© Scott Chambers/Synergy
Experimental feature

Listen to this article

Experimental feature

‘Don’t ask, don’t get,” my father likes to say to me. He ran a good-sized non-profit, so he knows something about how to ask (nicely), when to ask (often) and how much to ask for (lots). What he means in my case that there is no use sitting around waiting for the world to come looking. No matter how smart, charming and attractive you may be, you have to thrust yourself forward.

Working in finance, I ran into a memorable slogan that comes to much the same thing: “Ask for the order!” (always with an exclamation mark). Asking for the order is what you do after you have made a pitch. Far from sitting politely for the client to decide, you make your expectations clear: “Shall I put you down for 10,000 shares, then?” To say of a salesperson “he just can’t ask for the order!” is a damning and final Wall Street criticism.

Much of business comes down to the Big Ask. Be the early bird, pound the pavement, knock on the door, call back, advertise, promote, market, sell, sell, sell. This essential work will never go away. But there are things that cannot be had just by asking for them. This is where the Big Idea comes in. A strategy that aims to take a bigger slice of an existing market has a natural limit. Transformative success requires that one see that the structure of the market is not fixed, and how changing its shape can create new opportunities.

Michael Dubin, who founded, ran and ultimately sold Dollar Shave Club is a good example of someone who combined the Big Ask with a Big Idea. Many before him had observed that the market for razors was oligopolistic and prices were too high. He did not respond by starting a company that sold cheap razors (who would have financed such a plan?). Instead he started a business delivering cheap razors on a subscription basis or, to borrow a term from technology world, “razors as a service”. He then added a witty Ask — the low-budget, comic commercial that he fronted and that made his company famous. The story ends with Unilever buying Dollar Shave Club last summer for $1bn.

The Ask/Idea dichotomy I am coining here features not just the old opposing pair, hard work and talent. Asking is a specific kind of hard work, and Big Ideas in this context are specifically structural — they see that old habits of behaviour can be replaced, resulting in superior results. To use an example from economics professor Iris Bohnet, hotels used to have little notes asking guests to turn out the lights when they left. But hotel guests are lazy, and this did not work well. Then someone came up with a structural innovation. They put a slot for the room’s key card in the light switch by the door. Take out the card and it’s lights out. Big Ideas make it easy, even unavoidable, to do things in a new, better way. Razors need regular replacement; why not deliver them on subscription?

Last year, the Drivers of Change award went to Fanuc, the industrial robotics company. This year, it went to DeepMind, the artificial intelligence specialist. These choices were not made in ignorance of widespread worries about technology’s roles in job destruction. The judges are acutely aware that these two great companies and companies like them may change the lot of future workers, not necessarily for the better. They work at the forefront of change, though, and that is what the award recognises.

Business leaders and governments have done a bad job protecting workers from changes brought about by technology. The pain of transition aside, however, it strikes me that there is much left for humans to do. It is one thing to beat the human world champion in the game of go, as DeepMind’s software has. Go is a well-defined and rule-bound, if highly complex, endeavour. It is, in other words, a fixed market. I will start to worry much more when AI software starts generating Big Ideas: not finding better ways to do things, but thinking up new things to do.

And even when they can do that, the robots will not quite have that convincing human touch necessary to “ask for the order” — or, at least, we humans had better hope not.

Get alerts on Entrepreneurship when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Follow the topics in this article