Back when I worked in the corporate world, I used to get called naive at least once a week.
I kept treating my employees like adults, instead of like naughty children. Naive.
I tried to lighten up the uptight, lawyer-crafted language we used with our customers. Naive.
I was even dumb enough to occasionally tell the truth at meetings so we had some chance of fixing business-threatening problems. Naive.
Tsk, tsk, tsk. Such a bright girl, but I clearly had no head at all for business.
So I took off on my own.
Smack in the middle of an ugly international financial crisis, I “took the risk” of going without guaranteed income. I tied my financial fortunes to my own efforts, rather than to the wisdom of senior executives and a prestigious board of directors.
(The real risk, of course, was that I’d be thrown in jail for multiple homicide. In comparison to that, self-employment looked like the safest bet.)
It’s worked out pretty well so far. But it seems that every year offers new opportunities to work on bigger things. And from time to time, I find it useful to revisit some of my naive ideas from my corporate days.
Because I still believe that being naive is one of the best ways to make a company great — whether that company is made up of one person or 10,000.
It’s all invented
I first read Ben and Roz Zander’s extraordinary book The Art of Possibility around the time when I was getting my first business started. I’ve read it many times since then, and I always take something new away.
The book starts with a brain-bending chapter: “It’s All Invented.”
“Every problem, every dilemma, every dead end we find ourselves facing in life, only appears unsolvable inside a particular frame or point of view. Enlarge the box, or create another frame around the data, and problems vanish, while new opportunities appear.”
The Zanders expand that to:
“It’s all invented anyway, so we might as well invent a story or a framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us.”
This is an especially juicy time to walk through your business like Alice in Wonderland, realizing that the “appropriate, sensible” way to do things is often nothing but a pack of cards.
Don’t ignore the facts, especially the ugly ones. But do understand that it’s your game. You get to write the rules.
Nothing matters more than people
We’re often told that we need to quit working in our businesses so we can work on our businesses. To create processes and systems. To ensure our businesses don’t depend on any one individual, including us. To make sure we don’t over-rely on the kind of talented, passionate employees that Seth Godin calls “linchpins.”
We’re told that some of that “human resources, goody two-shoes stuff” can be applied, like mascara, to our businesses — as long as cash flow is good. But it’s a luxury. When times are tight, all that earthy, crunchy crap has to go. Those irritating employees are lucky to have a job at all.
Tony Hsieh talks in his book, Delivering Happiness, about how that assumption could have lost him control of Zappos.
Hsieh faced a board of directors that wanted to cash out. That board had a hard time concealing their impatience with Hsieh’s “little social experiments” — in other words, his groundbreaking culture of employee autonomy.
The writing was on the wall. If Hsieh didn’t step carefully, the board would replace him as CEO and install someone who would impose a more traditional-looking system of discipline. They wanted the company to grow up, to groom itself for a quick, tidy acquisition. Hsieh’s messy employee-centric approach didn’t seem in line with that.
Hsieh was savvy enough to manage his board while he found an investor smart enough to realize the truth — that his “little experiments” were what had turned a rather uninspiring idea (selling shoes online) into a billion-dollar business.
Even legendary megalomaniac Lee Iacocca once said:
“You have to be good with people to work here. It turns out people are all we’ve got.”
Cluelessness can be an asset
One of my favorite business role models is Richard Branson. Usually styled these days as “uber-successful billionaire, Sir Richard Branson,” Branson spent much of his business life doing things that were entirely clueless.
- His decision (while still at school at 15 years old) to launch a national magazine instead of focusing on his studies was clueless.
- His decision to start a record store when he knew nothing about retail was clueless. This was followed by clueless decisions to build a recording studio, a record label, and then international divisions of Virgin Records. Utterly clueless, every one.
- His decision to start an airline, a tremendously complex and risky business that he knew absolutely nothing about, was impressively clueless.
- His penchant for launching businesses just because the names make him smile (Virgin Bride, Virgin Snow) is clueless.
- His diversification of the Virgin brand to more than 360 companies, without a readily apparent connecting thread like Procter & Gamble or Coke have, is often called clueless.
- His decision to create the world’s first “spaceline” (an airline for outer space) wasn’t just clueless, it was downright loony.
Branson is my favorite kind of naive businessman. The kind who tries everything that sounds like it would be fun, works like crazy to make it happen, and knows when to walk away from decisions that don’t work out.
Today, of course, he’s widely lionized. But for decades, he was generally considered to be an entertaining, naive flake.
He’s currently worth close to $5 billion. Give or take a million or two, and up nearly a billion since I first wrote this post.
Having a clue is vastly overrated.
Naive does not mean stupid
I am not a big fan of the expression “Leap and the net will appear.” More often, it works out to “Leap and the floor will appear.”
Naiveté is about rejecting stupid definitions of maturity. It’s about brushing aside rules that no longer make any sense (if they ever did).
Naiveté is about seeing a bigger picture. About being brave enough to ignore conventional advice that doesn’t apply to you, doesn’t make you happy, and may not even make you any money.
But it has no patience for ruthlessness (except with ourselves), jockeying for status, or trashing your conscience in the name of a paper success.
Are you naive?
Ever been criticized for being naive? For being “too nice” to be in business? For lacking the macho blood and guts you need to succeed?
Let us know about it in the comments, so we can mock your enemies and issue you an official permission slip to continue being (intelligently) naive.