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  • John Chambers, PhD

"Judge me by my size, do you?"

Yoda made his way to the big screen again this past holiday season, and his earlier movie quote is a learning reminder: "Judge me by my size...?" Within the discipline of international or even any successful business, we think of multinational conglomerates, huge corporations, and institutional hierarchies. But a close look at a small business will teach us lessons we often overlook in the hurried and hectic pace of unfortunate tick-box cultures -- many whom sadly contain false senses of security and illusions of revenue permanence.

When we consider the innovation economy and the shrinking window of competitive advantage due to imitability and information transparency, it’s not enough for us to have teams of experts in a single domain. Even within specific skill areas, constant learning ought be a constant expectation.

A day before New Year’s eve, I stopped into an exquisite boutique wine store in Kennebunk, Maine. Matt and Libby have owned the welcoming venue for about a half dozen years. Her talent is evident in the operation and shop design, and his mastery of vineyards and vintages differentiates the store from larger grocery chains and even large liquor outlets. Much of Matt’s merchandise winds its way through distributorships of their choosing and those suppliers are of course impacted by currency exchange, transportation costs and logistics. Ultimately, there are minor variances in the cost of goods sold. Those variances can be absorbed by larger firms much more easily than small. So the small business can only combat cost fluctuations by a staff who understands urgency, energy and creativity – the stuff that many corporations seek. The folks that own and operate small businesses represent the knowledge worker, constantly shifting focus, flexible, and multi-dimensional.

One could argue that a shop owner’s focus is singular. In the Down East Wine Imports’ situation, it is in the nectar of the gods and the bubbly of the holiday. Nothing changes. Bottles come in, and bottles go out, right?

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Not only are alcoholic beverage, industry dynamics ever-present, but the small business owner wears multiple hats, prepared to assume any role that the competitive moment requires: financial planner, logistical master, connoisseur for the demanding customer. The dynamics of wine sales are not static. There are changes, ratings, annual climate and soil variations that play into the taste and body of every bottle sold. Matt has elevated with patience many of his less knowledgeable clientele, teaching the basics with respect and goodwill. He has also refined the outlook of many oenophiles who frequent his business. He is teacher and learner.

As I enjoyed his thoughtful selection for the pre-New Year’s tasting, featuring excellent sparkling wines from home and abroad, I was thinking of his constant study, his watchful eye on the landscape of domestic and distant vineyards, his vigilance in learning. He is as busy studying and reading, as his partner is in meticulous management of their cash flow. His versatility is success, his eagerness in continuous learning -- researching the wine industry’s evolution while maintaining its classic foundations. Versatility is the upholder of innovation and success, the intangible value for boutique firms and corporate giants alike.

When we coach our teams and other executives, are we as earnest as Matt? Do we study and watch the small variations in business and operational innovation, variations that ultimately lead to transformative innovation? Is there a company mandate and expectation for all contributors to the firm’s mission, which says everyone will extend his or her versatility? If corporations are interested in their employee's value and future, then are they fostering opportunities for those employees, expecting them to be flexible, weathering competitive dynamics? Any employee and any executive who feels a sense of security ignores the reality of the information and innovation economy. Versatility is protection.

When I step into Matt’s shop, I have confidence that he can answer almost anything, delivering to me value whether in geographic nuances or seasonal impacts to a vintage. I count on him to recommend food pairings and the appropriateness of a varietal. There is credibility in his words and his respectful style. He is ever-learning. By watching a small business, we can learn much about large business, corporate growth and multinational enterprises. As we ring in the new year, let’s start with toasting the knowledge professional, the value of the versatile employee, who is constantly learning.

Innovation arrives not solely, and not usually, in a lab that shouts, "Eureka!" firing off a champagne cork. Rather, innovation builds and expands by the undercurrents of a culture – the creative thinking that is embedded into the organizational structure. It moves like a tide and spills over, into every facet of the company because of the expectation of creativity, and the realization of industry change –- change that is an opportunity and a threat.

As leaders and teams, behave with enthusiastic rigor, embracing the creativity and versatility of the small business owner. In all domains, vintages in wine or classic cars, tourism or technology, we advance our products and services by embracing accountability and versatility. We are connoisseurs of knowledge cultivation.

So pop that bubbly and cheer to a culture of learning, creativity, and a confident outlook that innovation is promised by extending our reach, and being unafraid to take on new roles -- no matter if we are small business entrepreneurs, departmental contributors, or leaders of corporations.

Happy New Year!

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