Challenge the status quo like Branson

The recent hullabaloo about the tender for the West Coast train franchise set me thinking. 

Here we have Richard Branson, who is prepared to do a most un-British thing in challenging the status quo! And why not? After all, according to Rudyard Kipling we are meant to meet with triumph and disaster and treat the two imposters just the same.

Initially the government declared the process was fair so that should have been enough – surely.

But the reality was that because a court case was looming, the Department for Transport had to look at its position, or more likely their lawyers forced them to, and hey presto the whole process was flawed.

Which brings me onto my own personal ‘un-British’ contention – we just don’t challenge things enough. Let me explain.

Unfair practice

About 10 years ago one of my companies in the US lost a deal to a major competitor. Granted this was personal (the competitor was founded by an ex-employee and was about to float), but what happened next has always stuck with me.

Our CEO, now the CEO of Motorola, rang up the customer we had just lost and told him that we would have done the deal for 50 per cent less (a difference of $3 million dollars). We subsequently learned the price was appropriately reduced even if we still lost the deal.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating dishonest business practices at any level, but I just wonder how often we accept things have gone against us before we need to.

So I lose a deal and believe that the ‘first-line’ decision maker is biased for whatever reason. Most sales guys would hold their hands up and say ‘fair game we couldn’t do any more guv’nor, they referee robbed us’.

But why not get your boss to write to his boss or the managing director, saying why we believe the purchasing process was wrong. What have you got to lose?

At the very least you might get some reaction that would help you know what the real reasons for the decision was.

I am sure we all have our own stories where we have challenged the accepted norm. My own particular cause to celebrate is the shift in perceptions on the Euro. At one stage all the great and good were saying it was a ‘must do’, while now it has a totally changed view!

Getting educated

So how far should contrariness go and how does this apply to us all in business?

Clearly a good sales director will challenge his salesmen’s pipeline and with software products like Salesforce, this has become easier to control.

But what about areas of the business which are less easy to understand or where we as managers just don’t have the relevant expertise?

Let’s take product development. If you are not an engineer you may just be sitting there, frustrated as hell, unable to really question the R&D chief as to where you really are. And yet you may be spending a fortune, with the business virtually dependent on the ‘new’ product. What do you do?

In my view this is where the ‘Branson Syndrome’ comes in.

Get an outside expert to give a second view. You may have to upset your team leader but it is probably worth it.

Armed with this, question everything and look at it from all different aspects. Just keep nagging until you are really satisfied you have the correct answer, often not the answer you might want but still the correct answer, and this may or may not include putting more resource into it.

After all, how many times have people asked for a second opinion from a doctor and consultant that has changed their lives.


Michael Jackson

Michael founded Elderstreet Investments in 1990 and is its exec chairman. He was also chairman of Sage, the FTSE-100 accounting software group, until 2006. He is a specialist in raising finance and investing...

Related Topics