“If you were going to do it again, rebuild from scratch, what would you do different?”
That question was asked of me a few years ago -- and then resurfaced again in the midst of COVID-19. The original questions was centered on the business that I had a part in launching over a decade earlier. The follow on question asked recently was centered on how to recover after dumpster fire year. Often, when someone asks a business building question, my mind races back to the beginning. But COVID adds a whole knew wrinkle.
The first few years we passionately set up shop with great expectations, only to be frequently disappointed. The big contracts that we were fishing for, just weren’t biting. Still, we ventured out, explored, tried to turn over each stone of opportunity we could, but – on the big ones – we failed again and again. For three years it seemed we were perpetually rebuilding ourselves.
Rather than giving up, which we had strongly considered, we fought through the temptation. As I look back now, our secret was that we were continuously rebuilding by asking a simple question, “What can we do better?” That question coupled with our faith kept us in play – it kept us going.
Finally, at the beginning of our third year the hard work finally paid off. We landed the first set of contracts that allowed us to go full time. That was the start of our success. But it was just a pivot.
The question though was still hanging in the air.
“Hmmm, if I was going to do it again?” I repeated, while rubbing my chin with my hand.
Once more, my mind raced back through the journey. I remember, after we finally got the new work, how we started slowly adding more key players to the team, pursuing more opportunities, bringing in more profitable contracts, and continuing to build our infrastructure. Now 18+ years from our humble start, which has just flown by, you might say we have established a fairly healthy company.
But my mind wonders, “What is healthy? And from who’s perspective?
The question of business health is often subjective. It can fool you. Often, we use the past as an indicator of our health. But what about the present? More importantly, what about the future? What is the real mark of a healthy organization?
From these internal questions a mental image came to mind. The health and wellness of a business is much like our own physical bodies. It needs to be managed and cared for repetitively. Elite athletes, for example, rarely take their body for granted. They are constantly rebuilding it despite their past success. They are seeking to better themselves. And a business should do the same. Nobody else can do it for you. You are responsible for you.
The first three years of our business- we were continually rebuilding. When things aren’t working, that’s just what you do. As I look back, our best times of success followed times of rebuilding, but just not from scratch.
What we create and recognize as our past is a foundation – and that’s key. But we should never take for granted that past and think that it’s enough for the future. It’s not. But it is a base. Continuous improvement is the requisite. It always has, and always will be.
Why Continually Rebuild?
“If I was to do it all again?” I would definitely do things different.” I finally responded. “Just not from scratch.”
“What do you mean?” They inquired.
I proceeded to explain.
“Well, I believe we always need to be rebuilding. In fact, our greatest successes came following a season of growth, and growth seems to always happens when we rebuild – but just not from scratch.”
Our past is our pedigree. It indicates what we are able to do – because we’ve done it, so we leverage that as our foundation. But rebuilding for what’s ahead identifies what else we are capable of doing. We have to better ourselves.
If we are not rebuilding, we are stuck in the past. We’re settling. I don’t want to settle, I want to pioneer.
Sameness is the death of any organization, or a team. You have to constantly rebuild. If you are not doing things different in your organization than you are dying a slow death. You’re not being a pioneer.
But, again, it doesn’t mean you rebuild from scratch. That’s a scary proposition.
How to Properly Rebuild
If you are not learning from your past – especially your failures – you’ll get trapped in sameness. And it can happen to anybody. In fact, it’s happened to us on multiple occasions. But the great companies and teams recognize that to have a better future, they should always be in a state of building. And here are the basic steps:
Watch out for the Temptation
The temptation for any one of these steps is to always look back. While, it’s easy to look back at the past and use it a means to identify the health and wellness of a company, recognize that it’s not a true indicator of a company’s future health. The vision and culture are more important.
The past wants to turn your head and keep you from looking where you should be going. It will fool you. But where you should be going is set through your vision of the future – not one of the past. And the speed of your journey is marked by the culture you are creating.
Understand that past success doesn’t necessarily mirror present conditions. Instead, it merely reflects the viability and past performance of an organization. Yes, past performance creates the confidence that others need in order to buy goods and services from your organization. And if you have excellent past performance, be glad for it. But don’t get stuck looking back.
Recognize this truth: The Past shows “previous” capability, the Future shows “potential” capacity. Focus on casting a new vision and reinvigorating your culture to pursue that vision. That’s how you build for your future — and you don’t need redo it from scratch.
Side Note: How the Past Can Help
One myth that needs to be broken is the truth about failure. While we might applaud past successes, and use it on our proposals and marketing, the real gold to mine from is in the past failures — they might be our greatest teacher. The reason why is because you can learn more from a single failure than any one big success. The best organization, small or big, learn from their past failures. Failures can show you where you can improve.