By Patrick Lencioni

The Danger of More Shiny New Things

November 22, 2008
Column: Management that Makes a Difference

I‘m sure it‘s natural for people to be fascinated with acquiring new things. Whether we‘re talking about physical possessions like homes or cars or toys, or more conceptual assets like knowledge or technology or business strategies, we seem to highly value what we don‘t have, especially when it is novel. I suppose this is understandable—even good—in a society that values progress and innovation.

However, there is a cost to overemphasizing and over-valuing all things new, a cost that goes beyond obvious concerns about greed and over-consumption. When we are in constant pursuit of acquiring more of the latest and greatest, we usually diminish or dilute the power of what we already have.

My twin boys turn ten years old this month, and as I ponder what gift to give them, I realize that what they probably need more than anything is more time to play with the things they already have, things they haven‘t begun to fully use or enjoy. Giving them something new may not make them much happier, and may actually cause them distress.

You‘ve seen this dilemma on Christmas morning as your children sit in the midst of their own FAO Schwartz store, slipping into a toy-overload coma, overwhelmed by the choices they have and seemingly unable to process it all. If you‘re like me, you probably chastised yourself and vowed to your spouse that “next year we should give them just ONE present.”

This same phenomenon affects us as leaders of organizations too. But rather than toys, the objects of our desire usually involve knowledge or information. Most leaders I work with grow bored easily, and are in constant pursuit of strategies, ideas, trends—even employees—that will somehow transform their organizations. Unfortunately, they haven‘t come close to fully tapping the strategies, ideas, trends or employees that they already have, and yet they discard those untapped assets in exchange for new ones.

On a personal level, I‘ve experienced this phenomenon too. I‘ve recently come to the conclusion that I should stop reading so many new books and magazine articles. Instead, I should go retrieve the top ten books and articles that I‘ve already read, and start re-reading them again and again. After all, I‘ve forgotten most of what I‘ve learned in those books, and I‘m certainly not using or tapping into more than a fraction of what they have to offer. Instead, I‘m pursuing more and more new material, which only crowds out the space in my brain to recall and put to use the tried and true goodness of what I‘ve already learned.

Why do we do this? Perhaps we want to stay current. Or we don‘t want to feel out of touch. But I think it is based more in pride of knowing things than in real pursuit of excellence, integrity and discipline. Don‘t think that the irony of all this is lost on me, an author who writes a new book every few years and who wants people to buy and read them. But I cannot deny that one of my favorite quotes comes from the author Samuel Johnson who said that “people need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed.”

I suppose what he really meant was that we already have plenty of information. We just need to use it. At the risk of going a little long, let me provide another example of the power of resisting all things new. This one is grounded in the world of corporate strategy.

There is a regional chain of quick-service (a.k.a. fast food) restaurants on the west coast called In-N-Out Burger. If you‘ve never lived or spent much time in California, Nevada or Arizona, you might not know about In-N-Out, but it‘s a sixty year old company that has a cult-like following among people who like fresh, delicious hamburgers.

What‘s amazing about In-N-Out is that during their history they‘ve almost never changed their menu. All they serve are cheeseburgers, hamburgers, french fries (one size only), milkshakes (chocolate, vanilla and strawberry, one size only), and soft drinks. Imagine the temptations that the executives at In-N-Out have felt over the years to add something new.

In addition to wanting to take advantage of trends and fads, they very easily could have decided they were bored offering the same menu. Why not add a chicken sandwich? Or a shamrock shake in March? Or a Mexican-pizza-melt? Every other restaurant is adding new items to keep customers interested. Weren‘t they worried they‘d fall behind?

They‘ve always said ‘no’, and kept their focus on making the freshest, most consistent high quality hamburger in the world—or at least in this part of the world. And they‘ve never been willing to dilute their focus on that by chasing something shiny and new. They believe that there are plenty of people out there who want great hamburgers, and they‘re okay with those people driving to another restaurant when they are craving something else.

That requires great restraint and a real appreciation for what they already have. I should end this now so that it doesn‘t go too long. Besides, I have to go buy my boys a birthday present. Maybe I‘ll get them sweaters.

Patrick Lencioni is the founder and president of The Table Group, and a prolific author of best-selling books on business management, particularly in relation to team... MORE »