Imagine reading the following story through the eyes of a child:
A family lived in a house in the woods: father, mother and son. Inside the house, hanging over a doorway, was a huge and heavy old axe. The axe had been there for as long as any of them could remember.
The mother had never felt comfortable about the axe hanging there over the door. One day, it became too much and she broke down in tears. “What is it?” asked her husband. “What’s the matter?”
She sobbed and said “it’s the axe – what if it fell down when one of us was walking through the door? – it could kill any of us at any time.”
He began to cry himself. They hugged each other and shook. The son came into the room and said “What is it? What’s the matter?”
The father said “it’s the axe, the axe over the door – it could fall down at any time – if we were in the way it could hurt us – or worse…”
The son hugged them both and began to cry as well. The three of them huddled together, wailing and sniffing and sobbing.
A traveller was walking past the house and heard the crying. He peered in through the window and mouthed to the three of them. “What is it? What’s the matter?’
The son opened the window and said “we’re scared about the axe over the door – it could fall
down on our heads and kill us.”
“May I come in?” said the traveller. He came into the house, looked at the doorway, found a chair, stood on it and reached up. He took down the axe and placed it gently on the table.
I read that as a seven year-old, and I thought it was totally idiotic. An axe over the door? Take it down. Duh. But I always remembered the story. Perhaps because I suspected some deeper meaning; perhaps because I was half-hoping that the axe would fall on their stupid heads; most likely because it was SO idiotic.
Now, armed with a few decades of life experience, I completely get it. The lingering unease, the difficult topic no-one wants to confront, the distorted view of the problem, the need for someone with perspective, the catharsis of finally doing something… it’s a story that says so much about the pressures of adulthood.
Above all, it raises a fundamental question: why don’t we take action?
Most people have an axe over the door. It might be the unmade will, the lack of fitness or being overweight. It might be not saving for a pension, or overworking, or being in an unhealthy relationship. All of these are latently damaging situations.
The same is often true in business. We keep resourcing a project that isn’t going anywhere. We avoid difficult conversations. We collude with short-termism at the expense of the long term. We ignore the threat of new competitors.
Why don’t we take action? It’s not for lack of knowledge. We know what we should do. But we don’t do it.
Here’s how to spur ourselves to act.
Action starts with an epiphany. We suddenly see that we’re tired of things as they are, that the current situation is no longer supportable. For the mother in the story, one day it just became too much. A glance in the mirror triggers a determination to diet. A customer complaint brings us up short. Can we engineer these epiphanies? These moments of realisation? I think we can.
For years, I have been talking to my clients about the value of a pause: a pause for some deeper strategic thinking. It’s tough to face up to the need for change. It’s often easier just to keep doing what we’re doing. So sometimes, we have to pause very deliberately and check where we’re headed, and whether we’re on track.
Now here’s another reason to pause. And that’s to ask ourselves: what’s our axe over the door? And – here’s the critical bit – what’s it costing us not to take action? The more we reflect on the costs – in terms of time, money, progress, happiness, engagement, efficiency, effectiveness – the more it creates a sense of the need to change. Until suddenly there’s an epiphany about how absurd this all is, and the need to change becomes a determination to change. It’s time to take down the axe.
In my quest to help businesses get clear about their strategy, it’s my job to help you have epiphanies. Questions like “what’s it costing you to stay where you are?” are a great starting point. If you’d like to talk about your own situation or that of your business, please feel free to contact me.