Fast Company

Change Agent - Issue 29

In My Humble Opinion: Why is it that the really obvious chances to improve our businesses and careers almost always pass us by?

Hi. my name is Seth, and I have a problem: I'm a change junkie. If the world around me isn't changing, I get bored and become inefficient.

On second thought, that's not really my problem. My problem is that while I'm busy advocating change, insisting on change, and teaching change, deep down inside, I hate change. Change is inconvenient, painful, and frightening.

I should know: In the past year, I've moved twice, I've sold two businesses, and I've gladly gone from having 30 employees to having more than 70 -- before going all the way down to zero employees. It's been one hell of a ride, but frankly, there were times when all of that changing gave me a real headache. I guess you need to be careful about what you wish for -- because you just might get it.

Quite a paradox, no? I love change! I hate change! So how do people like me manage to rationalize those extremes? On the one hand, it's obvious that if you don't move quickly, you're dead. On the other hand, it's obvious that changing to keep up with the new realities of work is painful and exhausting. Question one: Are we doomed to lives marked by ever-increasing pain, as the ever-faster world of business damns us to becoming digital nomads?

A few years ago, I found myself eating lunch at an outdoor café in Vienna, Virginia. It was 1994 -- just about the time when America Online was beginning to show up on people's radar -- and I was having lunch with Steve Case and the three other top people at AOL. I went home feeling enthusiastic about AOL's prospects, but I stuck to a rule that I have against taking money out of my IRA to buy stock. I think AOL was trading at about $7 per share at the time. It has since gone as high as $125. Needless to say, my IRA hasn't had nearly the return that AOL stock has had since 1994. Question two: Why was I unwilling to make that investment?

Five years later, I'm lucky enough to work with David Filo and Jerry Yang, the two visionaries who created Yahoo! At about the same time that they were launching Yahoo!, I was thinking about precisely the same opportunity. But instead of starting a company that would eventually be worth more than $30 billion, I wrote a book called The Smiley Dictionary: Cool Things to Do With Your Keyboard. Total royalty earnings to date: $9,000.

Question three: Why a book and not a Web site? Here's one answer: I was running a book business, and every opportunity that I saw looked like a book opportunity. David and Jerry, on the other hand, had no preexisting framework, no installed base. So, when they saw that opportunity, they viewed it for what it could be, rather than tailoring it to what they already were.

Which raises question four: Why is it that the big opportunities, the really obvious chances that we get to improve our businesses and our careers, almost always pass us by? Go back to what I said about change: Big opportunities bring change, and change is painful. As long as opportunity means "change," and as long as change means "pain," we will continue to miss our chances.

So I have a very simple proposition for all of us change-addicted, change-conflicted new-economy warriors: Instead of embracing and celebrating change -- or lying about it and pretending to embrace it -- I think we ought to stop talking about change altogether. Let's ignore it, avoid it, and sidestep it. Instead of spending time thinking about change, let's all sign up for zooming lessons.

"Zooming" is about stretching your limits without threatening your foundation. It's about handling new ideas, new opportunities, and new challenges without triggering the change-avoidance reflex. You already zoom every day: Whenever you buy a new CD or read a new issue of the New York Times, you don't have to contend with all of the emotions that we associate with "change." You're zooming -- doing the same thing as usual, only different.

Eating at a different Thai restaurant, trying a new airline -- for most of us, none of these things represent "change." This is the stuff of exploration; it's the kind of thing that we're eager to do. That's why the guidebook business is booming, and why adventure travel is a growth industry. These products and services offer safe adventure -- the chance to do the same thing as usual, only different.

There are all kinds of zoomers, and all kinds of categories in which you can learn to zoom. The late John Hammond was a world-class zoomer. Hammond was the guy at Columbia Records who discovered Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. What made him a zoomer? He defined "the same thing as usual, only different" pretty broadly. He didn't spend his days trying to find folk singers, jazz singers, or AOR-crossover funky white singers. No, Hammond just looked for singers.

By choosing to zoom across such a large area, he was able to listen to anyone, anytime, without getting stressed out. He didn't plague himself with rigid rules and standards; he just wanted to find something great. Hammond had broad "zoomwidth." I'm betting that if you had asked him whether finding all of those different kinds of singers meant that he had to "change" every day, he would have said no. He viewed each day not as a high-stress, change-filled event but as part of his zooming continuum.

Compare Hammond's zoomwidth with your own. Or compare it with your company's zoomwidth. Martha Stewart, for example, had no trouble turning her book-writing business into a $100 million media empire -- without compromising what she stands for. But the folks at Rolling Stone were too entrenched in the magazine paradigm to see that they could have been MTV -- without having to change their foundation. The people at Omaha Steaks realized that however they sold their steaks -- by phone, by mail, or on the Net -- it was all the same thing, only different. By contrast, it took Lands' End years to sell products online.

I grew up during the glory days of franchised restaurants -- McDonald's, Basin-Robbins, Caravel, Pizza Hut. None of them had any zoomwidth at all. The structure of these organizations made any sort of adjustment seem like a major threat, rather than an opportunity to zoom. Today, as the population changes and as people's needs change, many of these chains are facing a major crisis. Kentucky Fried Chicken even had to change its name to KFC -- so that it could start selling nonfried foods!

Compare this mentality with that of the Limited Inc., a company that gladly zooms its merchandise at every single store at least once a month -- whether it needs to or not. At Limited stores, introducing a new clothing style is easy: Managers don't have to go very far up in the organization to get approval. They just zoom -- and it happens.

Question five: Why is there so much pain in the business world? One reason is that most companies are now stretched beyond their zoomwidth. Everything is seen as a threat; nothing as an opportunity. Instead of changing, companies need to zoom. By increasing its zoomwidth -- by hiring people who love to zoom -- a company can grow, adapt, and maybe even transform itself.

Here is my handy, five-step zoom starter kit -- a list of five simple things that you can do to practice zooming.

1. For dinner tonight, eat a food that you've never tasted. Then try another one tomorrow night.

2. On your way to work tomorrow, listen to a CD from a musical genre that you hate or that's new to you.

3. Every week, read a magazine that you've never read before.

4. Once a week, meet with someone from outside your area of expertise. Go to a trade show on a topic in which you have no interest whatsoever.

5. Change the layout of your office.

Sounds stupid, doesn't it? Like a bad self-improvement book. But if you can master these five steps, you'll discover that the art of zooming makes it easier for you to view everything as an opportunity. In other words, you'll find that it's easier to sign Bob Dylan when you think you're looking for Count Basie.

Question six: Isn't all of this just a lot of semantic maneuvering? Why waste time on a word or two? The zoomer's answer: Words are important. They give you a lens through which you can see why you (and your company) are finding it so hard to move as quickly as you'd like.

The next time your company is looking at a big, life-threatening change, stop! Ignore the big, life-or-death, change-or-die issue. Ask yourself question seven: How much room do you have to zoom? After all, a company with an appetite for zooming will always be quicker, nimbler, and more fun than one that's doomed never to zoom.

Seth Godin (sgodin@fastcompany.com) is permission-marketing yahoo! at Yahoo! His new book is "Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers into Friends and Friends into Customers" (Simon & Schuster, 1999).

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