Recently I’ve been writing about the challenges of creating change initiatives in a family business where the older generation is in charge. One of Seth Godin’s recent blogs, Two Kinds of Practice, http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2017/11/two-kinds-of-practice.html touched on what I see as a critical aspect of this inter-generational dynamic.
According to Godin, in the first kind of practice, we learn to play the notes as written, coming as close to a specified standard of perfection as we can. Applying this to family business, we learn to conduct business as the generation in charge does it. Practicing this way, Godin adds, we can become very proficient.
Learning to play the notes as written is sound advice. It respects the past while helping to develop an understanding of the family’s values and why we do business the way we do. The business environment though, is in constant flux—today more so than ever. The successful business will keep an eye on the future and have a mindset that embraces innovation.
The second kind of practice Godin describes as being “more valuable but far more rare.” This he says is the practice of failure. “Of trying on one point of view after another until you find one that works. Of creating original work that doesn’t succeed until it does.”
Founders of family businesses sometimes forget that their know-how was gained from their own painstaking efforts that resulted in errors early in their careers; or perhaps are reluctant to return to those times of uncertainty and anguished miss steps. But when founders seek to maintain their own comfort by denying this process of learning by trial and error to members of the next generation, their actions may lead to a painful decline of both the younger generation family members and the business; a decline fed by an inability to adapt.
Some families build their businesses on the practice of failure as a value. For them innovation is seen as a key to growth. But they are rare. In the majority of business families, the natural conservatism of the generation in charge is at odds with the natural forward-thinking innovative attitude of youth.
These two sides for different reasons are often blind to each other. And being blind, a clear vision for the future of the business is compromised. At this point it becomes wise to seek the help of an impartial outside observer. An expert family-business consultant can help take the blinders off, reawaken the incumbent generations’ memories of struggle and failure, remind them about how they succeeded, and set the new generation free to do the same.