong – it starts with the guts.

Or how about the old canard ‘a frog in a slowly heated pot will boil to death’, meaning no-one notices a gradual slide into company collapse. Wrong. Experiments show the frog leaps out and in all cases internal dissention and external critics provide managers with ample warning about their imminent demise. Kodak anyone?

Or how about the ostrich with its head in the sand? It’s not true of the bird, although the science of investments shows that when markets turn bearish there’s an 80 percent reduction in stock watching, suggesting it’s humans, not ostriches, who love ignorance.

The sneaker problem highlights a deeper truth that my simple ‘it takes two’ metaphor can’t express. The shoe is a great innovation but it’s useless unless there’s a complete set. For a business innovation to flourish you need a full solution, not just half of it.

On a recent trip to Amsterdam I saw hundreds of electric cars plugged into public recharging stations. An electric car that can’t be easily recharged is about as useful as one shoe, but a recharging station without electric cars is redundant. Amsterdam is collaborating with car makers, electricity suppliers, householders and parking build owners to ensure an ecosystem emerges. They’re expecting 6,000 cars and 2,000 charge points by 2015.

BMW, the maker of the new all-electric i3, has taken the concept further. It proposes a ‘Connected Drive’ concept in which the vehicle and its driver are connected via iPhone and an onboard computer to the entire city transport network, including the location and occupancy of charging stations, car parks, bus and train timetables and traffic congestion.

The idea is to allow the i3 driver to think about the entire transport journey, not just the drive. For example, in congested cities it might be better to park at a charging station outside the CBD, then catch public transport into town. In time, BMW envisages shopping malls and businesses to use the network to promote charging stations and parking options.

BMW is not just building a car but a platform involving city planners, public transport operators, retailers, parking building owners and of course customers.

Transport is notoriously interlinked but it’s not an isolated example. Take marketing. An advertising campaign is typically part of an omni-channel execution including social media, in-store display, online ordering and customer endorsement. Add to that logistics, supply and customer support and you can see that multiple partners are involved at many intersecting points.

Or farming. It’s insufficient now to simply grow the crops and send them on. Traceability, food regulations, retailer demands and customer transparency are forcing vertical integration of the supply chain. And then there’s the Chinese wharf authorities.

‘It takes two’ is a tempting but poor metaphor for business innovation. Hilary Clinton’s anecdote about kids is better: it takes a village to raise a child.

There’s nothing like a few prickles in the foot to force a rethink in the mind.