What Business Are You In?

The answer might surprise you.

What business are you in?” This famous question is one that has been made popular by case studies at the Harvard Business School. It is a deceptively simple question, filled with nuance and significance if taken seriously.

This question goes to the heart of how leaders and owners see themselves and their businesses. “As we see ourselves, so shall we behave,” the saying goes. So a business’s self-concept, like personal self-concept, is really very important. Often, a fundamental change in this self-concept is necessary to generate lasting and meaningful change.

Getting a Different Answer

There are many examples of how such changes have led organizations to entirely new strategies and business models, and catapulted those enterprises to new levels of revenue, profit and valuations. IBM decided it was an information services company instead of a computer manufacturing company. Here in the Kansas City area, Enterprise Bank and Trust decided it was in the business of guiding its clients to lifetimes of financial success, rather than merely seeing itself as a commercial bank. Some foundations have decided they are really social venture investors rather than mere philanthropic intermediaries.

Mobile phone manufacturers (notably Apple and Samsung) have completely redefined their categories and products into wireless providers of content, service, sales and information for just about anything under the sun. The list goes on and on.

Edsel was Right

While the results from such redefinitions have varied, as yours will, it is important to note that without such fundamental shifts in thinking, you are unlikely to make the changes that may well be necessary for survival, let alone new successes.

For many years, Henry Ford stubbornly refused to introduce new models beyond his beloved Model T. This nearly destroyed his company and opened the door to numerous successful competitors.

His son, Edsel, finally got the old man to see the light of day. Henry saw his business as building a cheap, reliable, no-frills car. Edsel properly understood that automobiles (and trucks, eventually) were not only machines, they were status symbols, forms of entertainment and important enhancements to commerce of nearly all kinds.

Fresh Perspective for a New Year

Fall is often the time when organizations begin to turn their attention to plans and strategies for the coming year. Perhaps, as you do this, it would be valuable to again ask the question, “What business are we in?”

Answering that question could drive you toward new insights and breakout concepts. The answers might set you and your team on an exciting and profitable new course as you unlock your business from the self-imposed boundaries by which it is currently constrained.