Trying to be excellent at everything you do can result in failure

Excellence and innovation need to be appropriate, affordable and sustainable

Striving for excellence and innovation can be counter productive if we ignore the questions of excellence and innovation in what and for whom. Speaking at the 26th World Congress for Business Excellence and Innovation Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas asked “why should customers pay for excellence and innovation that is neither relevant to them nor represents value for them?”

The author of Winning Companies; Winning People told delegates that whether or not excellence is a good thing or a distraction depends upon what you are trying to be excellent in, or excellent at: “You may be trying to perfect your existing activities and operations, but what if tastes and requirements are changing? What if innovation is creating new possibilities that people might prefer or an alternative business model would be more advantageous? Rather than improvement, should you be replacing what you are doing now with something better?”

Coulson-Thomas told delegates that too much irrelevant excellence can drive customers away: “Too much improvement can become unnecessary gold plating, and excessive excellence can become unaffordable. Why should customers pay for our companies to be excellent at everything they do? Most customers just want us to be excellent at whatever represents value for them.”

He continued “Should we aim to excel at critical success factors for key corporate activities and sources of differentiation and competitive advantage, but be just be good enough at everything else? In some sectors, the life cycles of requirements, offerings and technologies have dramatically shortened. Will you have time to be anything other than just good enough to be relevant and to quickly deliver while fleeting windows of opportunity exist?”

Coulson-Thomas’ investigations reveal: “Some boards hinder creativity and innovation. Their strategies are overly defensive. They protect past investments. They impose standard approaches and ways of working and are constrained by accounting conventions. Their market intelligence is focused on existing competitors. “

Others help innovation. He finds: “They encourage diversity, invite challenge and promote freedom of thought. They are willing to reassess, reinvent and write off past investments and replace them with better alternatives. They allow people to work and learn in whatever ways best suit their roles, tasks and projects. They collaborate with entrepreneurial staff and set up new ventures with them. They scan the business and market environment for new possibilities and new competitors.”

The attitudes, instincts and perspectives of board members can either constrain people or liberate them. Coulson-Thomas believes: “We need to focus excellence and innovation upon what is important and in particular what is important for customers and prospects. We also need to strike the right balance in the boardroom between entrepreneurship and stewardship. One cannot be reckless and just throw money at challenges and opportunities. Encouragingly, there are ways of being both entrepreneurial and prudent. We can enable responsible innovation.”

The professor’s research reports set out quicker, more affordable and less disruptive ways of simultaneously achieving multiple objectives. They show how ordinary people can be helped to excel at activities that are crucial for corporate success such as winning bids, building customer relationships, pricing, purchasing, and creating and exploiting know-how. Building enablers and checks into the performance support that people are provide with allows them to be set them free to network, collaborate, explore, create and responsibly innovate. The findings suggest the emphasis needs to shift from top-down directing, motivating and control to supporting people and helping them to excel at the things that matter most.

Coulson-Thomas concludes: “Excellence where it counts and responsible innovation are achievable. We have a choice. We can plough ahead and wrestle with the various expensive, time consuming and corporate-wide initiatives we see in many companies today. Alternatively, we can focus and balance. We can adopt quicker and simpler ways of helping our people to deliver multiple outcomes that benefit them, our organisations, customers and the environment.”

These comments were delivered by Prof. Colin Coulson-Thomas in the Ball Room of The Meydan, Dubai, UAE during the first day of the Dubai Global Convention 2016 and 26th World Congress on Leadership for Business Excellence and Innovation. The author of Winning Companies; Winning People and Developing Directors holds a portfolio of leadership roles and has spoken at national and international events in over 40 countries. He is the author of over 70 books and reports, including Transforming Public Services, Transforming Knowledge Management and Talent Management 2 which set out a quicker, more affordable and less disruptive route to high performance organisations from a change, knowledge and talent management perspective respectively. They can be obtained from:


26 Apr 2016
Colin Coulson-Thomas