How A Business Implodes (Before Anyone Notices)

Consider this scenario: From the outside, the business looks healthy -- revenue and profits are growing. But if you poke around on the inside -- the business is imploding. We've all witnessed that type of corporate irony. But what causes it?

For me, the answer often involves (A) lost blueprints (B) lost DNA or (C) lost leadership -- or maybe a mix of all three.

Bye, Bye to Blueprints

Let's use a famous urban legend involving NASA's Saturn V rockets. As you may recall, the powerful Saturn V rockets propelled Apollo astronauts to the moon. They were an engineering marvel.

An urban legend says NASA ultimately lost the Saturn V blueprints after the Apollo missions wound down. The alleged result? Nobody on the planet has the knowledge to "re-create" the rockets from scratch -- nor does anyone have a "complete" picture of the rockets and their inner workings.

Admittedly, the "lost Saturn plans" legend is false. But it's a fitting allegory for the business world, where many companies stumble badly as generations of talent -- and product blueprints -- come and go. 

The Vision Thing

The situation has gotten quite complex as IT systems increasingly depend on one another. For instance, imagine the situation with Apple's iPhone business. It's not just a "device." Instead, it's hardware (iPhone), software (iOS), the Apple App store, iCloud, and so much more.

Plus, there's the vision thing -- somebody needs to see and maintain the big picture, so that all of those piece parts come together into an incredible solution -- actually, a user experience. That user experience (and the piece parts) need to be sustained and enhanced from one generation of leadership to the next.

Wrong Priorities

So what goes wrong? Steve Jobs put it best in this video: Once a product becomes widely successful (achieving mass-market acceptance or even a monopoly position) the sales and marketing folks often take over. Then the product people (and sales folks who truly understand product) get pushed to the back seat or leave -- and companies forget what it means to make truly great products. Take a look:

After the Moon Shot

In other words: The Saturn V blueprints walked out the door or never really got documented for a new generation of scientists. Sales and marketing want to continue selling more and more -- and that's healthy and natural, if you're still producing product innovations. Sales, Marketing and Product Pros are all required for healthy balance and success in a business.

The real danger starts when nobody has the complete view of how and why the products got built in the first place... Nobody remembers the original Moon Shot mission. And nobody has the vision to say, "Now, let's go to Mars. Here's how."

Missing the Warning Signs

At some point, the finances finally implode because nobody wants to buy "more" of the same old thing. Plus, the same old thing's quality has slipped.

To the casual observer, the business imploded overnight during some sort of market shift (client/server to cloud; PC to mobile, etc.). But to the trained eye, the problems started long before any scapegoat market shift occurred.

So, you've been to the moon. As team members come and go, make sure you retain the right product blueprints and company DNA. Understand -- and never forget -- what made the original Moon Shot great. See the big picture and the complete inner workings of your rocket. Hire and retain the right mix of Product, Sales and Marketing Pros for the next mission.

Otherwise, you'll never get to Mars. In fact, you may never even realize that you need to get to Mars -- even as the glory of your original Moon Shot fades away.

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