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How to Avoid Rabbit Holes in Business

“It’s not what we don’t know that hurts us. It’s what we know for certain that just aint so”

A few weeks ago, I shot the first episode of an upcoming video series called “Extraordinary Ordinary People”. In the editing process, I realized just how many references were made to “rabbit holes” by both myself and my guest. We spoke about rabbit holes in more of a general sense as thought patterns to avoid  that simply don’t serve us in life. But it got me thinking about rabbit holes in business; how they take hold, how they can be avoided and how to escape them.

Rabbit Hole – A Definition

First off, let’s define a rabbit hole so we have a conceptual framework to draw upon. There are many definitions online but none of them felt completely “right” to me. So I decided to create my own definition borrowing on a few recurring concepts. Here it is:

“Rabbit Hole” – A disorienting mental construct in which one becomes increasingly engrossed in a pattern of circular thinking that devours time without leading to a desired outcome.

Examples of Modern Day Rabbit Holes

Online marketers are constantly creating digital rabbit holes. We’ve all been there before. Just last week I was exploring a new business idea when I realized that 48 minutes had gone by while I was on the Banana Republic website trying to decide between the plaid or solid non-iron shirt.

But this also happens in the tangible world. We stay anchored on painful past experiences, alternating between wishful fantasies of different outcomes, and the guilt associated with our inability to create the outcomes we desired. We fall under the spell of a new love, blindly neglecting important relationships for the addictive pull of infatuation. We hit a showstopping roadblock on a prolonged project, only to throw good time after bad in trying to save it…The list goes on.

The Dangers of Rabbit Holes in Business

While rabbit holes in life can leave us stuck in patterns of unhappiness, I’m convinced that rabbit holes in business can have even more dire effects. In fact, if the culture of an organization is particularly “rabbit hole prone”, it can threaten its survival.

Every year, companies large and small waste an incredible amount of time and money inside rabbit holes with fatal results. Even after the launch of the first DSLR camera in 1989, Kodak continued to focus on analogue and print photography…to its ultimate demise. Even Canadian success story Blackberry made the fatal mistake of pouring all its resources into the corporate market, while Apple and Android devices revolutionized the much larger smartphone market for consumers.

3 Ways to Avoid Rabbit Holes in Business

1) Take Time To Fully Define the Strategic Mission

A year ago I decided to invest more time in the intoxicating energy of the start-up community. Having now worked with several young companies, I’ve recognized that many fast-growing companies can quickly veer off of their strategic track. If they don’t course-correct early enough they can end up wasting a lot of precious time and money. Good ideas are almost never in short supply. However, TOO MANY good ideas can be dangerous.

A good mission statement doesn’t have to be long. But it absolutely MUST be specific enough to become the ultimate litmus test for future strategic decisions. If you can’t say an immediate yes or no to a project, idea or concept, it’s highly likely that several key words in your mission statement require further definition.  The mission is the ultimate arbiter of ideas. Ideas must mold to the mission statement, NEVER the other way around. This doesn’t mean a mission statement, once written, becomes etched in stone. Especially with the pace of change in today’s marketplace, the mission should be updated at least once per year to ensure continued relevance.

2) Foster a Culture of Respectful Challenge

This needs to start right at the very top of the organization. Any CEO who actually earns their paycheque should put the needs of the organization above their own ego needs. This means leaders must demonstrate a willingness to hear arguments both for and against their own views and ideas. While this may sound simple to the point of banality, the reality is that most organizations more closely resemble a culture of “Command and Control”.

We are all familiar with the concept of “groupthink”. In the context of this post, groupthink simply refers to a group of people who have all gone down the rabbit hole together. It doesn’t take a McKinsey consultant to understand the inherent dangers in this. The only antidote I know for groupthink is an organizational culture of independent thought that supports a “poke holes in this idea” mentality. Now, exactly HOW to transition from an authoritative to a collaborative culture requires more than one post to fully explore…

3) Stay Vigilant to Overconfidence and Complacency

Andrew Grove wrote a famous book called “Only the Paranoid Survive”. As the title suggests, Grove makes the point that companies must be hypervigilant to threats from competitors, changing social trends, and emerging technologies. Good leaders are constantly on the lookout for any environmental changes that could negatively affect their businesses.

But this isn’t enough. Leaders must be ready to act when emerging technologies can render their products obsolete – like streaming video did to Blockbuster Video. It is even harder to abandon well capitalized projects midstream when a marketplace change renders it irrelevant. But sunk costs can easily become sunk companies if leadership teams are unable or unwilling to pivot in these situations.

The Power of Independent Thought

The next time you find yourself lost in rumination about the life that “could have been”…STOP that shit! If you fail to do so, you’re unlikely to find any peace on those rumination days… While inner peace is certainly worth a lot, multi-billion dollar businesses can fail when rabbit holes become part of the corporate culture. You best serve your company AND yourself not by surrendering to groupthink but by embracing your god-given right to independent thought. It would be a shame to waste it.

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Brent C. Wagner