Same procedure as last year?.

Why repetition in business is no joke

Welcome to 2019 and I hope you had an enjoyable festive break. This New Year, along with apparently many others, I watched Dinner for One, a 15-minute TV sketch. Despite being made by two British comedians in 1963 and having been a regular TV staple across most Northern European countries for five decades, particularly in Germany at New Year, this year it was being shown on British TV for the very first time.

In what has become an iconic sketch, Miss Sophie is celebrating her 90th birthday at an otherwise empty table set for five people. That the other four guests have long since passed away is of little matter as her servant, James, pretends to be each guest in turn, drinking to the health of the host in a variety of accents with each of the meal’s four courses, and becoming ever-more humorously inebriated as the sketch goes on. Before commencing on each round of drinks, James checks that his mistress wants him to undergo once again this minor ritual humiliation by asking: “Same procedure as last year?” To which Miss Sophie replies each time, “Same procedure as every year, James”, neatly setting up the sketch’s closing innuendo.

Repetition is comforting, familiar, and has long been a mainstay of oral storytelling and comic humour. The trick is to keep it similar enough so that everyone knows where they are and where they’re going, but to add enough variation to keep it interesting: in most stories for instance, the first two cycles tend to be consistent, with subsequent returns adding a twist. The three little pigs is a classic example, but there are many, many others.

Repetition is comforting. That’s why we like it. But, as Einstein was almost certainly not the first to say, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” (A variation on those words, which itself may have been derived from earlier sayings, was included in Max Nordau’s controversial book Degeneration, first published when Einstein was just three years old).

Bear that quote in mind as we move into the final quarter of the UK’s business year, as strategies are superficially reviewed, initiatives hastily drafted and proposed, and budgets painstakingly prepared in time for the next one. Same procedure as last year? Same procedure as every year. Same results, maybe, if we’re lucky, but the same problems, the same fractious discussions, the same tensions between those with big ambitions and those with even bigger accountabilities. It’s comforting, because we know what we are doing, we know we’ll get some numbers out at the end of it, but more often than not it’s the biggest missed opportunity of the year: a triumph of pragmatism over vision, of certainty over risk, of continuation over innovation. Our biases may want to reject that assessment, but our experience shows us it’s true.

Irrespective of what happens with Brexit, 2019 will be very different to 2018. The internet of things will accelerate, personal data will grow, automation and personalisation will increase, the power and application of deep machine learning will multiply, industry sectors will be disrupted, online services will decimate businesses that don’t radically and rapidly evolve, social divides may well deepen, investments may well become less certain, markets will probably polarise and customer expectations will almost certainly soar. Same outlook as last year? Not remotely.

Any business whose plan for 2019/20 is predominantly an extension of its plans from previous years is probably going to face a tough 2019 and is likely to be in a worse position this time next year than it is now. But it’s not too late to change. Radical innovation takes time to get to market, digital transformations take time to deliver, the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago, but the second-best time is right now.

Dinner for One repeats its punchline five times, James trips over the rug at least ten times, the subtext is that the entire scene has been repeated for at least twenty years previously, and it has been aired on German TV every single New Year’s Eve for the last 46 years. But business is not a comedy sketch. How long can you afford to continue repeating the same procedure as last year, before your script needs a radical rewrite?