Does Your Business Still Believe in Unicorns?

As the great Albert Einstein often mused “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”.

Now I’m not questioning anyone’s lucidity, but sometimes (for whatever reason), people just can’t seem to recognize that change is essential. Like the turbulent lovers who just can’t seem to quit each other, businesses often fail to recognize when their business practices aren’t working.


If you’ve ever been to modern day Copenhagen, you will probably agree that Denmark is a relatively progressive place. So progressive “in fact” that even Oprah herself has endorsed the simple, peaceful, and open-minded Danish way of life. It might come as a surprise that for centuries the Danish were paramount in perpetuating one of the oldest and greatest myths in the world – unicorns. Vikings in the middle ages routinely sold what they called “unicorn tusks” (most likely horns from a narwhal), and it was widely believed that these tusks had healing powers. It was even alleged that the Queen’s throne was made of entirely of the precious bones. What may be even more surprising is that it was also a 17th century Danish scientist who first disproved the whole unicorn thing.

The lesson from all of this is that beliefs and culture aren’t static. Just because the Danish spent hundreds of years subscribing to the belief that unicorns frolicked among us, didn’t stop them from examining their beliefs, even disproving them as a result.  The same is true within any business organization – just because something has always been a certain way doesn’t mean that it’s right, nor that you can’t change it. Chip Conley, West Coast entrepreneur and hotelier extraordinaire demonstrates this well in his book Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow.  In this book (and in life), Conley basically sets out to turn traditional management models on their head.

For example, managers and CEOs have long believed that employees are primarily motivated by money, and have thus designed their business culture around incentives and rewards based management. However, Conley points out that money actually factors in quite insignificantly compared to other motivators like meaning, self-actualization, and recognition.  Conley explains, “We took the Maslow pyramid and turned it into an employee pyramid with three basic themes: survival at the base, succeed at the middle, and transformation at the top. Applying that to employees, it’s money, recognition, and meaning”.  For example, while most companies do management retreats, Conley makes it a habit to take his front line staff (like housekeepers, receptionists, and bell boys) for brainstorming sessions offsite. These sessions allow front line staff to provide valuable insight into the daily operations of the business, while at the same time feeling recognized for their contributions.

What Conley is doing here is establishing a culture of recognition, and this has led to increased job satisfaction (and performance) among his staff. For example, many of his housekeepers see their positions as much more than just cleaning rooms; they see themselves as customer care specialists who are creating tranquil spaces for weary travelers. He explains “At the end of the day … We could have a robot come in and clean your room, but it’s not going to be the same experience as someone who smiles at you when you walk down the hallway and knows a little bit about you”. So, instead of promoting the old carrot and stick culture amongst your employees, why not learn from the Danish and smart CEOs and really examine your culture? Sure, most companies will continue to operate on the old management models (obviously with some success or they wouldn’t be doing it) but that doesn’t mean they’re right. Go ahead and take a chance on change: after all, it’s certainly working for Mr. Conley.

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