The path from success to bankruptcy is becoming distressingly familiar to increasing numbers of companies. While most knowledge management departments won’t face bankruptcy, they can learn useful lessons from venerable institutions like the Waterford Wedgwood company, which was placed under administration (i.e., filed for bankruptcy) last week. The company was founded by Josiah Wedgwood, a self-made man who became one of the most famous purveyors of English pottery. He is credited with creating an iconic style of pottery and for pioneering many of the sales techniques still directed at unsuspecting modern consumers (e.g., direct mail, money-back guarantees, traveling salesmen, self-service, free delivery, buy one get one free, illustrated catalogs).
Today, Wedgwood’s company is in bankruptcy. What happened? Judith Flanders believes that his successors lacked his marketing skills and natural flair for business. Worse still, they appear to have forgotten one of his fundamental methods of improving his company’s performance. Judith Flanders illustrates this method by telling the story of how Wedgwood reacted to the rise in popularity of his creamware after Queen Charlotte ordered a tea set:
In a letter to his business partner, he marveled at `how rapidly the use of it has spread’ and “how universally it is liked,’ and tried to balance how much this had to do with its royal `introduction” versus `its utility and beauty.’ That is the true Wedgwood. It wasn’t pleasure at past achievement, but instead determination to understand why success had come about, so he could build on it.
His method of identifying what works and then figuring out how to do more of that and do it more powerfully is a critical part of the Appreciative Inquiry approach to planning and growth. If only his successors had been as focused on understanding and exploiting what made the Wedgwood company such a success, they might not be dealing with England’s bankruptcy laws now.
In fairness, those modern Wedgwood managers are probably not unlike the rest of us. In a prior post, What Went Right, I noted
We’ve had years of training to think critically about our work and the work of others. We can spot a problem a mile away. It’s much harder to think as carefully about what went right. It wasn’t all just luck or good timing. Once you’ve identified the key ingredients of your past success, you’re in a much better position to deploy those elements to create a new success.
There’s a useful lesson in this for all of us. Our success isn’t something to be placed on the wall and admired. We need to examine it, shake it, take it apart and put it back together again until we really understand how it came about. It is only with this knowledge that we can build on our strengths to reach the next pinnacle. The alternative is simply to rest on our laurels and assume that what worked before will work again without further analysis or effort. However, therein lies the path to declining relevance and fewer customers. Worst of all, it represents a squandering of gifts. Josiah Wedgwood would not approve.
[Photo credit: Trinity, Creative Commons license]