Full Frontal

Business is just a façade. Really. Just a façade.

Drive down any ‘old’ American ‘main street’ – you see rows of properties that look quite beautiful from a ‘full frontal’ view. But down the sides, even when houses are on a corner, not so much. The buildings are built to be viewed from a single angle. The front. Arguably, it is all for show and definitely saves cost.

I am thinking parallels. I am thinking that this is just as true of business. I am thinking that the generally accepted approach to business is (best case) a façade – and more often than not – darn right rude.

Apple released this video a couple of years ago.

It’s quite clever, though most will tell you that the camera technique used was not original. When is it with Apple? They are never about being ‘the first’ – they are about being ‘the best’.

If you love creative PowerPop bands – along similar lines – you might enjoy this video.

Anyway, to my point. The Apple video has been popping up in my mind a lot recently. So much so that a book is coming together and I wanted to share just one of the nine threads with you in the hope that you might have some commentary.

If you live in the U.S. or even just visited and walked down a town’s ‘Main Street’ – there is something about all of them that are different – yet similar. It is down to the buildings ‘elevations’. They always seem to look quite imposing, almost punching above their weight. Why on earth does a shoe shop need to be that ornate? Why does the Grocer have ‘greek columns’ rising up either side of its doors … you know what I mean.

You see – they are more than elevations – they are ‘facades’

The definition of ‘facade’.

[ the front of a building, especially an imposing or decorative one.]

The facades of US ‘Main Street’ are designed to look just perfect as you look at the building head on – but down the side … not so much.

‘Wait a minute’ I can hear you muttering – on Main Street all the buildings are joined up – how do you know what ‘the side’ looks like? Well, I don’t … so, I also like to sometimes take walks off main street and look at houses that are built on corners …. like this one.

Even foliage is planted to disguise the foundations of the building from the front. The sides? Well, nobody is going to walk along there are they? It is clear that the emphasis of design is on the front-facing view – not the side. Even if the side is exposed to full view.

In short ‘classic’ American Main Street architecture is designed to look perfect from the singular angle of ‘head on’. BUT a couple of degrees either way …. well, who’s going to look there?

Back to Apple for a minute.

“(My) father refused to use poor wood for the back of cabinets, or to build a fence that wasn’t constructed as well on the back side as it was the front.” Jobs likened it to using a piece of plywood on the back of a beautiful chest of drawers. “For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through.”

~NextWeb: Steve Jobs’ obsession with the quality of the things unseen

I have written before about Job’s attention to detail, which arguably extends from these early lessons in cabinetry … but it has surely always been there? My observation is that people in business generally do not understand why. I think it is because they typically have only understood (their) business from a single viewpoint and it is hard to get out of that rut. Business is historically focussed on ‘cost’. And lower cost equals greater profit. At least on paper. Interestingly, though, when you go back in time with Apple, when they had no money, the ethos of design, the best, that attention to detail, the beauty, delight … was all still very much there. Consider this video, where Woz is talking about making the original Apple in ‘the garage’. Yup – Steve W had the same values.

As it turns out, ’façade’ has a second definition.

[ A superficial appearance or illusion of something.]

Business Facades

Look at any business and you will find there are a number of measures that we use to understand it’s success. Revenue, Profit, Return on Capital …. and depending on who you are (and the specifics of what you are looking for) those measures get mixed up in the pot. BUT, whichever measures you use, the measuring stick is the singular view of ‘the market’.

And that is the business façade.

Environmental impact, long term survival, products that benefit society, services that help people …. throw in whatever you want to the ‘yes but’ bucket – and it will generally be transferred into the ‘at what cost to the company’ bucket. That after all seems to be the sole objection to the climate change debate. If we could fix the climate change problem without spending money this quarter – then why should/would we?

Why aren’t businesses viewed more holistically? (Rhetorical question.)

After-all, back to the housing analogy, the money that buys an apartment in San Francisco can buy you a ‘Mac-Mansion’ in other parts of the country, with pools, multiple acres, and more ornate decoration on more facades than you can shake a stick at.

So – there is more than just appearance. Right?

Have you ever asked yourself why public companies exist? It’s a big question BUT – if you are a shareholder I would argue that you think they exist to make you money.

The problem is that over time, companies seem to have come to exist to service only their shareholders. A virtuous circle if ever there was. But is it true? Or do they exist to service customers? As they say, they do? And are they getting bigger to better service customers, or make more money for shareholders?

And if it isn’t the case that a company is there to ‘drive shareholder value’ … why exactly would I invest? And yes, some of that is beginning to change with increased awareness of company boards, staff, customers … people in general … but it is slow.

Look at how we measure the success of any business. Profit. Market Cap. Growth. Choose your poison, and measure away. If your KPIs are great then so too is the success of the company. But. Shift the focus slightly a couple of degrees and BOOM. The façade falls apart.

So, ask yourself these questions about your business …

  • Do we manage for shareholder value or customer value?
  • How can there be long term thinking when we measure quarterly?
  • Do we put as much effort into employee experience as we do customer experience?
  • Command and control is a dying concept – why do we continue to celebrate it in business?
  • Why is the staff of a company seen as a liability, not an asset?
  • What do we measure and why?
  • Why do we celebrate diversity – but enforce homogeneity?
  • If quality is truly measurable, why don’t we measure it properly?

Part two of this article in hand even as I dispatch part one for publishing. More importantly. What do you think? Am I on to something? Am I full of it? What do you think? What are your experiences?

Comment away through all the usual channels. I am listening.

Do you agree that modern business has become a facade?


John Philpin
John Philpin
JOHN'S career spans 30 years, 2 continents, and organizations as diverse as Oracle, Citibank and GE. A Mathematics graduate, John moved to California in 1990. He helps technology companies create, develop and deliver their story for fund raising, market development and influencer programs. He also works with businesses to ensure they understand, and are ready, for the ever accelerating changes that technology is bringing to their industry. John is a co-founder of Expert Alumni and gleXnet and long before futurists and industry watchers were writing about the impending challenges that industries were going to be facing, they predicted a perfect storm of issues like skills gap, declining work forces, the gig economy, people trained to do work no longer needed, demographic shifts, economic and social change, market upheaval and rapidly changing ways of doing work. From the beginning they have promoted the idea that massive change was coming to how organizations should think about their workforce, with a singular focus on simplifying the interface between people and their work. Understanding the challenges ahead of the curve, the solution was built to arrive at a better understanding of the greatest restraint to business operations - competence, not capital. gleXnet provides unparalleled insights into an organizations people and operations by flipping the problem from the perspective of people, not the business.

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