In the original story “A Christmas Carol,” (first edition 1843) Charles Dickens writes about an old and miserly Ebenezer Scrooge who undergoes a life-changing experience of redemption over the course of a Christmas Eve night.
The plot goes like this: “If the experience doesn’t change Scrooge’s ways, he will end up walking the Earth forever being nothing but an invisible and lonely ghost, like his deceased friend Jacob Marley.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about how “A Christmas Carol” parallels much of what we do every day within our businesses.
First of all, Charles Dickens himself was a struggling entrepreneurial author fretting over how he was going to pay off his debt when he penned “A Christmas Carol” - all 18,000 pages - in just six short weeks. But this is nothing new on genius spurts because many bright and creative folks produce some of their best ideas under duress. A great mind reacts naturally to dire circumstances: Do something spectacular! And in this case, “A Christmas Carol” was not only cranked out in a limited amount of time but also went on to become one of the most popular and enduring Christmas tales of all time.
What’s so remarkable is how this story has become a metaphor for operating a business during our current tumultuous economic times - what I refer to as “A Business Carol.” A related concept that recently caught my attention comes from Dr. Vijay Govindarajan, a professor of international business at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. An expert on innovation and strategy, he spoke with The Wall Street Journal about his theory of how business strategy involves three boxes (hence, the image).
The Wall Street Journal article describes Dr. Govindarajan’s theory: “Box One involves managing the present - for example, improving the efficiency of today’s businesses. Box Two involves selectively forgetting the past [interesting twist]. And Box Three … is about creating the future.”
I could not help but think of good old Scrooge. But let’s take a further look at how three different perspectives - “A Christmas Carol,” my make-believe “A Business Carol” and Dr. Govindarajan’s real-life interview with the WSJ - all tie together to help us better understand how to prepare for the economic recovery.?
A Christmas Carol: The Ghost of Christmas Past leads Scrooge on a journey to some of his past Christmases, where events shaped his life and character.
A Business Carol: As a business owner, you reflect on some of your past business decisions that shaped the direction of your company.
Dr. Govindarajan: “Box Two involves selectively forgetting the past.” Here you thought we were to learn from history not to repeat mistakes from the past! Partially true. In Dr. Govindarajan’s opinion, “not everything that you do today will be relevant in 2025.” So therein lies the rationale of selectively forgetting the past so that you can remain relevant and prepare assertively for the future.?
A Christmas Carol: The Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge through the streets of London on the current Christmas morning. They observe the Cratchit family’s happy celebration. When the Spirit predicts an early death for son Tiny Tim if things remain the same, Scrooge wants to change the future.
A Business Carol: You observe the celebrations of the neighboring business and their new product that was launched on a shoestring. When you see signs of an early death for the product if things remain unchanged, you wish to change the future.
Dr. Govindarajan: “Box One involves managing the present - for example, improving the efficiency of today’s businesses,” the WSJ article explains. Dr. Govindarajan states that companies tend to focus on this and cost control. “That’s inevitable because, for many companies, sales revenue has dropped by 50%, 60% or 70%. When your sales drop by 70% and you’ve got to maintain margins, you’ve got to cut costs,” he says.?
A Christmas Carol: The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come frightens Scrooge and haunts him with a vision of a future Christmas with the Cratchit family but without Tiny Tim.
A Business Carol: You are haunted by a vision of a future in which the neighboring business’s product has failed.
Dr. Govindarajan: Box Three is about creating the future, according to the WSJ article. Can you really plan for the future? “You cannot plan for the year 2025, but you can prepare for it,” says Dr. Govindarajan. “Preparing for the future simply involves asking what the broad trends are.”
A Christmas Carol: Scrooge changes his life, becoming more generous with his time and money.
A Business Carol: You change your life and revert to the generous, kindhearted soul you were before the death of one of your ideas. You anonymously send the neighboring business the biggest business tip you can think of, and you spend time with employees, independent contractors and the neighboring business.
Dr. Govindarajan: Often, “companies spend too much of their time managing Box One - the present - and think that’s strategy. Instead, he argues, companies need to spend more time and energy on thinking about Box Two [selectively forgetting the past] and Box Three [creating the future],” the WSJ reports.
There you have it. Three different perspectives, all with a common theme: There is still time to make a difference in our world, to learn from your past yet choose to forget certain parts of it to remain relevant and to make improvements in your life and your business in preparation for a more vibrant future.
And remember, just like Scrooge, if you don’t change your business ways, you might end up being nothing but an invisible and lonely business ghost.
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About the Author: Global business expert Laurel Delaney is the founder of GlobeTrade.com. She also is the creator of “Borderbuster,” an e-newsletter, and The Global Small Business Blog, all highly regarded for their global small business coverage.