The Straight Line to Business Success

Walking in circlesDid you know that we humans can’t walk in a straight line without visual cues to keep us focused on our path? Not only can’t we walk straight, we actually walk in circles if we can’t clearly see where we’re going.

It seems we also drive our businesses in circles if we don’t have strong focal points like clearly defined visions, goals and strategies.

I learned this odd fact about humans walking in circles when listening to a recent NPR piece that covered a research paper on the topic written by Jan Souman, Ilja Frissen, Manish Sreenivasa, and Marc Ernst. According to the paper:

We tested the ability of humans to walk on a straight course through unfamiliar terrain in two different environments: a large forest area and the Sahara desert. Walking trajectories of several hours were captured via global positioning system, showing that participants repeatedly walked in circles when they could not see the sun. Conversely, when the sun was visible, participants sometimes veered from a straight course but did not walk in circles. We tested various explanations for this walking behavior by assessing the ability of people to maintain a fixed course while blindfolded. Under these conditions, participants walked in often surprisingly small circles (diameter < 20 m), though rarely in a systematic direction. These results rule out a general explanation in terms of biomechanical asymmetries or other general biases. Instead, they suggest that veering from a straight course is the result of accumulating noise in the sensorimotor system, which, without an external directional reference to recalibrate the subjective straight ahead, may cause people to walk in circles.

It’s easy to see the parallels in our business environments. Without a clear vision of where we’re going, it’s easy for “accumulating noise in the sensorimotor system” (I love that phrase) to send us off course. In the world of retail, we’re constantly bombarded by internal and external demands for short-term change. Those demands are often driven by overly narrow data analysis (such as daily or even hourly comps), emotional reactions, gut feel, wild ideas, competitive shifts and more.

So what do we do about it?

We can’t stop the noise, but we can provide ourselves some solid focal points and guide rails to keep us on a straight path towards ultimate success.

  1. Write a meaningful, compelling, and easy-to-remember vision statement

    I’ve often personally had negative reactions to even the idea of vision statements because so often they are overly wordy and meaningless to everyone in the company who wasn’t in the room when they were developed (which is generally almost everybody). A particularly bad example would be something like: “We are committed to achieving new standards of excellence by providing superior human capital management services and maximizing the potential of all stakeholders – clients, candidates and employees – through the delivery of the most reliable, responsive, flexible, and cost-effective services possible.” Too wordy. Too many buzz phrases. Not enough inspiration. Not enough meaning to most people in the company or its customers.

    All too often, vision statements like the previous example are created in a boardroom, printed on posters hung all over the company and almost immediately ignored. And then the business runs in circles.

    But it doesn’t have to be this way. A carefully created vision statement can be the focal point that drives all business decision and keeps the entire company moving in a straight line to success.

    Consider the following excellent examples and how they might guide your decisions:

    Amazon: “Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

    Google: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”

    Ritz-Carlton (they call theirs a “credo”: “The Ritz-Carlton Hotel is a place where the genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission.

    We pledge to provide the finest personal service and facilities for our guests who will always enjoy a warm, relaxed, yet refined ambience.

    The Ritz-Carlton experience enlivens the senses, instills well-being, and fulfills even the unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.”

  2. Develop measurable goals that lead toward the vision
    There are millions of articles online (according to Google it’s more that 3 million) that explain how to set good business goals, so I won’t go into all of that.

    But I will say just creating “SMART” goals is not enough. The goals have to also be aligned with the vision and serve as milestones along that straight walk to success. It’s entirely possible to create a specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely goal that doesn’t progress us towards our vision. I suppose you could argue that “relevant” should be the attribute that aligns us with the vision, and it should be, but I’ve seen “relevance” twisted to individual agendas too often to rely on it without comment.

    So the goal has to lead us toward the vision. For example, a Ritz-Carlton hotel manager might have a goal that says “Improve lobby ambience scores on guest satisfaction scorecard from 83 to 85 by December 31, 2011.” That would be something that specifically aligns with the vision and tells the manager how well he’s walking the straight line to the success.

