Image: geishaboy500 (Flickr)

In an earlier post I described how Ernie and Mr. Hoots, of Sesame Street fame, reminded me of an important strategy principle. Ernie is having trouble playing the sax while holding onto his rubber duckie, and Mr. Hoots tells him (in a wonderful musical number), “You gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone.” In other words, you need to focus on just one thing at a time. That’s a key principle of strategy as well as saxophone playing, one that my Foresight Alliance colleague Terry Grim stresses when she teaches strategy.

But it seems to me that there is more to be learned from Ernie’s duckie vs. saxophone quandary. Why is it so hard for him to put down the duckie? Well, it’s familiar, it’s comfortable, and it’s reliable. Ernie probably can’t remember or imagine life without his favorite duckie. Many organizations have their own rubber duckies—product or service offerings, business models, or commonly accepted beliefs about the way their industry works (Gary Hamel calls these “orthodoxies”) that have served them well for many years. When it comes to a strategic choice between the rubber duckie and something new, it’s hard to imagine putting down the duckie.

Of course the saxophone—the new business strategy—is also very attractive. The saxophone is shiny and new, fashionable and sophisticated, and offers a myriad of possibilities for improvisation and invention. At the same time it’s unfamiliar, and it has a tendency to squeak at inconvenient moments. Learning to play the saxophone takes a lot of practice and hard work, just like developing a new product, adopting a new business model, or overturning a closely held orthodoxy.

Saxophone or duckie? It’s a tough choice. The bittersweet subtext of Ernie’s encounter with Mr. Hoots is that shifting from the duckie to the saxophone is part of growing up. Likewise, if you want your organization to grow, “You gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone.”

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