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The Curve

As we move into a new year, we are faced with the same yet unexpected challenge. We don’t know what it is, but it is certain to come.

As this is the first item written for the 2012 run of this newsletter, it is worth looking forward.  At least that’s what ordinarily occurs at this time of year.  Had this come out a couple weeks back, then it would have been the seemingly obligatory “year in review” sort of thing.

But rather than looking ahead from the point of view of making Carnac the Magnificent-like predictions (and they’d probably have all of the accuracy of that turban-wearing mentalist of yore), predictions about which car companies will do well going forward (e.g., I’m betting Hyundai’s momentum is going to be unimpeded, that Volkswagen is going to continue to work the U.S. market hard in its quest for Major Marketshare the World Over) and which are not going to do so well (e.g., I’ve been driving a Suzuki Kizashi of late and it occurs to me that (1) I have no idea of where a Suzuki dealership is in the Detroit metro and (2) I have not seen a regular person driving one despite the fact that the car has been on the market for a couple years, so how can that company thrive in the market?), I’d like to make a more general point about what’s ahead for each of us.

While we are all on different roads, taking on different challenges, going in various directions, one thing is common: There will be a Curve in the road ahead.

No matter how fixed we are on a goal, no matter if the goal is visible Over There, no matter how straight the path to it seems, there will be a curve.

I’m not talking about something along the lines of a full-blown Black Swan here, a completely unpredictable event (e.g., do you really think anyone in Japan expected the combination earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster that occurred last March?  Who would have prepared for that series of unfortunate events?  And even though things like earthquake-tsunami are things that one knows will happen in places like Japan, so there is some predictability baked in, who would have imagined the scale of what happened that day in March?).

No, I am talking about a slight Curve.

We’ve all used the phrase “getting ahead of the curve.”  Presumably this has its roots in the bell-shaped curve from statistics.  “Getting ahead of the curve” means being beyond that big bulge in the distribution, going to a place where there are fewer things (people, products, test scores, what have you).

Then there is the other phrase “thrown a curve.”  Here it is baseball.  The pitcher puts a spin on the ball such that the batter expects it to come straight in and suddenly, yikes!

Both of these are part of the Curve that I am thinking about here, the zig that suddenly manifests itself; the realm where there is distinctiveness.

All too often, each of us is reactive to the Curve.  Something comes at us as we make our way, be it designing a new product or launching a new plant or executing a new communications program.  That this occurs is not wholly unexpected.  After all, we’ve played this game before and know that something will happen.

But anticipation is not preparation.  We are still reactive.

Similarly, again all too often, each of us is afraid of the Curve.  Will think back on 2011 as the year that the world lost Steve Jobs, and will think that the flame of creativity is consequently burning a bit less bright than it did.  He was a man who truly pushed the company that he ran—meaning all of the designers, engineers, managers, marketers, whateverers that make up Apple—ahead of the Curve, into that space where there are fewer people standing and so there is greater distinction and distinctiveness.  But though we may admire him, we are afraid to do what he did because that means not going along the path of the status quo but actually swerving.

Which is why there are Apple products and why there are a whole lot of commodities that you can probably get at a discount.

Are the products we produce like the former or the latter?

To actively swerve as we move along the path is to take a risk.  And to take a risk means the potential of failure.  And the potential of failure means—well, we know what it means.  And so there are those like Jobs and then there are the rest of us.

So here is the start of the year.  And there—somewhere out there—for each of us is a Curve.

Do we get thrown a curve or do we move ahead of the curve?  Do we react or do we risk?

The Curve is inevitable.  How we deal with it in the months to come will make all the difference for each of us professionally and personally.

React or risk?

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