Terry Cunningham: Reaching the innovator's plateau Featured

8:00am EDT March 31, 2013
Terry Cunningham Terry Cunningham

A number of years ago, a friend of mine owned a small and successful neighborhood gym, long before the big chains got into the business. In the beginning, he was extremely excited. He poured his heart and soul into the operation. We used to talk about how much potential the business had, the cool clients, the trainers, the community activities — all of it.

 

Waning enthusiasm

Six years later, his tone changed. Words and phrases like “boring” and “same old, same old” were now part of his everyday lexicon. He lost some clients, whom he labeled as “complainers,” and decided he was better off without them. I’m sure you can predict the outcome: He sold the business for a fraction of what it had been worth during its heyday.

Soon after the sale, the new owners ramped up the business, grew their client base, expanded to other locations and took the business to the next level. My friend watched from the sidelines. “I could have done that,” he said. And he could have.

Just after selling the gym, during one of our late-night brainstorming sessions, my friend asked me what I thought the new owners would do to give the business a facelift. I asked him, “What do you think they will do?” He was the fitness expert, after all. What would he do if he were starting again? Shockingly, my friend immediately reeled off a list of exciting and brilliant ideas that he would execute.

The lesson I learned that night was what I now call the innovator’s plateau. Each of us begins an endeavor buzzing with energy and full of ideas. We get up and go to work each day excited about seeing our vision materialize. Yet after a certain number of years, things settle. We grow accustomed to the people we see every day and notice their idiosyncrasies. We develop routines that aren’t stimulating. We tread water. We’re bored. We’re beaten.

 

Avoiding the plateau

So how does one avoid the innovator’s plateau? Simple. Pay attention. Take your emotional temperature every year. Ask yourself hard questions. Have you peaked emotionally? Why are you bored? Is this really as good as it gets, or are you unwilling to take new risks, financially, energetically, emotionally?

Is someone out there doing a better job? If your board fired the current executives and brought in a new management team, what would they do to fix and build the business? What would your customers ask for if you dared to ask them?

One of the best books I’ve read is written by Andy Grove, the retired CEO of Intel. In 1996, Grove wrote, “Only the Paranoid Survive.” This axiom had a profound impact on me as I was growing my business, and it still does today. So if you find yourself getting bored, consider it an alarm bell. Wake up and innovate. See your business in a new way. And remember what your mother said: “If you’re bored, it’s because you’re boring,” so go out and push the envelope. ?

 

Terry Cunningham is president and general manager of EVault Inc., a Seagate Company. He founded Crystal Services, which was purchased by Seagate in 1994 and integrated into the company’s software division, which then became Seagate Software. He has also served as president and COO of Veritas Software and founded, built and led two other successful software companies.