It’s Time to Burn That Playbook

Think about this:

  • Microsoft acquired Skype in 2011, the same year Zoom was founded.
  • Webex had a solid 16-year head start on Zoom.

Skype and Webex are two very well known brands. They are both 800 lbs gorillas. How is it even possible for Zoom to survive let alone blow the doors off of the competition?

When the right playbook goes wrong.

Ever heard of the Peter Principle? The original concept was quite simple: In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence; an employee is promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another. The concept was developed in 1969 by Dr. Laurence J. Peter in his satirical book The Peter Principle.

Since then, academics and business persons alike have agreed the Peter Principle is very real.

And here’s the Playbook Peter Principle: whatever playbook has worked for us in the past will continue to be used over and over until it hurts us. Really hurts us.

The dirty secret about playbooks.

One just cannot underestimate how hard it is to get off a once successful strategy. Conceptually it makes sense. But when you talk about undoing organizational processes that are built around a playbook…look out. People are going to resist with every bone in their body. 

Zoom CEO Eric Yuan was at Webex for 13 years. He led their engineering team. In his last year, he constantly implored leadership to let him rebuild the platform, but no one was listening. The playbook seemed to be working so why rock the boat. Out of Yuan’s frustration came Zoom. 

But the Playbook Peter Principle is not just for technology. It applies to everything.

Look at the college tuition playbook going wrong: Virtual classes from Harvard University to Bunker Hill Community College beg the question ”what’s the real value of college now?” Post COVID-19, every class is virtual – from kindergarten to PhDs. The playbook of classrooms and lecture halls just got upended.

This is not a unique story, it’s a story that reminds us one thing can be guaranteed: change. 

Burn that playbook. Burn it. Burn it and bury the ashes. The world is now changing so fast none of us can afford to fall in love with a playbook. One minute it’s great and the next it’s toxic.

Here is an example.  An HR (PEO) solution provider has been relentless with me in email marketing. A salesperson I have never interacted with starts his latest email by asking how my family is doing during the COVID-19 crisis. Ok, but I don’t know this guy. Not at all. Never had any contact with him. This made me really angry. Why? Because this is an emotional time for EVERYONE. Listen, email sales pitches can be annoying, but they usually have boundaries. This person, however, was (and probably still is) running the aggressive “I am going to email you into submission” playbook with a COVID-19 twist. Just to be clear, the “email you into submission” tactic is a strategy sanctioned by his company. It’s part of their sales strategy.  Things changed and now that playbook is absolutely toxic.

Burn that playbook before it hurts you.

What are the playbooks your company is secretly in love with? What are the unspoken organizational behaviors that are reinforcing stale playbooks? Where are the “that’s how things are done here” playbooks? There is a good chance that many of those are becoming very painful in a post COVID-19 world.  

Time and time again, we are reminded that the winners are those that adapt the fastest.  

So remember the Peter Principle: Eventually, a successful playbook will turn against you. Organizations of people RESIST change. Sometimes they resist really hard. 

What we are really talking about is having the leadership capabilities to navigate into a new set of playbooks. Then have the courage to burn them. The days where a playbook can last for years are just…over.    

Let’s all brave the wilderness of change.  And be better for it.