Right in the Black and White

by Emily Jasper on April 11, 2011

Black and WhiteA little joke in the business world is that whenever there is a question, the answer is usually, “It depends.” It’s a signal that instead of a black-and-white world, we live around shades of gray. Unless of course there are legal issues, and then it’s up to lawyers to explain why you crossed over to black, or in some cases, move the boundary altogether. But I digress…

I know it’s frustrating for many, especially if they do come from a world of absolutes, to constantly be told, “It depends.” They want a right or wrong answer. Then of course, it’s even more frustrating when it seems like a perfectly gray area (like your personal opinion), suddenly has a right answer. I agree, it can be confusing.

Then I started Howard Schultz’s book Onward. I haven’t finished yet, but like most books, I already started writing in the margins with my own responses to some of his writing. On one of the pages, he talks about entrepreneurship and what it’s like being a founder of a company and your investment in its success: “That knowledge, that history, brings with it a high level of passion to do whatever it takes to succeed, as well as an intuition about what is right and what is wrong.”

The ceo (they use lowercase titles) of Starbucks just wrote that in business, there can be a right and wrong.

I might still argue that in reality, for most of us, that statement might translate into degrees of rightness and wrongness. However, we need to look at the context: this is the perspective of the founder. This is his dream, and yeah, for him, there is a right and wrong.

Perhaps if you aren’t an entrepreneur, you may never get to the commitment level that it takes to determine that there’s a line between what is right for your company and what is absolutely wrong. As leaders, maybe we are willing to take chances on all kinds of ideas. Most would say it’s good to take risks, you might get high returns. And then you think about companies, such as Starbucks, that got away from it’s core values…all because it tried some things that really just weren’t right for the company.

When someone tells you a new product or line a company creates, do they need to explain the logic to you, or is it a “no duh” moment? Sometimes we should interpret the need to explain, set the stage, or pitch an extension as a warning that maybe that’s not core to the business. Sure, it could logically make sense…after a five minute speech. If a customer does not understand that extension immediately, you run the risk of making the customer jump through mental hoops to understand what you’re doing. When you have loyal customers, don’t mistake that they blindly follow. If they have no idea why you extended into movies when you’re in the coffee business, it might not have been a clever decision. It might have been the wrong one.

Then you have ideas that just work. There is a “rightness” to them, and we all know it. Perhaps that’s how Howard felt when they embarked on VIA® Ready Brew, that it was right and core to the idea of getting the best product into the hands of their customers. I’m sure as I keep reading, I’ll find out.

While for the most part, we still live with “It depends.” But when it’s right, you know.

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