Choose Your Enemies Carefully

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In a great post on his blog, Jeff Larche wrote:

I tell the students how fortunate they are to be born in a time when other revolutionary technologies are emerging (which, together, become a sort of digital connectedness). They, and I, are part of a exciting adventure.”

Jeff goes on to quote Gord Hotchkiss, who wrote on MediaPost’s Search Insider column:

We’re building a new world up as we go. At any given moment, hundreds of millions of us are making it up as we go along. It’s a Darwinian experiment on a grand, grand scale.”

Excellent quotes. But I can’t help but feel that there’s a short-sightedness lurking in those statements. A short-sightedness that doesn’t recognize that practically every generation that came before the one they speak of felt the same adventure, optimism, and desire for change:

  • In the early 80s, it was the promise of how personal computing technology would democratize the world and change the way we worked.
  • In the Sixties, it was the hippies who revolted against the robotic homogeneity of the 50s, the Vietnam War, and fought for how we viewed racial, gender, and um, sexual relations.
  • In the mid-Forties, it was the optimism of rebuilding the country after WWII.
  • In the 1800s, it was the adventure of rebuilding the country after the Civil War.
  • And in the late 1700s, it was building a new country in the first place.

Each step of the way, each generation faced it’s own adventures, and made it up as they went along. The technologies and tools each generation have to work with are different, but the adventure, the optimism, and the desire for change is there, nonetheless. To insinuate that today’s young people are facing an adventure that other generations didn’t is short-sighted.

But what I’m interested to find out is not just what Gen Yers will do with their adventure, but who they’ll choose as their enemies. Because every revolution chooses — and needs — an enemy.

This is what worries me about Obama. He’s aligned with the Rev. Wright, who seems to believe that the government and white people are the enemy. And with Bill Ayres, who, in the 70s, decided it was our own government who was the enemy, and bombed the Pentagon.

There’s a saying “keep you friends close and your enemies closer.” There’s a corollary: “Choose your friends wisely, but choose your enemies even more carefully.” Who you choose as your enemies defines you. And your friends’ enemies can be construed to be your enemies.

And so I’ll be watching to see who today’s Gen Yers choose as their enemies. If they decide it’s us Boomers, they’ll be making a huge mistake. The social consciousness that so many Gen Yers believe defines their generation is borne of the seeds planted by today’s Boomers (double entendre intended). We are not the enemy. We want many of the same changes they want — we just failed in making those changes come about.

But this isn’t just a rant about Obama and Gen Yers. There’s an important business message here as well: A company (or association, or even an industry) needs to choose its enemy carefully, as well.

Who you choose as your enemy doesn’t just define you — it defines your strategy and tactics.

A few years back, during the dot com boom, I worked for Forrester Research. Our battle cry was: “Beat Jupiter.” (Jupiter Research). It was a good enemy, because Jupiter was successful and growing, and it focused us on the right things. But when the dot com boom ended, Jupiter was no longer the right enemy (they were still a competitor, but not the enemy).

Today, in the financial services industry, I fear that many credit unions (and the affiliated associations) have not decided which enemy (or enemies) they want to fight, or have picked the wrong enemy.

The “little guy” persona that the credit union industry takes on is indicative of this. It implies that the “big bad banks” are the enemy. Well, I’m not so sure about that. When I look at the performance of the retail lines of business of the big banks, I don’t see healthy, thriving organizations.

A “good” enemy is one worth fighting against. The US could decide to declare war on Costa Rica, and fight and win (maybe). But what would good what that do? It’s the same in business. You want to fight against the “right enemy” — the one worth fighting against.

Now, I can just hear some credit union execs saying “You’re right, it’s not the big banks we need to fight against. We need to fight against become irrelevant. Irrelevance is our enemy.”

Sorry. That’s not good either. How will you know when you win? How will you know when “they’ve” lost? Your enemy needs to be something tangible, not conceptual.

I don’t know the right answer here. If I did, I could probably make millions selling the answer to credit unions. But today’s financial services firms — not just credit unions — need to better understand who their enemy is. As do today’s Gen Yers.

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