How to make your business last 100 years: Create an icon.

On October 20th 1973 the Sydney Opera House was opened. Over the last 29 years it has become a building that is known millions of people throughout the world who know it for its beauty, its architectural brilliance, and its location. This combination cannot be replicated and so has produced a ‘must see’ place for any traveller visiting Sydney.  Its journey from tender in 1956 to completion in 1973 was known for its turbulence but by adherence to its initial vision this venue without peer was finally achieved.  The result is a venue which is loved by all Australians and those who have visited.  Although it is yet to make its first century it is reasonable to expect that it will still be standing and still well used and loved in 2112.  Why is this so? And how can this be applied to developing a business which is to remain strong, for a hundred years.

It all starts with a vision, which for the Opera House went well beyond just being a building to house opera. The vision was to create a cultural environment which used the beauty of the building, its location, and the cultural talents to create an icon which has become the national flagship for the performing arts where quality performing arts are available to anyone who wishes to enjoy them.

Building a business that will outlast economic vagaries is no different to creating the Opera House. It depends on a clear vision, a clear differentiator from competitors, goals that will create direction and excitement for decades, and an implementation process which ensures that everything will occur to plan.

The idea of a vision is often confused with the goals a business has to achieve by a given point in time, but it is much more than this.  It is the something that is intangible which will guide and drive the business forward so that all who work in her and with her delight in the opportunity and are challenged to become better at every step. Collins & Porras say this beautifully when they break a vision into 2 components:  The core ideology and the goals. The core ideology is the aggregation of the core values and core purpose which provide the guide against which all activities are measured.  The goals are to be of such audacity that everyone who is involved in the enterprise is excited and motivated to achieve them, to the extent that not to do so would be an anathema.

These 2 components (of 3 elements) need not be complicated.  In fact simplicity is preferred so that the message is clear and easy to follow. The core purpose of the Sydney Opera House is to make high quality performing arts available to anyone who wishes to enjoy them.  The breadth of performances and the usage of the land and buildings fit these confines. The core values are to provide “acclaimed, imaginative and engaging” performances and these stipulate the standards within which all work is undertaken.  The standards are set and the message is straight forward making alignment of the business function easy. Although the Opera House may require no huge challenge to keep its staff and supporters excited, as the challenges inherent in making performing arts self funding may be sufficient, this luxury may not be available in many industries where having a challenge that is audacious avoids stagnation and moves the enterprise by leaps and bounds rather than step by step.   A Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) is the term now given to such challenges. Where a 10 – 30 year goal is identified that will stimulate all persons who come into contact with the firm and take it well beyond anything that is currently being done.  The Sydney Opera House is without doubt the creative and cultural flagship of Australia and remains this through care and thought, but it does not have that BHAG that captures the imagination of the Australian public like Kennedy’s 1961 announcement that USA would have a man on the moon by the end of the decade (the Apollo mission achieved this in 1969).   Instead the Opera House strives to find and use any means that will deliver the standard and breadth of performing arts needed to meet its vision and whilst no other venue of this quality exists, this will be enough.

A business can only last as long as the profits allow it to, and for this it needs to differentiate itself from its competitors.  Its competitive advantage contains the entity’s ideology and adapts to as market conditions change. For the Sydney Opera House its competitive advantage is the combination of architectural brilliance, location and the delivery of an artistic journey which takes the audience from ordinary to extra ordinary.  The first two elements of this advantage cannot be replicated, but the last can be challenged.  To keep the Opera House in its position, all aspects of the business are aligned to support this advantage.

So for a business to live for 100 or more years (like the Sydney Opera is likely to do) it will have clarity of Core Purpose, Core Values and BHAG, plus a Competitive Advantage and it will have strategies which will consider and apply these key measures to its operations.

A business that remains true to its core will remain relevant and loved for eons.

By Jennifer Bishop