- Too many leaders spend too much effort minimizing uncertainty
- Stock buybacks reflect fear of uncertainty, but are a losing investment
- Good performing organizations invest in new markets, products and services
- Success comes from not only investing, but in learning quickly what works (or doesn't) and rapidly adapting.
"If you don't ever do anything, you can never screw up" my boss said.
I was 20 years old working in the blazing Oklahoma July sun at a grain elevator. I had asked the maintenance lead to modify a tool, thinking I could work faster. Unfortunately, my idea failed and my production started lagging. Offload production was slowing. I had to ask that the tool be put back to original condition, and I apologized to the elevator manager for my mistake.
That's when he used my opening line, and went on to say "Don't ever quit trying to do better. You're a clever kid. Sometimes ideas work, sometimes they don't, but if we dont' try them we'll never know. That's why I agreed to your idea originally. I'll accept a few well-intentioned 'mistakes' as long as you learn from them. Now go back to work and try to make up that production before end of day."
Far too few leaders today give, or follow, such advice. The Economist recently waxed eloquently about how much today's leaders dislike any kind of uncertainty (see "From Tsunami's to Typhoons"). Most very consciously make decisions intended to reduce uncertainty - regardless of the impact on results! Rather than take advantage of events and trends, doing something new and different, they intentionally downplay market changes and diligently seek ways to make it appear as if things are not changing - amidst massive change! The mere fact that there is uncertainty seems to be the most troubling issue, as leaders don't want to deal with it, nor know how.
This fear of uncertainty manifest itself in decisions to buy back stock, rather than invest in new products, services and markets. 24/7 Wall Street reported $34B in announced share buybacks in early February (2011 Stock Buybacks on Fire), only to update that to $40B by end of the month. Literally dozens of companies choosing to spend money on buying their own shares, which creates no economic value at all, rather than invest in something that could create growth! And these aren't just companies with limited prospects, but include what have been considered growth entities like Pfizer, Astra-Zeneca, Electronic Arts, MedcoHealth, Verizon, Semantec, Yum! Brands, Quest, Kohl's, Varian and Gamestop to name just a few.
All of these companies have opportunities to grow - heck, all companies have the opportunity to grow. But there is inherent uncertainty in spending money on something that might not work out. So, instead, they are taking hard earned cash flow and spending it on buying back the company stock. The real certainty, from this investment, is that it limits growth -- and eventually will lead to a smaller company that's worth less. Don't forget, the only investment Sara Lee made under Brenda Barnes the last 5 years was buying back stock - and now the company has shriveled up to less than half its former size while the equity value has disintegrated. Nobody wins from share buybacks - with the possible exception of senior executives who have compensation tied to stock price.
At the Harvard Business Review Umar Haque admonishes leaders today "Fail Bigger Cheaper: A Three Word Manifesto." Silicon valley investors, deep into understanding our change to an information economy, are far less interested in "scale" and more interested in how leaders, and their companies, are learning faster - so they see where they might fail faster - and then being nimble enough to adjust based upon what they learned. And not just to do more of the same better, but in order to identify bigger targets - larger opportunities - than originally imagined. Often the "failure" can direct the business into grander opportunities which have even higher payoffs.
That's why we don't see companies like Google, Apple, Netflix, Virgin, or Cisco buying back their own stock. They see opportunities, and they invest. They don't all work out. Remember Google Wave? Looked great - didn't make it - but so what? Google learns from what works, and what doesn't, and uses that information to help it develop newer, more powerful growth markets.
Long ago Apple let its lack of success with the Newton PDA cause it to retrench into strictly Mac development - which took the company to the brink of disaster by 2000. Since then, by investing in new markets and new products, Apple has grown revenues and profits like crazy, making it more valuable than arch-rival Microsoft and close to being the most valuable publicly traded company.
Virgin used its success in music retailing to enter the trans-atlantic airline business (Virgin Atlantic). Since then it has launched dozens of businesses. Some didn't work out - like Virgin Bridal - but many more have, such as Virgin Money, Virgin Mobil, Virgin Connect - to name just a handful of the many Virgin businesses that contribute to company growth and value creation.
Nobody wants to screw up. But, unless you do nothing, it is inevitable. No leader, or company, can create high value if they don't overcome their fear of uncertainty and invest in innovation. But, hand-in-glove with such investing is the requirement to learn fast whether an innovation is working, or not. And to adapt. Some things need time for the market to develop, others need technology advances, and others need a change in direction toward different customers. It's the ability to invest in uncertain situations, then pay attention to market feedback in order to recognize how well the idea is working, and constantly adapt to market learning that sets apart those companies creating wealth today.