  3. Implement brand  and service guidelines to establish boundaries
    Brand guidelines are also critical to help us understand what boundaries we can work within on our straight line to success. I think of them almost as swim lanes. We might not swim perfectly straight, but as long as we stay in our lanes we’ll have the latitude to deal flexibly with changing conditions while continuing to head toward our vision. Consider Ritz-Carlton’s 12 service values:

    1. I build strong relationships and create Ritz-Carlton guests for life.
    2. I am always responsive to the expressed and unexpressed wishes and needs of our guests.
    3. I am empowered to create unique, memorable and personal experiences for our guests.
    4. I understand my role in achieving the Key Success Factors, embracing Community Footprints and creating The Ritz-Carlton Mystique.
    5. I continuously seek opportunities to innovate and improve The Ritz-Carlton experience.
    6. I own and immediately resolve guest problems.
    7. I create a work environment of teamwork and lateral service so that the needs of our guests and each other are met.
    8. I have the opportunity to continuously learn and grow.
    9. I am involved in the planning of the work that affects me.
    10. I am proud of my professional appearance, language and behavior.
    11. I protect the privacy and security of our guests, my fellow employees and the company’s confidential information and assets.
    12. I am responsible for uncompromising levels of cleanliness and creating a safe and accident-free environment.

Of course, the entire process is not as simple to implement as it is to write about. But I’ve found over the years that dedicating considerable thought to providing clear, compelling direction for all employees to follow a relatively straight line can help prevent destructive business circles and keep us on the straight line to business success.

What do you think? What types of business direction have you seen that worked best for you? Would you share some examples? How about the opposite? When have you seen it all go horribly wrong? What can we learn from those failures?


  • By John Hunter, December 8, 2010 @ 8:59 am

    Very interesting post, Kevin. I really appreciate your three points, and I am going to suggest some re-evaluation of my company’s vision statement based on some new thoughts I’ve developed. We also have a mission statement and a set of values. I couldn’t help noticing that you didn’t mention either in your post. Do you also have some thoughts on those, or is there a reason you didn’t mention them?

  • By Stephen Cobb, December 9, 2010 @ 9:32 am

    Dude, you should be teaching MBA classes, this is way more interesting than the textbook approach. Your students would forever be alert to the problem of going in circles (which at times afflicts even the best of organizations) because those students would never forget the importance of recalibrating due to accumulated noise in the sensorimotor system. I can picture C-level execs walking up to the whiteboard and drawing those lines in the diagram saying: This is the problem people! Now let me tell you how Dr. Ertell would solve it.

  • By Kevin Ertell, December 9, 2010 @ 10:35 am

    Thanks a lot for your comments, John and Stephen.

    John: You bring up some good points. I used to be a big proponent of having both a vision statement and a mission statement, but now I’m less sure both are necessary since they’re often at least partially redundant. My primary concern in having both is that the general message about direction gets confused and complicated. If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that communication to lots of people needs to be simple, impactful and easy-to-remember. Too many messages or too many versions of similar messages can become confusing and ultimately ineffective. In the end, I think a carefully considered and well-written vision statement can be more effective than separate vision and mission statements.

    As for values, I understand the idea behind creating corporate values, but I’ve not often seen the list of values printed on posters actually reflected in the operation of the organization. This could be because values are often written as vague character definitions that most members of the organization can’t relate to. You see things like “Integrity, Best People, Energy, Quality” that are very high level. Occasionally, they’re accompanied by wordy descriptions that attempt to define their meaning, but those wordy descriptions defy the principles of simple and easy-to-remember communication. I prefer specific guidelines that say what we will and won’t do in specific situations. The Ritz-Carlton list above is actually called “service values” but it gets more to the heart of specific actions and my experience tells me that type of approach is more meaningful to individuals in the organization.

    Stephen: You are too kind, and I’m glad that you also enjoyed the phrase “recalibrating due to the accumulated noise in the sensorimotor system.” 🙂 I hope that my goofy metaphors are helpful to some as a different way to look at these types of issues. Textbooks are definitely way too boring.

  • By Kathy Toth, February 11, 2011 @ 6:09 am

    Kevin, I hope you continue your blog posts. This one in particular rang true with our service organization which focuses on delivering a postitive impact on others lives. The Ritz is our “role model” for delivering “It’s my pleasure” service”. Keeping the message forefront is paramount and measuring after service delivery is key, which we do through old fashion hand mailed questions. I am sure our organization can improve on all accounts. Ang I agree that you should be coaching!

  • By Kevin Ertell, February 14, 2011 @ 9:10 am

    Thanks for your comment, Kathy. I like how you call it “it’s my pleasure” service. it’s great to hear you’re keeping the message in the forefront and measuring your effectiveness from your customers’ perspective. I have no doubt you’re seeing great success because of it. And I certainly look forward to continuing my blog posts for a long time to come. Thanks again for contributing!

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