Even if they’re not broke, most things need fixing

Phil Castle

I’ve been living a lie, although I suspect everyone knew the truth anyway. I’m talking, of course, about the photograph that accompanies this column. What were you thinking about?

Alert readers, and even those less observant, will notice the image is different. Really different. That’s because I’m 60, not 43. And unlike those seemingly ageless celebrities — I’m especially envious of you, Rob Lowe, just in case you’re reading this — I look every bit my age.

Unwilling to keep trying to postpone the inevitable, I finally conceded it was time for an update. Way past time, actually. I knew the previous photo was outdated, but was shocked when I checked on my computer and discovered the digital file was created back in 2002. Good grief. It almost makes me wonder if Matthew Brady took the shot.

A lot of things have changed over the past 17 years, particularly my appearance. Wrinkles furrow the expanding acreage of my forehead. My brown hair has thinned on top and grayed everywhere. And if you look closely, you can see I wear bifocals. But that’s only so I can look closely.

My point, though, isn’t about my photo or aging visage. Honestly. Who cares about that? Rather, the fact I left the photo unchanged for so long offers both an illustrative metaphor and cautionary tale for business owners and managers.

It’s sorely tempting to leave alone those things that don’t demand immediate attention. It’s like the old proverb: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Right?

Wrong. At the risk of the hypocrisy inherent in any admonition to do as I say, not as I do, that’s my point.

Businesses that wait for something to become outdated or fail — whether that’s a product or service line or manufacturing or marketing process — risk a bigger and maybe even catastrophic failure. In a world where everything changes so rapidly, businesses that don’t embrace a more proactive approach could find themselves disrupted into irrelevance.

Examples abound of gigantic companies that long thrived, but then went extinct just like hulking dinosaurs. For some companies, it was nearly inconceivable they wouldn’t remain in business forever. But in failing to constantly strive for improvement, to innovate and evolve, they also failed to survive. Think Blockbuster, Kodak and Polaroid.

The risk isn’t limited to prominent companies, though. It’s far more pervasive than that. By one estimate, 88 percent of the Fortune 500 companies that existed in 1955 are gone — bankrupt, merged or no longer ranked among the top firms. By another estimate, the average lifespan of a Fortune 500 company has shortened over the past half century from 75 years to less than 15 years.

In one sense, those numbers constitute good news in reflecting a marketplace in which only the fittest — those providing the best products and services at the lowest prices — survive. That’s what business competition is all about. And that’s fair so long as the proverbial playing field remains level. In the process, consumers benefit from improving lifestyles that include, among other things, better and cheaper computers and televisions.

In another sense, though, the demise of any company constitutes bad news in removing from the economy a source of money and jobs. It’s especially tragic for the entrepreneurs who worked so hard to create and grow a business and for the employees who worked so hard to sustain the operation.

That’s why it’s important for companies to remain competitive by considering new and different ways of doing business.

Consider, for example, the ways in which companies increasingly sell not only products and services, but also time and convenience. Online and mobile sales, curbside service and delivery differentiate their operations from competitors with similar offerings without the added benefits.

Worried your business could be vulnerable and to what extent? One helpful tactic might be to assume an adversarial point of view in a process called red teaming. Assess your operation from the perspective of a competitor looking for ways to capture more market share or even put you out of business. The approach offers a different way of looking at things you might believe aren’t broke, but actually need fixing.

The Business Times has evolved along with the newspaper industry in offering hyper local coverage both in print and online on what I consider a top-notch website. By the way, there’s no charge to access the entirety of the Business Times website. Just something to keep in mind.

And now, at long last, there’s a new photo to run with my column.

Of course, one outdated photo isn’t going to make or break the Business Times. It’s a metaphor, nonetheless, for the importance of fixing things even if they’re still functional. Do as I say and not as I do. Don’t wait 17 years to update your operations. Don’t live a lie.

Phil Castle is editor of the Business Times. Reach him at phil@thebusinesstimes.com or 424-5133.