Death of Thousand Knives

Very few companies are ever driven out of business by their competitors.

I’ve found that this statement upsets a great many people, all of whom are quick to jump up and start providing examples of companies that were, in fact, driven out of business by their competitors. This is missing the point. Indeed, it’s rather like a detective in a murder mystery concluding that the cause of death was that the victim’s heart stopped. It matters whether the heart stopped due to lead poisoning, for example in the form of a bullet, or due to some other cause. Indeed, understanding exactly what led to that heart stopping moment is a key part of solving the mystery.

Similarly, while it’s not so unusual for a failing company to have the coup de grace administered by a competitor, how they got to that point makes all the difference. Focusing only on the end point provides a very simple, comfortable solution, but not necessarily a particularly useful one.

Robotic Chromosomes, for example, was a company that dominated a particular niche in the bioinformatics market. They were an early entrant into the field and their products were initially the best on the market.

Over the course of several years, though, they developed a view of their clients as idiots. The fact that their clients were all highly educated research scientists did not enter into the equation. If they had trouble using the software, they were idiots. As a result, the company became increasingly less open to feedback from either their clients or from the market. While their market share was increasing faster than the market itself, they could get away with that attitude. Eventually, though, their growth started lagging the growth in the market. Phrases like “law of large numbers” and “temporary aberration” were batted about. When their market share started shrinking, phrases like, “temporary aberration” became even more popular. The view of the clients as insanely stupid for buying competing products also became more common.

Today, they no longer exist. Were they driven out of business by their competitors? Only in the sense that they put themselves in a position to allow their competitors to drive them out of their dominant position in the market. Sure, their competitors may have pushed them over the cliff, but they were the ones who chose to walk to the edge and lean over.

Now, it may reasonably appear from the preceding description that Robotic Chromosomes was taken down by a clearly defined event, that is, viewing clients as idiots. That is not, however, quite correct. While it may appear that way in retrospect, the reality is that Robotic Chromosomes suffered from a series of cascading errors. Each mistake was small, easily overlooked or ignored. Each mistake led to more mistakes until eventually the company was suffering from so many small cuts that it eventually had no strength left to resist when its competitors moved in. So how does a company avoid this death of a thousand knives?

The obvious answer is that they needed better communications. While true, it again misses the point. Communications is where problems show up, but the communications are rarely the problem. Rather, the dysfunctional communications are the symptom of the problem. It’s critical to look beyond the symptoms to identify the real problem. Otherwise, you spend all your time looking at the wrong things, as Robotic Chromosomes so eloquently demonstrated.

Avoiding that fate requires a willingness to accept negative feedback; it means being willing to hear what people are saying about your product, your service, or your management style. If you aren’t willing to listen, or if you structure the way in which you listen to negate the feedback, you’re setting yourself up for failure, one step at a time. For example, creating a culture that mocks and demeans your clients is not a recipe for success, and closes you off from valuable feedback from those clients.

Being willing to accept feedback is only a first step though. You have to create a context in which employees are not afraid to give you that feedback, and in which they believe that providing feedback is worthwhile. If people that they’ll be punished for being critical or regarded as “not a team player,” it’ll be hard to get them to provide feedback.

Next, you need to clearly define your goals and also define how you’ll know whether you’re succeeding or failing. Robotic Chromosomes had very fluid definitions of success, definitions that shifted regularly to avoid facing unpleasant results. It’s important to separate the evaluation of the feedback you’re getting from the testing to see if the criteria for that evaluation are valid. In fact, verifying the validity of your criteria should be done before you then evaluate your feedback: otherwise, it’s too easy to redefine success and give yourself a few more cuts. None of them seem all that bad at the time.

Step by step, over the course of several years, Robotic Chromosomes successfully created an environment where any negative feedback could be ignored because that feedback was always coming from idiots.  Their competitors didn’t drive them out of business. They drove themselves out of business; their competitors simply put them out of their misery. How will you avoid the death of a thousand knives?

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