Lean Forward – Never Lean Backward, “caught on your heels” – Thoughts on the Next Disruption


if you are the one being disrupted, and caught on your heels…

That is a line a business consultant sent to me recently. She had heard one of my presentations where I talked about some of the disruptions of existing businesses. Like: what the iPhone did to the BlackBerry, or the digital camera did to the film industry.

The story is an old one. People develop their products, their expertise in delivering these products. They are always trying to make them even better. And, they do get better. The product becomes so much more advanced, capable, useful than earlier versions. They become the best in world at that particular product.

But…

"Larry the Liquidator"
“Larry the Liquidator”

To quote Lawrence Garfield (Larry the Liquidator), the fictional Wall Street takeover artist in the movie Other People’s Money:

You know, at one time there must’ve been dozens of companies makin’ buggy whips. And I’ll bet the last company around was the one that made the best goddamn buggy whip you ever saw. Now how would you have liked to have been a stockholder in that company?

Once the disruptive horseless carriage arrived, the buggy whip was yesterday’s technology in a heartbeat.

It is the consultant’s phrase “caught on your heels” that especially grabbed me.

I know a consultant who is big on the oft-used SWOT exercise. From Wikipedia:

  • Strengths: characteristics of the business or project that give it an advantage over others
  • Weaknesses: characteristics that place the business or project at a disadvantage relative to others
  • Opportunities: elements that the business or project could exploit to its advantage
  • Threats: elements in the environment that could cause trouble for the business or project

Here’s the problem: when it is a true disruption, people/companies/nations/communities really do not see the Threat coming their way. How could they? It is a new threat, from an unexpected place, and the established company had not even thought of the possibility; could not even think of the possibility. So, they are “caught on their heels.”

Brooks Robinson - at the ready
Brooks Robinson – at the ready

By the way, “caught on their heels” is a phrase from sports. Watch every major league baseball player in the field – they lean forward, moving to the balls of their feet as the pitcher goes into his windup. They are prepared for the ball to come in their direction. Every pitch! If they are caught on their heels, well… trouble!

I played tennis. Almost the first thing I was taught was to stand on the balls of my feet, slightly leaning forward, ready to turn either direction, ready to move, for every shot.

I think companies have got to get much better at preparing for the ball to be hit in their direction. Looking backward, leaning backward, will get them in big trouble.

What is coming next? I don’t know, and likely you don’t either. But that’s the question – and when it comes, be sure to never be caught on your heels. You’ve go to lean forward, so that you can pivot, and move, very, very quickly, or…it’s too late.

I’ll end with one more quote from this sharp business consultant:

Can’t have positive momentum unless leaning forward, right?!

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