Monday, February 24, 2014

Go the Extra Mile - Not Quite What You Thought

During Roman times a soldier could force a peasant to carry his gear for him. It was a heavy load that could be nearly 100 lbs. As time went on this privilege was abused and peasants could find themselves a day away from their intended destination. This, of course, was problematic and a law called the angeria was made that limited the distance a soldier could force a peasant to carry gear up to one mile. A soldier who forced a peasant to go further than that would be in violation of military law.

This puts some interesting context to the Christian idea from the sermon on the mount of going the second mile if someone forces you to go a mile. It isn't necessarily instruction to roll over and passively let someone take advantage of you. It also isn't instruction to just do nice things to people who make demands of you. Instead, perhaps it's a guide for loving resistance. If you carry a soldier's gear the extra mile they get your labor but at the cost of a fine or military punishment. And the Romans were pretty good at punishment.

Think about all the ads, mission statements, and cultures that say a business goes "the extra mile" for their customers. The ancient context changes the meaning quite a lot. Instead of it just being about service there's a sense of resistance as well, perhaps even combativeness. It's sadly appropriate considering how it feels many organizations view their customers. To me, at least, it feels like the planed trajectory for quite a few business ventures goes something like this, especially in the tech sector:

1. Start small, live lean, find ways to survive
2. Growth. Grow big enough to catch the eye of the giants
3. Cash out. Get your billions by selling to Google, Facebook, or whatever. Not really fussy about who it is.

Where is the customer in all this? Why would you go the extra mile? To build your customer base! The customer pays the penalty for using your service when the rug gets pulled out from under them at acquisition. It's modern angeria in a sense as long as we tolerate the 3-step business trajectory rather than businesses standing on their own for the purpose of lasting generations. There's a group of businesses in Europe that are called the Mittelstand that measures growth over a very long period rather than year over year. Leigh Buchanan wrote a great profile of this group for and the philosophy of these businesses is something that really speaks to me as a customer.

Among the Mittelstand, 95% of the companies are family owned. They stick to their core competence and prefer to be boring. As one of the people quoted in the article put it:
"A factory that is 'dramatic,' a factory in which the epic of industry is unfolded before the visitor's eyes, is poorly managed," wrote Drucker. "A well-managed factory is boring."
 For the owners of these businesses turning a profit and a big payday at retirement is not the purpose of the organization. Stability, sustainability, and quality are the purpose. Customers are partners rather than sheep to be shorn again and again until it is time to slaughter. Instead of one big harvest for the owners by selling the company the family has many small harvests year over year through the generations. Just like farming there's periods where there is no harvest and in some periods harvests are bigger. The goal is maintaining the investment for the future generations, for the employees, and for the customers.

Do businesses like this go the extra mile? No, in my opinion, they enlisted and are sharing the load running the mule teams behind the troops. Business is about profits and returns on investments; It's about making money. The philosophy of maximizing the investment by sending customers to slaughter is not a sustainable one. If you slaughter your whole herd you have no way to rebuild the herd unless you go out and purchase more animals. That's a risky proposition which requires a great deal of investment (In the old sense of birth to finishing. This isn't necessarily the case for modern herdsmanship of course). As a customer I much prefer the shearing over the slaughtering and I can be much more productive to the vendor over a longer period of time.

Looking long term both as a customer and as a vendor is difficult. Everyone is impatient but stability and sustainability along with a partnership rather than the angeria is very valuable. Don't go the extra mile. I prefer vendors who enlist and share the load.