In 1979, during my first year of university, the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The following summer, President Carter reinstated the Selective Service registration requirement for 18-to-26-year-old males, which felt like the beginning of a draft.
With all the fury of a self-righteous 19-year-old, I fired off a seven-page letter of protest to my father, a general in the US Air Force. In it, I explained my reluctance to register with a lengthy list of conspiracy theories about wars in general—I think I stopped just short of accusing him of hiding aliens in Area 51.
Two weeks later I received a small, hand-written postcard: “When you’ve stopped chasing shibboleths,” my father wrote, “I’ll be happy to talk.”
I was insulted, of course, even before I knew what shibboleths meant. But after a few decades of reflection, the phrase “stop chasing shibboleths” is now one of my favorites. Shibboleth is a Hebrew word with many meanings. My father’s note leaned on the common usage. He meant: “Stop spewing off popular ‘truths,’ which would not withstand a moment of objective scrutiny.” But his message also took in the most literal definition—a thought, behavior or word usage common to one tribe that distinguishes it from another tribe. His deeper meaning was this: “Stop being such a predictable mouthpiece of your ill-informed tribe.”
I was reminded of the phrase after my recent trip to China for our DM100 meeting in Shanghai. In my blog piece “Skiing in China,” I reported on meeting a number of executives from multinationals that were struggling because they insisted on pursuing a global strategy ill-suited to the Chinese market. Most were being told by headquarters that they had to follow the corporate way of doing things because that set of behaviors derived from the company’s long history of success. Upon closer inspection, however, these directives were not only wrong for China, but also failed to reflect the company’s true history.
For obvious reasons, I won’t name names, but this is roughly one of the two examples I heard on the same day:
Global company X is a consumer products company competing in China. Its core product, Y, is not doing well because doesn’t really match the tastes of the Chinese consumer. Adjacent product Z, however, is flying off the shelves. The local company wants to double down on Z, which is clearly hitting some chord with the Chinese consumer and retail partners. The home office is saying no. They argue that the company, since its founding, has been built on a repeatable model: First you focus 100% on product Y (the core product), and only after achieving success are you allowed to focus on adjacent businesses. The local company is fighting a losing battle. It is pushing investment behind a product the Chinese don’t want, while slowing investment in a product the Chinese love.
The second story was exactly the same; just replace “consumer products” with “B2B services.”
But you need to get the history right.
In the consumer products example, the repeatable model headquarters had defined and communicated to executives in China was actually a relatively new way of doing business that had generated huge success in North America and Europe. Lost in translation was the company’s earlier history—a time when it moved forcefully into the emerging markets of Southern Europe, the former Soviet Union and Africa. At that time, the model was roughly this: Go with the product that best fits local tastes and use it to develop distribution scale. Once established, use that scale to offer other products—favoring, where possible, our global brands.
With the right understanding of the global company’s history, it turns out the local unit was completely on strategy and the advice from headquarters was completely off base. Don’t saddle your Chinese operations, or any international market, with unexamined “historical truths.” Don’t force your local teams, fighting quickly evolving local competitors, to heel to the current mantra of how best to operate in a developing market. Of course you need clarity on your repeatable model—but make sure it is built on the right lessons, not the myths created by a new set of managers. To quote a former Air Force general: “Stop chasing shibboleths.”