Is your company still relevant?


Is relevance an issue that comes up at your company? It did at the World Bank.

A few years ago a front page story in the Wall Street Journal reported that Robert Zoellick, then the new head of the World Bank, had been working hard to undo the failings of his predecessor, Paul Wolfowitz. One of Zoellick’s new priorities is to re-establish the relevance of the World Bank by addressing issues such as micro-banking, economic development of Arab nations, and opposing corruption in emerging nations.

Relevance is a word you don’t often hear used concerning corporations – or even institutions – for that matter. It just isn’t part of the everyday lexicon we use – even in the business schools like the one where I teach.

But should we be talking about relevance more – and asking questions to determine if our particular business – or our current mission – is still relevant?

Is it even possible for a business to no longer be relevant to consumers or others?

Is it possible to run a profitable business that really doesn’t contribute much that is good or valuable to the lives of the people who buy our products or use our services?

Do you have much of a future if you are irrelevant?

I once asked a bank president client what his greatest fear was. He immediately said, “That this bank will become irrelevant.” What he meant was that if they failed to turn things around, their bank would no longer be attractive to customers or to another institution who might want to buy them out someday.

Have once-thriving businesses become irrelevant?

Did McDonald’s risk becoming irrelevant as they saw sales decline and customers defect – while at the same time failing to change their menu or their cooking methods (i.e., frying with trans fats, etc.). Did they suddenly become more relevant when they started offering healthier choices and fresher foods – like salads? They are certainly seeing a turnaround in sales and profits.

Did General Motors risk becoming irrelevant? Sales were slow, their cars tested poorly with focus groups who found their designs stodgy and their overall value below that of foreign offerings. But what happened when the designs started to improve along with gas mileage and alternative fuel options? Sales went up. Was it relevance returning?

Does Coca-Cola risk losing relevance, at least here in the United States, by insisting as its Marketing Director recently said, on simply reformulating sugary drinks instead of focusing on what people really want to drink today?

Have the three major television networks – NBC, ABC, and CBS – become less and less relevant as their once impenetrable stronghold on the airwaves has been broken up by hundreds of cable TV and satellite stations – and more recently by the internet and video gaming?

Perhaps it’s time that we reconsidered the importance of making our businesses relevant .

But how do you determine and build relevance? Perhaps a place to begin is with these simple questions:

  • If our company and all our offerings disappeared overnight, how long would it take our typical customer to replace us? (If the answer is less than, say, 24 hours, perhaps we are already irrelevant.) Variation: Is it possible for our customers to get virtually the same thing we offer – from others?
  • Are we most often followers – and reactors – rather than leaders and pacesetters?
  • Does what we do really contribute to a better life for people or some part of society?
  • If we didn’t exist as an entity, would someone risk everything to create an organization that does what we do?

Relevance isn’t about making money. Money and other measures of success can result from relevance, but they aren’t inextricably connected. Lots of meaningless, even some might say destructive companies, make a great deal of money (many put pornography, gambling, tobacco, and all the so-called sin industries in this category).

Relevance is much more important than just making money – it’s about finding the meaning in and of what you do.

Relevance, most of all, is about exchange – providing something of value to people – and getting the rewards back. Relevance is about truly mattering. Relevance can stare down the so what? question confidently.

Is your business or organization still relevant? Could you ask the questions above and be happy with the answers you’d get? What if you asked customers, strangers, and outsiders? How would they respond?

How do you add relevancy back into your business if you need it? As with Robert Zoellick at the World Bank, it starts with goals. Great noble goals to serve others – perhaps those who really need and want help. Or maybe a less lofty but no less significant purpose of finding new ways to make everyday life a little easier, a little simpler, so that others can achieve their goals.

Whatever your path to relevance, the trick is to matter – really matter – to at least one group of people.

And when you couple goals with values and ideals – like leadership, innovation, excellence, and imagination – then you probably have something.

That’s relevance.

Orginally posted in 2009. Re-posted from our archives.