Clarkston Consulting
Skip to content

The Pursuit of Business Excellence: It’s Time to Get Angry

There must be just shy of five thousand books on the pursuit of business excellence, and at least twice that many blogs and articles dedicated to the subject. I suppose it’s natural that I should try my hand at the subject as well. But perhaps this will be a bit unique. You see, I propose that its time to get Angry…as in it’s time to understand that powerhouse application being run on tablets and phones all across this country, and on nearly every en-route airplane at this very moment: Angry Birds. What? Angry Birds? Yes, Angry Birds.

Angry Birds

I suggest that my countless hours of playing the game was not mere idle entertainment, but was a grand experiment in the pursuit of business excellence. Bear with me for a moment. I’m not alone. You see, a recent Forbes article embraced the bird-flinging paradigm with this article, Three Things Angry Birds Can Teach You About Retirement. Well, I had the idea first, at least as it relates to the pursuit of business excellence, but I digress. In any event, my contention is that a game which is played some 200 to 300 million minutes every day (courtesy of the aforementioned article), and which has been downloaded across all platforms more than 1 billion times, and contributed mightily toward the 2011 earnings of its parent company, Rovio, to the tune of $106 million… well, those are some pretty serious numbers. That’s real money. That’s serious success. And somewhere in all that success, there have to be some serious lessons for those of us actively pursuing business excellence.

The Power of Business Focus

First, I argue that the Angry Birds phenomena shows the power of business focus and clarity of execution. What is Angry Birds? It’s an extremely simple idea. You fling birds (courtesy of a large slingshot) at pigs. That’s it. It’s brilliantly simple and reminds me that some of the best ideas in business are amazingly simple and brilliantly executed. Isn’t the notion of brilliantly simple ideas, brilliantly designed and executed, the heart of Apple’s success? And consider the power of business focus.

Angry Birds has a number of different games. There’s the traditional game, there’s Angry Birds Space, there’s a Star Wars-themed Angry Birds. Yet, the focus remains the same. It’s a game that flings birds at pigs. Cool. My point is that the folks at Rovio have not tried to twist Angry Birds into a game that is all things to all people. They’ve not turned Angry Birds into a first-person shooter. They’ve not turned it into some sort of multi-player, online-universe monstrosity. The product has maintained its sharp focus and clarity of execution. What about us and our organizations? Too many times we try to be all things to all people, or all clients. I’m privileged to work at a firm that focuses in two areas: Life Sciences and Consumer Products. We don’t claim to be experts in the banking industry, public sector or any number of potentially tempting industries. We recognize that to be good, to be really great, you’ve got to be focused. Surely that’s a very reasonable lesson to learn from the incredible success of those little kamikaze birds.

Use Each Bird the Right Way

But let’s get to the game itself. I contend there are valuable lessons for the pursuit of business excellence from the actual game-play. For anyone who has played Angry Birds (and if not, I suppose it may be time to crawl out from under that rock), you recognize the fact that the birds that are ready for flinging are usually different. There’s that plain red bird. He doesn’t bring a lot of death and destruction, but he has his role to fill. There’s the yellow bird that goes into warp drive and does some extra damage. There’s that black bird that drops nice little bombs. Those are bombs, aren’t they? And there’s that little blue bird that magically splits into three other little blue birds. Neat trick. But that fact remains that the red bird can’t do exactly what the black bird does, and the blue bird can’t do exactly what the yellow bird does. Each has a role, each has a talent, and the trick of the game is to use each bird the right way – in a way that maximizes its abilities in the never-ending quest to bring destruction upon those nasty pigs. Isn’t that a reasonable lesson?

We Value Diversity

We all work on teams to some extent or another. We are not cookie-cutter replicas of each other. We value diversity. Some strength that I have, you don’t have. Some strength you have, I don’t have. Of course, none of us can replicate ourselves into three versions of ourselves, but maybe in the future. You never know. Actually, maybe moms everywhere would disagree, but that’s another subject. My job as a manager, is to understand the unique skillset of each of my team members. My job is to know where each person can best succeed. That’s what I’m paid for. And I’m a fool if I think I can assign anybody to any job and ignore their particular strengths and weaknesses. I’m not claiming people can’t grow. Of course they can, and that’s my job, too – to help them grow and develop new skills.

Of course, I can’t quite do that in Angry Birds, but I can in real life. But the point still remains – people have strengths, propensities, advantages and unique talents. This grows from our appreciation of true diversity. But it is also true that in Angry Birds I don’t get to choose the exact resources at my disposal. Too many times I’ve faced down the terror of the pigs with a team of birds that wasn’t quite optimal. I wished I could push some button and add in a few birds of another stripe just to even the score a bit. If anyone knows of a cheat code to let me do this, please let me know. But until then, I’ve got to find a way to make my bird team work.

It’s Not a Perfect World

And isn’t this true in our pursuit of business excellence? While I can most certainly recruit, grow and build my team, the reality is that sometimes, I must drive the business forward without a perfectly optimal mix of resources. And this is my job as well:  I’ve got to survey the challenge in front of me, know my people, figure out my strategy and tactics to accomplish the mission with the realities at hand. News alert: It’s not a perfect world. We don’t always have perfect teams. I can grumble a bit, or I can get busy, get creative, and find a way to succeed. Whether you’re chasing pigs or delivering brilliant innovation to your client, embrace the challenge and creatively find a way to make it work.

Failure is Often Necessary to Reach Success

Finally, it occurs to me that failure is often necessary to reach success. How many times have I flung bird after bird only to end in failure with that gloating pig laughing at me. But, with each careful slingshot, I learned something new. It might take me ten tries, but on the eleventh try, I finally find just the right combination. My brain was working on all those failures, each time learning just a bit more, and now I finally have all the pieces, and watch out piggies – it’s curtains! Along these lines: never give up! In frustration, I’ve almost quit plenty of pig encounters – but I was pushed on to never let the pork win. And just when I thought I was done, I won.

Doesn’t this resemble our pursuit of business excellence? We chase a new client, and lose the deal. We chase another, and lose again. We lose again and again, but each time, if we are honest and remain positive, we are learning great things. And our brains are working on those lessons until one day we pull together all the key lessons and win that big deal. If we view it this way, failure is sometimes necessary to get us to the point of success. Not that we like failure, but if we’re fair about it, failure is a part of learning.

I’ve often told folks who are searching for a job, that those many interviews that didn’t work out are teaching you something. You needed those “failures” – if we can call them that – to prepare you for the interview where everything goes right. Without the failures, no success.

Well, there you go. I propose that in the pursuit of business excellence it is time to get Angry… to really understand some simple and basic lessons from that bird-flinging, pig-punishing, money-making machine:

  • Stay focused
  • Stay true to your core
  • Recognize the diversity, strengths, talents, and even weakness of each member of your team
  • Deal with the reality before you
  • No team is perfect
  • Get creative, make it work with the team you have
  • And no matter how many times you fail, go back to that big slingshot and try again

When you do succeed, you’ll recognize that all those failures were preparing you for something better. Now, if you will excuse me, I’ve got some badly misbehaving pigs to deal with.