Beware of shortcuts

In 1576, an English sailor named Martin Frobisher set off in search of the Northwest passage. It was the height of the Elizabethan craze for exploration – anyone who could find a shortcut round the obstacle of North America would have been made for life.

Unfortunately, Frobisher didn’t find the passage: after several months of frozen hardship, he was forced to give up and come home.

He didn’t come empty-handed, though. In the course of his exploration, the local Inuit tribes had given him a large lump of rock, which glittered when it caught the light. One of his officers excitedly identified it as gold ore.

On his return to London, Frobisher presented it to the Queen, who was delighted at the prospect of a gold supply to rival that of the Spanish conquistadores.

Frobisher was sent back for more. He returned with three shipfuls, to a hero’s welcome. The ore was carried up to Dartford to be smelted (something they hadn’t bothered trying with the sample), at which point they discovered it was just worthless iron pyrites – fool’s gold.

You see the same thing happen in businesses every day.

Even the most hard-nosed executives find it hard not to be seduced by the idea of shortcuts: silver bullets (if you’ll forgive me mixing my mineral metaphors) that will magically solve the business’s problems.

The trouble with silver bullets is that, every time they turn out to be duds, a little bit of credibility dies. The people who work in those businesses become so used to hearing about ‘the next big thing’ that they switch off and stop listening.

They also stop thinking about the job they were supposed to be doing (in this case, finding the Northwest passage). Because, let’s face it, if your leaders don’t seem to be thinking about it any more, why should you be?

That’s the point. You can’t expect your people to be focused on your priorities, if you keep distracting them with shiny new ones.

(In case you’re worried about Frobisher, the good news is that he bounced back from this embarrassing setback to have a distinguished and successful naval career.

The fool’s gold, meanwhile, was melted down and used as a road-covering for the area around what is now the Bank of England – which is where that story about London’s streets being paved with gold comes from).

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