As I tell my sailors every morning, we cannot control the wind, but we can control the direction of our boat and the trim of our sails. Time and time again we talk about how sailboats cannot sail directly into the wind, only at angles to the wind. When your boat is pointing directly into the wind, it is called being in “irons” because you feel shackled and cannot move forward.
Young sailors learn quickly, however, that they have to turn the boat through irons to get from one angle to another to go upwind. To turn successfully, they have to fully commit to the turn. Make a gradual or wishy-washy turn and they risk getting stuck in a position where they cannot move forward.
In fact, one of the commands we shout during turning is, “Hard to the lee!” which means the helmsman must push the tiller hard to the leeward side of the boat to make the boat turn. We don’t say, “Easy to the lee,” or, “Gradually to the lee.” The command is “Hard!” Commit fully to the turn and do it hard and fast.
That lesson applies to your business as well. If you need to change your business—maybe change the way you are advertising, or change the way you are hiring, or change the way you are pricing, or change the way you service your customers—the best way to make that change is hard and fast. Commit fully to the change and get it done.
When sailboats turn fast, they do tip a little. Smart sailors are prepared for this and use it to their advantage to keep their boat speed up. When you make hard, fast changes, your business will tip a little. If you have prepared well for the change, you’ll be back up to speed quickly.
If you try to make a gradual change, however, you’ll get stuck halfway between the old way and the new way. You’ll give the employees and customers who hate change (no matter how necessary) more time to build up their defenses against it. You’ll be stuck in irons, unable to complete the change and move forward.
You cannot control the economy, but you can control the direction your business is facing and how you operate it. When it comes time to make a change, pick a direction and go there hard and fast.
PS Change is not easy. Even in sailing I teach my kids to first commit hard to one direction and don’t change directions until necessary. We also plan our changes well in advance. Take all the time you need to plan your change so that when you start the change, you can make it hard and fast. The better you plan, the more smoothly it will happen. I spent most of 2005 and part of 2006 planning a new layout for our store. We were able to move every single product and every single shelving unit in a 30,000 sq ft store including the location of our six cash registers in just three days. In other words … Plan Slow and Change Fast. That’s how you keep a sailboat and a business humming along.
PPS Sometimes the wind changes directions and you find your boat stuck in irons without warning. The faster you notice, the easier it is to adjust your boat and get unstuck. Sometimes the economy or the industry or the traffic changes. The faster you notice, the easier it is to adjust your business and get unstuck.