One of the most ingrained human traits is the fear of change – or, rather, the fear of the unknown. We all suffer from it to some degree. Even if you are the kind of person who embraces change, challenges and growth, you will still have some things in your life that define your comfort zone – be it your local neighbourhood, your home, your favourite food or your gnarled slippers.
Sport is high on that list, especially for blokes. The current debate about the future of cricket is a great example. On one side sit the purists, who believe that test cricket is the only legitimate form of the game. On the other side, the proponents of change, heralding the short Twenty20 form as the future of cricket at the expense of the one day game and, Lord(s) forgive, the test format as well.
In a business sense, such debates can be equally passionate and polarising, and how you deal with it as a leader can mean the difference between making it or breaking it. On the one hand you have the established order, the products that you know how to sell, how to make and how to service. They may no longer be new and inventive, but it is 80-90 percent of your revenue and possibly all of your profit.
On the other hand you have the new ideas from a competitor, the pressure from customers to change, the shareholders desire for growth, and the risk inherent in developing new products and services. Getting the balance right is crucial to your business longevity and success. Just as Kerry Packer probably knew full well that the future success of the One Day game was dependent on the survival of the Ashes as that most peculiar of sporting memorabilia, any business leader must learn to preserve the old while ushering in changes.
Almost without exception, the challenges to any established business model come from outsiders, and the really smart businesses understand that and learn to take advantage of it.
Witness the problems facing the Fairfax board (assuming that they occasionally talk about business at board meetings), a company that had the opportunity to buy into Seek, Carsales.com and undoubtedly many others before they “took off”, but ignored the internet as a side-show not likely to “seriously impact our classified revenue stream”, according to their likely future chairman.
On the other hand, the Wall Street Journal saw the threat early and created a working subscription model to protect their most precious commodity, quality content. Rupert Murdoch may have paid over the odds for it, but he has proven time and time again that he understands the value of preserving what works while embracing change.
Getting back to cricket, the game thrived after the introduction of the One Day format, and will continue to flourish with growth in the Twenty20 series, while Tests will still be played at the MCG for decades to come.
Neither form of the game is played in the snow, of course, but the arguments evoke memories of a very similar debate about the future of cross-country skiing in my home country, Norway, some 30 years ago.
The early seventies saw the emergence of fibre-glass skis, a vast improvement on the old planks I grew up on (it is true, Norwegians really are born with skis on their feet – tough girls, Norwegian mothers….).
This was rapidly followed by new techniques brought on by the much lighter skis with a faster contact surface. Whereas cross-country skiing was a tradition with a particular gliding style dating back some 1,000 years earlier than the game of cricket, suddenly young skiers started experimenting with using a skating motion, pushing off to create more power and more speed.
And the purists were in uproar; it was just not… skiing. After a season or two of “us” vs “them”, sensible people with a view to the commercial opportunities prevailed. To cut a long story short, the game of competitive skiing became a lot more interesting to spectators and opened up the sport to more participants.
Whereas cross-country competitions had consisted of less than a handful of events of different distance since the first winter Olympics in 1924, it now consists of a broad variety of lengths and disciplines. With “classic”, “freestyle”, sprints and endurance races, it has a bit of everything, although the Olympic 50km remains the most prestigious, somewhat akin to winning the Ashes.
Much more importantly, through this diversity the competitive community of skiing has expanded dramatically from basically a bunch of Scandinavians sharing in the medals every Olympics and World Championships to dozens of countries now not just competing, but being in the hunt for medals. An Italian actually won the 50km at the last World Championships, and his name wasn’t Svend. Nor was he blond.
Tellingly, the companies that made wooden cross-country skis in my youth have almost all disappeared, replaced by companies that didn’t even exist when I was a young lad wearing trendy knickerbockers as I put on my skis to go to school. Through innovation and foresight, those companies now market a plethora of skis and equipment to a worldwide audience.
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “Change is the only constant”, and how true that is. There are many lessons to be learnt from sports of all kinds. I am hard pressed to think of a single sport that has disappeared because of change.
With the possible exception of jousting, (a natural consequence of killing off competitors), sporting endeavour is all about learning to adapt while maintaining style and substance. Cricket will flourish through this change, skiing will continue to grow, and maybe one day I will be playing cricket in the snow.
The graveyard of business, however, is littered with companies that didn’t embrace change in time; who resisted for the sake of preserving the status quo, and suffered the fate of irrelevance. Time will tell if Fairfax will join them.
In an age where communications happen at internet speed, and where yesterday trends are today’s knickerbockers, embracing change is paramount to success, whether you are a cricket administrator, a ski manufacturer or a newspaper publisher.
Kim Wingerei sells mobile phones and telco services online. He works to live, is easily distracted and likes sailing.