Remember to Readjust the Wheel

When I was around 12 years old, I took the bus to school every day. I had moved to a new town only a few years prior, and as a smallish, quiet kid, I was slow to make friends. One day, as we were nearing the corner of my street, I walked up to the front and asked the driver, “can I turn the wheel?” To my surprise, she grinned a bit and said, “sure.”

Standing beside her, I grabbed the steering wheel and turned it toward me, as the bus crawled around the corner. It felt so cool to be maneuvering such a huge vehicle! Finally, as we finished the turn, the driver looked at me and chuckled. “You have to turn it back now,” she said, a bit surprised that I hadn’t realized as much. I felt a little silly, but I was only 12 and knew nothing about driving. The driver turned the wheel back, straightening out our course; despite my mistake, I still thought it was pretty cool that I got to steer our school bus.

The lesson of that moment brings to mind something that I’ve seen at a number of the purpose-driven startups I’ve worked with. One startup, in particular, had begun a with the bright idea of a lone business school senior. He’d assembled a small group of young, passionate people, and created a fun, dynamic working environment. Everyone on the team was passionate about creating cool products and donating to charities, while pushing the envelope on social media promotion. But after a couple of years, as the product became more popular, some of their shoot-from-the-hip methods were no longer appropriate.

They’d gotten moving in a new direction, but the time had come to turn the wheel.

Adjusting to their new reality, this company adopted new policies, made new hires, and changed much of the tone of their communication. As a result, they improved dramatically in areas such as product management and customer service. But in many ways, some of the changes they’d made directly contradicted the culture that had gotten the company to that point. People were unhappy; internal communication began to suffer; vendors and partners had become alienated, and the organization’s greater purpose had begun to feel secondary.

To the young founder’s credit, he recognized that it was time to readjust the wheel, and “straighten the bus out” before it lost its course completely. He made new adjustments, including some really smart hires; he reinforced his company’s original, more positive culture; and he rallied the team around its original sense of purpose.

What is the meaning of this?

For a purpose-driven organization, it might sometimes be necessary to change direction, correct your course, or even make an emergency left turn. But just as important as knowing when to alter your course, is knowing when to readjust the wheel and recover your sense of direction. Otherwise, your sense of commitment to the original purpose can suffer–or you can become distracted by peripheral objectives.

A strong, well strategized and well articulated brand can be both a signpost and a compass, guiding an organization through many a winding road. If you sometimes feel like your organization is veering off-track, let’s talk about your brand and the ways it’s communicated.

John Natoli and the Do Good Design Co. team