"Pushing the envelope" is a phrase that gained popularity with American test pilots such as Chuck Yaeger and John Glenn in the 1950s. Each aircraft they flew was said to have an “envelope” of performance. In other words, it was designed to fly safely up to a certain speed for a certain distance at a certain altitude. The job of test pilots was to “push the envelope” by making the plane go faster, farther and higher.
To me, “pushing the envelope” means pushing the boundaries and pushing yourself to maximize your advantage to be better, faster and smarter and to get the results you want -- in business and in life.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of speed in business. This century’s business is dominated by speed. Speed is no longer a luxury; it’s a necessity. Having a great product isn’t enough anymore. People expect things faster, cheaper and better. Every part of your business needs to be up to speed.
Take customer service, for example. You need to speed up the time handling customer complaints. When you serve your customers in a timely fashion, you end up with satisfied customers. Poor customer service equals dissatisfied customers. My motto has always been “Taking care of customers is taking care of business.” If you make customers No. 1, they will make you No. 1. Speed allows you to differentiate in the marketplace. Amazon’s emphasis on speed is a great example.
If businesses don’t think fast and act fast, they get passed like jalopies on the freeway. Companies like Blockbuster, which stayed the same for years, were passed up by video-streaming subscription services like Netflix.
Mainstay companies like Sears, Kodak, Xerox, Radio Shack and Toys “R” Us are all shells of what they used to be. Businesses have to keep up or get passed up.
Kmart and Walmart both started in 1962, but compare the two companies today. Walmart has continued to make changes and reinvent itself, which is reflected in its sales of more than $510 billion. Kmart, on the other hand, remained stagnant, and it’s struggled (after being acquired by Sears) in and out of bankruptcy.
IBM and Hewlett-Packard got passed up by Dell when it started selling computers directly to consumers, instead of through stores.
We live in a world of instant gratification, so consumers expect speed. They can’t wait until the next great smartphone with expanded capabilities. There will always be a group of people who demand the latest and the greatest, and there will be a forward-thinking company ready to serve them.
An important component of speed is getting your workforce -- employees, contractors and vendors -- up to speed by training them to complete tasks faster, innovate and share best-practice ideas. When you hire the right person, you're only halfway right. Train them correctly, consistently and constantly to move at a rapid pace with ease. One caveat: Never sacrifice quality for speed. Faster is only better if the result is a top-notch product, as illustrated in the following story.
A man was driving down a country road one day at 45 miles per hour, when suddenly he noticed a three-legged chicken running at the same speed beside his truck. Though he thought this odd, the man decided to speed up so he wouldn't cause an accident with the chicken. The man sped up to 55 miles per hour, but so did the three-legged chicken. The man then sped up to 65, and so did the three-legged chicken.
As the man watched in amazement, the chicken suddenly made a sharp left turn and took off down a side road toward a small farm. The man turned and followed the chicken to the farm. Looking around, the man found a farmer around back amid a flock of three-legged chickens. After greeting the farmer, the man asked him why he was raising three-legged chickens.
“Well, we figure that with an average family of three people, only two can have a chicken leg with a normal chicken,” said the farmer. “But with a three-legged chicken, each member of the family can enjoy a chicken leg of their own.”
“That's pretty wise,” said the man, who then asked, “So how do your three-legged chickens taste?”
“I don't know,” said the farmer. “We've never been able to catch one.”