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Complacency: Why we need to talk more about it

In a recent TIME magazine interview, singer Madonna said, “You can’t stay relevant unless you’re pushing yourself out onto the razor’s edge of life on a regular basis. Once you become comfortable, you become complacent. If you become complacent, then you don’t want to throw yourself into the icy cold water. You just want to sit in the sun.”

Currently topping charts with her 12th album, Madonna has been the queen of reinvention – staying true to the sounds of the time and the people buying music or watching her perform. Very few artists of her generation have managed to morph into staying as relevant.

As an entrepreneur and startup investor, I see so many businesses fall into the trap of complacency – especially when they start getting successful. Beyond my personal purview, the global economy – especially the tech industry – is filled with stories of companies that were great. Those that were at the top of their game but are now struggling or gone. Kodak, Blackberry, Nokia, General Motors and Reebok are some of the popular ones. Reebok (owned by Adidas) for example has been criticised by analysts for lacking “innovative vigour” and not responding to market needs quick enough.

Complacency has seen the demise of many brands. It is the worst mistake businesses, especially startups, can make. Yet, it doesn’t get the same share of voice as other challenges. We talk about vision, innovation, disruption and pushing boundaries, but not always in relation to their role in holding off complacency.

In a ubiquitous and homogenised world, how do you fight complacency and grow? In the same interview, Madonna questions, “All art has become more commoditised. Everything has become generic and homogenised.  If the majority of artists follow a formula, who’s pushing the envelope? Who’s trailblazing? Who’s being revolutionary in their thinking?” Brands such as Apple, Google, Virgin, Nike and HBO are. A look at Fast Company’s World’s 50 most innovative companies’ shows you why and also lists down other trailblazers.

So what can startups and small businesses learn from these brands (and possibly Madonna)?

  • Agility is a prerequisite: A casual observation of leaders in dynamic industries such as telecoms, IT, marketing or advertising will demonstrate a workforce that is agile with roles and responsibilities shifting faster than ever.Businesses – especially large ones – that cannot innovate faster than consumer demand are flat lining as creativity and disruptive thinking are hard to execute when bogged down with processes and hierarchies. Small businesses have an advantage when it comes to agility. We need to make better use of this advantage and be more responsive not just to our customers, but the world around us.
  • Lateral product development: Retail success stories are leading the way in building value propositions around customers at every touch point. Ranked No. 1 in Fast Company’s 2013 innovative companies list, Nike is now more than a shoes and fitness clothes company. It is a social hub for runners, a sports tech company amplifying athletic performance with cutting edge technologies such as 3D printing and a lifestyle brand that works closely with others such as Apple to bring out synergistic products. If it stuck to its core of great design and slick products, Nike would not be the poster child for innovation and reinvention.Brands, big and small need to think laterally around the entire customer value chain and review if they can be relevant in more ways than the current few.
  • Embrace collaboration: I talked about the impact of collaboration in more detail in a previous article. Beyond market trends, companies need to acknowledge that amidst constant disruption, they cannot expect to have all the skills required to succeed. Partnerships, acquisitions and collaborations will play a pivotal role in the success of a business. Artists such as Madonna as collaborating with producers from different genres to integrate new sounds into their music. We will increasingly work together to achieve common goals and individual profits.
  • Don’t wait: In an article in The Conversation, Sean Barry a PhD candidate at Griffith University talks about how despite calls for structural and economic reform in Australia, there appears to be little appetite for change. Barry argues that for real change to happen, we need a bad crisis.Last September, the country’s chief scientist Professor Ian Chubb said Australia was falling behind other developing nations and getting complacent.

    Do we need another recession or loss of market share to wake us up? It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking everything is going well during busy periods. Very few companies will keep pushing boundaries at their busiest times.

  • Breeding a culture of creativity: The culture of innovation is often a result of employees who feel it as the very fabric of their work – instead of just the leader. Apple’s progress comes from a team and not just the late Steve Jobs or Tim Cook. Leaders need to instil a culture of looking beyond busy activity and short-term success into long-term purpose.Using successful airline Virgin America as an example, Richard Branson said that CEO David Cush conducts an annual training program to keep teams up to date and connected – preventing them from becoming complacent or settling for status quo.
  • Make learning a daily mantra: The more you read, learn and talk, the better the chance of your brain connecting different ideas to string together a common concept. With more content than ever at our fingertips, we have no excuse to fall back on this – especially as we try to compete on a global scale. Read about things you don’t know about and are outside your comfort zone and talk to more people in different industries. Learning will always keep you relevant.

If you are busy, take a moment to pause; check to see if your customers and teams are happy, and if your business will survive whatever comes its way the next two years. If not, now is the time to evaluate, innovate and evolve.


About the Author:

Renata Cooper, CEO of Forming Circles and angel investor, is committed to empowering people and ideas. Through Forming Circles, Renata has invested in over 100 local and national businesses, individuals and organisations since its inception in 2011.

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Renata Cooper

Renata Cooper

Renata Cooper is the founder of social and ethical investment company Forming Circles. Committed to empowering people and ideas, through Forming Circles, Renata has invested in over 100 local and national businesses, individuals and organisations since its inception in 2011.

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