The danger of complacency, and how to avoid it.


In the business world, there’s a seemingly endless world of hazards to navigate through in your journey to success. Dangers present themselves at each stage of growing your business; none more difficult than in the early stages of establishing a business. However, it’s often thought that once the ship is chugging along nicely and pointed in the right direction – let’s call that direction success of some sort – you’ve got a new-found permission of sorts to take your hands off the helm, sit back and relax.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Complacency is ultimately one of the biggest killers of businesses- regardless of their size - due to the simple fact that it can manifest itself in a variety of forms. Namely, taking your customers for granted which can eventuate into the loss of true customer engagement, the stagnation of innovative new systems and practices to increase both the efficiency and profitability of your business, a loss of focus or direction and also changes to the consistency of your delivered product or service.

We’re going to use the photography brand Kodak as an example to delve in to just how disastrous complacency can prove. Looking back to 1975, Steve Sasson, a Kodak engineer invented the first digital camera and showed off the fruit of his labour to his superiors. During the presentation, a management figure asked, “Where do you put the film?”. Sasson replied that it used digital technology, and didn’t require film; one of Kodak’s major sources of revenue at that point of time. Forbes quoted the initial corporate response to Sasson’s invention detailing that “[The digital camera] was filmless photography so management’s reaction was, ‘that’s cute- but don’t tell anyone about it.’”

By 1981, Sony had released the first digital camera to the market, which prompted Kodak to commission a report into this new thing, being digital photography. The report came back with both good news, and bad. The bad news was that the report’s author says it was inevitable that digital photography would supersede film photography. The good news was that Kodak had about ten years – considering the exorbitant expense of digital cameras in the late 80’s and early 90’s – to prepare the technological disruption. Kodak management did exactly the opposite, and essentially doubled-down in the consolidation of their research, development and marketing of existing film-based photography, considering digital photography a transitory phase that wouldn’t stick in the long term.

Fast-forward to 2018, and Kodak is a mere shadow of its former self in terms of profitability, and their complacency in regard to predicting and adapting to market changes has cost the business potentially tens of billions in revenue; it focuses mainly on the commercial imaging business now. Admittedly, there’s hundreds, if not thousands of cases like this where new technology was considered a gimmick, and people in the decision-making roles of a business failed to anticipate the profound change. We’ve picked Kodak for this example however because they had commissioned a report into the impending digital photography revolution, and chose to ignore it.

One of the main symptoms of success is comfort, and one of the most common behaviours – stemming from management feeling comfortable with business as usual - almost inevitably becomes complacency.

After all, if it ain’t broke, why fix it?

Well, for a number of reasons it turns out. Businesses begin to deteriorate from the inside out from a lack of vision, direction, growth, innovation, customer empathy and perhaps most significant of all, the absence of a continual improvement cycle that encourages the growth of all the traits listed above. Ask yourself a simple question: Are you comfortable with the position you’re in? With the current state of productivity, cash flow and sales? If you’ve answered yes, you’ll want to take the following into account.

Make sure you’re consistently reassessing your business plan. You don’t have to make profound changes each and every time, but it’s good to get into the habit of looking back to your original vision. Now, we don’t want you to be paranoid, but we do want you to retain a healthy amount of cynicism. Combining that with an innovative thought process, alongside risk-based thinking and a commitment to continual improvement is one of the best means for you to curb the detriment of complacency, and put your business in better stead in terms of tackling the challenges of tomorrow.

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