This blog first appeared as Steve Wunker’s piece for Forbes
By: Steve Wunker
Tom Brady, the New England Patriots’ star quarterback, is one of the greatest players ever to have that position. It’s a shame, then, that he was suspended for the first four games of the season, and that the Patriots have to turn to Jimmy Garoppolo, a relatively unknown back-up who is in only the second year of his professional career.
Garoppolo has performed relatively well in a few pre-season matches, but no one really knows how he’ll do against first string performers playing for tough teams like the Dallas Cowboys. For the Patriots, who are defending the Super Bowl title they earned last year, the prospect is disconcerting.
Far too many teams – and businesses – face similar situations. When the New York Jets' (non-star) quarterback Geno Smith had his jaw broken by a teammate’s punch recently, requiring him to miss most of the coming season, observers simply reckoned that the team is toast. Similarly when a company’s cash cow stalwarts begin to sputter, investors typically assume that the corporation is in at least as dire straits. These organizations usually focus their attention on only option, and then they pray that it works out for a very long time.
Football teams have the luxury of new rules that protect quarterbacks from many risks of serious injury. Businesses have no such safety net. Indeed, the quickening pace of change puts reliable money-spinners at risk at an ever more threatening pace.
Why do these organizations neglect cultivating options for the future? The time never seems right to put the full weight of the organization behind the next wave. In a close, important game, what sane coach would put in Garoppolo instead of a legend like Tom Brady? Yet those pressure situations are exactly how future leaders like Garoppolo will be formed. Businesses often do the equivalent, putting a bit of spare cash into a workshop or two about future options when times are good, but not feeling any urgency to move. Then when the urgency of change hits they buckle down on their core because they feel they don’t have the bandwidth to consider a Garoppolo.
At least in football the choice of options is obvious, whereas in business neglect of the future is often insidious. My consulting clients typically reckon that 10-20% of their efforts should go toward creating new growth options, but when we tally up the actual investment of money and (more critically) good people, the figures are almost always in the low single digits.
A frequent impediment to action is uncertainty about which future options to cultivate. Businesses are used to assessing multi-year pro forma financial estimates and to holding people accountable for hitting those numbers. Growth options seldom work in such predictable ways. Rather than finding the single best bet and moving concertedly in that direction, companies would do far better to invest in ways to learn about relevant fields, such as through taking minority stakes in other firms, enabling them to move quickly and wisely when the time is right. They should heed the words of a venture capitalist friend of mine who tells people he is “in the information acquisition business.”
Many companies do get around to asking a team to go find something palatable as a future growth opportunity. Unfortunately, they give few guidelines about what is and is not attractive. So the unfortunate team serves up opportunity after opportunity to its corporate masters, only to have each shot down for idiosyncratic reasons which mask the fact that the higher-ups have diverging assumptions about what is desirable, and that the growth team feels those assumptions are unrealistic in any case. A small initial effort to lay out these assumptions and ground rules would save abundant time and money later on.
What should would-be creators of Garoppolo options say to their doubters? The most dangerous threats emerge by surprise, and the time to test and scale up a response can be long. Exploration of these options needn’t take inordinate amounts of money or people, but it does need to be concerted, consistent, and guided by a coherent set of priorities. Think of it as an insurance policy that could pay very rich dividends down the road. Tom Brady is 38, and his suspension may prove a boon to the Patriots as they understand how his would-be successor executes in tough situations. Who knows? The Patriots Garoppplo option may end up delighting just like a former Patriots backup quarterback, Tom Brady himself.
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