Why Doing Nothing Inevitably Leads to Failure

Expo 70Every new idea is a bad idea. Well, not quite, but every time you choose to do something new, there always seems to be 100 reasons why it’s going to fail.

Wrong people, not enough people, misunderstanding of the market, can’t extract value from it, too many changes needed, not our core competence, not completely aligned with everything else, too aligned with everything else (“it’s nothing new”), inability to execute on the plan, too many great competitors, too few competitors (so how can there be a market?), and so on and so on.

So what do you do? There is always the easy option – do nothing! If the project looks Herculean, you always have this as a fallback option. By doing nothing you avoid all of the problems and risks listed above in one fell swoop. And think of all the the effort and resource you’ve saved?Sounds like a great option, no?

Before my father retired, he was an architect. Winning business in the architectural profession changed significantly during my dad’s career. When he started most work was obtained through getting to know people in your area, discussing the idea then getting the job. And if you did a first piece of work for someone, then chances are you’d get every subsequent piece of work after that.

But all has changed during the last 20-30 years, to a process of bidding for almost every job, similar to the world of advertising. Almost any piece of work over a certain value involves multiple firms bidding for the project. This is of course, a burden on every organisation leading, in the majority of cases, to completely wasted effort. You can argue it’s inefficient – so much time that could be spent more productively – but that’s the system.

My dad’s approach in this situation was to bid on a lot of jobs. He had specialisms, in types of buildings, size of projects, and location, but he often strayed well outside these specialisms and sunk a great deal of effort in to bidding on all sorts of weird, wonderful and occasionally distant projects. A lot of time and effort was spent in bids that led to nothing, so why take such an inefficient approach?

Whatever the reasons why, it worked. My dad’s firm grew over the last 20-30 years, and in all sorts of unpredictable ways. Where his earlier career covered a lot of factories and industrial work, later he did work for schools, medical centres, and a lot of very interesting housing work.

For me, the secret of this success, which my dad confirmed, was that “You never know what will come of the work you do – the future is unpredictable”. He would often bid on, say, a school extension, lose the bid but then a year later, the school governors would get back in touch saying “We really liked the bid you presented a year ago, do you want to come in and talk to us about a new school building we’re doing?”. And this happened all the time. The point of course, is that if he had never bid on that piece of (rather speculative) work, he would never have made that contact, impressed that board, and ended up with another job a year later (followed by lots of follow-up work..).

When he retired and passed the firm on to others, they took a different, far more cautious approach. Every potential bid went through a rigorous vetting process, questions like “Is this our specialism?”, “Is it too far away?”, “Do we have enough people to cover this if we win it?” (oh, what a good problem to have!) and so on. Through this, they bid on far fewer contracts and, guess what, are not doing so well.

So, whatever the risks, however big the mountain of problems you face, however many countless ways something could go wrong, bear in mind that repeatedly doing nothing inevitably leads to a downward trajectory, particularly given the complete unpredictably of the future. Though it may be a high risk path, taking on all sorts of new and unknown projects, the alternative of doing nothing – though less risky and unpredictable – can be a somewhat sadder affair.

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