Occasionally art really does imitate life, especially where entrepreneurs are concerned.
In an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the planet Bre’el IV is in danger when a moon’s orbit deteriorates and threatens to smash into the planet. Members of the crew try to use brute force to shove the moon back into orbit but their tractor beam isn’t powerful enough.
Unfortunately, they can’t move the moon.
Tension builds. Then Q comes up with a solution: Instead of simply trying to shove an impossibly heavy moon back into orbit, why not just change the gravitational constant of the universe so the moon becomes easy to move?
Objections are raised, hands are wrung and naysayers express their nays. And then members of the crew realize this just might be possible. Sure, some heavy-duty MacGyver-esque astrophysics are required, but with a warp field here and a warp field there, they do in fact change the moon’s mass so gravity has less of an effect and they save the planet. They move the moon.
Which in a much less dramatic but no less innovative way is what great entrepreneurs do every day.
When a company’s orbit deteriorates.
Whether a business is a startup or a mature organization, at some point it may run into a wall. The CEO strives to increase revenue, reduce costs, improve customer experience, improve quality and deepen employee engagement. People in the organization work hard but the double-digit gains once enjoyed have become single-digit gains, and in time fractional gains.
Why? The company can only get so much faster. The CEO can only cut costs so far. Quality can only improve to a certain level. Incremental gains may still be possible but are hardly worth the investments in time, money and resources.
And in the meantime the competition is working incredibly hard to be just as fast, operate at low cost, and just as good.
Then the laws of business physics take over and the company’s orbit starts to deteriorate. Its competitive advantage (if it ever enjoyed one) is gone. And applying brute force -- searching even harder for marginal efficiency and productivity gains -- won't make a difference.
Making a course correction if CEOs are drawn into COO territory.
Generally speaking, a chief operating officer focuses on operational efficiency. That’s her job. The same is true for a chief information officer: Efficiency is everything. That’s his job.
Unfortunately, in many businesses even startups, the CEO can quickly become in all but title like a COO. Why? If the company has investors, those investors may focus almost completely on short-term results.
That’s especially true if the company goes public. What is the primary focus of the CEO of a public company? Creating short-term profits. A public company is judged almost solely on quarterly results: meeting short-term sales expectations and revenue projections, satisfying operational efficiency targets.
Instead of looking forward, creating long-term strategies, focusing on creativity and innovation and ensuring the company will make money in five years, the CEO turns into a COO. He or she essentially becomes a manager worrying more about how things are done than about how they could be done differently. The CEO becomes totally focused on now -- with a narrowed perspective.
For other businesses, a shift in focus may be less obvious but no less real. Many companies gradually slip into a mode where they stop innovating, put their heads down and hope doing what once made them successful will keep doing so. Other firms pay lip service to innovation by putting a person in charge of innovation with a fancy title like chief innovation officer.
But when the bulk of the company is focused on operational efficiency and generating short-term profits, how much influence can an innovation officer have?
Related: Why We Need Another Sputnik Moment
Why a company should aim for the stars.
The best organizations are built to innovate. They don’t create one product, optimize the production of that product and then strive to maintain that efficiency. They experiment. They test. They improve. They roll out.
And then knowing that other companies will soon copy their innovations and price pressures will result (understanding that the laws of business physics will inevitably come into play), they do it again. They keep experimenting, testing, improving and rolling out, again and again and again.
The best organizations build factories, but not high-efficiency, low-cost, low-margin operations in the traditional sense. They build idea factories designed to produce successive waves of new ideas. Most of those ideas are creative. Some are truly innovative. A few even move the moon.
Google and 3M focus heavily on innovation not just operations. Both are almost maniacally focused on what comes next. Culturally both companies are designed to spend time thinking about their next evolutionary steps. They realize that most advantages based on innovation are fleeting but are the only reliable source of long-term competitive advantage. They try to move the moon -- not once but as many times as they can.
McDonald’s evolutionized its industry by stepping totally outside the prevailing restaurant paradigm. Its focus was good food, fast, not great food, not custom food but reliable, predictable, fast food. Customers didn’t go to McDonald’s for a gourmet dining experience. They went there for a fast meal of reasonable quality. One could argue that McDonald’s has lost that innovation edge. That’s what happens when a company changes a paradigm. Other companies follow.
Keeping the entrepreneurial approach in focus.
Every company starts with a founder. Every founder starts with an idea. But the company doesn’t have to end with that idea. Just because the company has been created the entrepreneur doesn't have to cease having new ideas.
A new idea made the founder a successful entrepreneur. New ideas will keep him or her a successful entrepreneur.
Starting the company involved the decision to not accept what is but take on the incumbents and challenging the competition. The founder throws a hat into the entrepreneurial ring and says, "I can do this better. I can do this differently. You know what? I can actually move the moon.”
This attitude, that spirit and that determination are what makes someone an entrepreneur. So don’t stop creating and innovating and moving the moon because that's what keeps a person being an entrepreneur and ensures that the company thrives.