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June 23, 2008

It’s Hard to Sell a Revolution to a Guy Who Just Wants a Desk


About 10 years ago, I attended a meeting at the headquarters of a large company that makes office furniture. At the time, their latest brilliant idea was an individual, desk-height, table-toppish thing on wheels. An office worker would get one of these little tables on wheels, along with a chair on wheels to match.


How would they use these? I found out as the meeting was starting.


All the furniture company employees who were attending the meeting grabbed their tables-on-wheels, pushed off with their feet and assembled themselves in a circle. Instant conference table! When it was over, they all took their individual tables-on-wheels and returned to their work spaces.


The designers’ idea was that people would use these things in open workspaces, as opposed to private offices or partition-separated cubicles, and they would encourage a more team-oriented environment. One of their brochures had the happy team tossing a basketball around the open workspace area.


If you’ve never heard of this, you probably think it sounds like a really cool idea. But remember the part about it being 10 years ago? Yeah, it never caught on. And I suspect part of the reason it never caught was the fact that the employees of the company who made it liked it too much.




I know. That’s counterintuitive. I love to use that word. But it’s also logical when you think about it.


When this meeting started, these guys came wheeling on up to the – well, the nothing, as there was no table until they collectively formed one – like it was as natural as frat boys crowding around a keg. For a second, I thought to myself, “This is weird,” but I figured out pretty quickly that it must be this company’s latest thing, as they were always coming up with something or other that was supposed to revolutionize the workplace.


What it did, without a doubt, was revolutionize their workplace – to the point where they were so into it, they couldn’t relate to a customer who had private offices, desks and normal chairs. They were like evangelists for their idea. If all you wanted to buy from them was a desk, especially if it was just like your old one, they looked at you like you were stuck in 1956.


Wouldn’t you want to revolutionize your office’s functionality?


“Can’t I just buy a desk?”


Dirty look. You are so backwards.


Now, I know what you’re thinking. If this happened 10 years ago, why am I bringing it up now? Haven’t I had any job interviews with tattoo guys lately? Don’t I have anything silly to say about Kirk Kerkorian this week?


I bring it up because I think there’s an object lesson here for businesses of all kinds. It is possible to fall too much in love with your own concept. It’s one thing to believe in it. It’s another thing to think it’s going to revolutionize the business world, end world hunger and make Dancing with the Stars acceptable male viewing.


Have you ever tried to sell someone a revolution? Most aren’t really looking to buy one. They might just need a new lamp for the corner. I used to do some work for a real estate company that was usually cooking up some sort of revolutionary scheme. One of their ideas was going to change real estate forever with some sort of online concept that looked like a combination of Google Earth, Tradin’ Times and Travelocity. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars working on this (instead of, say, paying my bills), and the last I checked, real estate still worked pretty much the same way it always has.


If there’s one company that truly has revolutionized the world, it’s Microsoft. But they never claimed they were going to do this. They just did it. And they didn’t sell you a revolution. They just sold you software and you took it from there. (Then again, Microsoft did sort of fall in love with Vista before all the rest of us fell in hate with it. Oops. Nobody’s perfect.)


You may think you have a business concept that is going to change everything as we know it, but I’ll bet you a Segway scooter you’ll make more money if you focus on the tangible and let the fantastic take care of itself.

© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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