I once collaborated with a business leader on a team, and she really liked an idea I had. After a conversation about the idea, she asked how we could make it real "without killing the awesomeness." In that moment, with that question, I immediately knew how awesomeness dies.
The Fairy Tale
So many people believe the fairy tale that goes something like this: A business exists to make a profit and a for-profit business should not engage in unprofitable behavior. As long as a business seeks out and engages in profitable behavior, the business will live happily ever after.
This big fairy tale is based on a big lie: that cause and effect are always linear and determinable. This big lie leads to the fairy tale. The fairy tale is the beginning of the myriad of short-sighted decisions made within unbalanced quantitatively driven myopic enterprises.
The people who believe in the big lie and subsequent fairy tale go about their lives looking at each and everything people are doing within a business setting or are proposing to do and start asking questions. Each of these questions is designed to determine the return on investment (ROI) of the activity or the proposed venture and then figure out how to maximize the output while minimizing the input. Once enough reductionism has been done (which they refer to as optimization or right-sizing), they then compare that activity or proposed venture against other activities or proposed ventures to see if there is an alternative with a better ratio of input to output. This is how awesomeness dies.
All organizations are in a state of growth or decline. Organizations in stasis do not exist. On one side, the growing organizations that believe in the fairy tale will be in a constant battle to figure out which initiatives have the maximal ROI ratios. A few initiatives will slip through the gates based on other criteria like risk avoidance or erosion of margin, but these will be the exception.
On the other side, declining organizations will almost assuredly rally around the fairy tale believers to right the ship by driving cost out of the enterprise and putting a singular focus on the bottom line. Some exceptions will exist.
A few organizations that long for a return to grandeur will bring in a big dreamer to once again create awesomeness, which can be reborn. It is insanely tough to do, but it can be done. Steve Jobs did it. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is trying. Microsoft is currently trying to find its new dreamer (given that Steve Balmer was not much of an inspiration to anyone).
Speaking Of Microsoft
Several years ago, a dream of a visionary device for creative professionals who produce on the go was envisioned at Microsoft. This device was called the courier, and while we never be sure how well it would have done in the market, we can be sure that the there still is not a device on the market that lives up to the original vision of the courier. The dreamers called it a “digital moleskine” and it was less of an email and game playing device than it was a content creation device for the artistic set.
So just how did this vision of awesomeness die? Fear and preservation instincts kicked in and Microsoft aborted what could have been a new and creative future. When the courier was about a year away from launch, the preservation-centric fixed pie thinkers cast the courier as a threat to the windows hegemony because it was not running on pure windows and because it was not an email centric device.
This reductionist fear-based perspective sent J Allard (visionary behind the powerhouse Xbox line of products) out of Microsoft and allowed for the rise of Windows 8 and the Surface. While neither of these products has shown their true potential, it's a pretty safe bet to say that nobody is using the word awesome to describe them (at least in a positive context).
Awesomeness dies once people proceed from a perspective of "preserving the present" rather than "creating the future." Awesomeness dies when people allow efficiency to overshadow effectiveness by a margin so wide that the people building the products and services become uninspired. Uninspired people rarely build inspiring things.
If you want awesomeness, you must be willing to have the guts to swing for the fences. Robert F. Kennedy said it best: "Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly."
Title image by Mana Photo (Shutterstock).