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Flexible or Firm – Which Strategy Leads to Success?

Updated: Mar 31, 2021

By Chuck Cusumano and Jillian Broaddus

In 1995, Jeff Bezos started the “Earth’s biggest bookstore.”

If you have never heard anyone refer to Amazon that way, that is OK—because Amazon now certainly does not look like that.

Originally, Amazon was named Cadabra, but because an attorney said that name sounded a little too reminiscent to “cadaver,” Bezos opted for something else. Thus, Amazon was born.

In other words, Bezos wasn’t afraid to be a little flexible. It was that characteristic—which was relied on over several years in several different ways—that helped Bezos (and his booming company) find success.

But let us think about success from a different standpoint.

It is a semi-famous fact that the original manuscript for JK Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected 12 times before it was accepted by a publisher. One of the rejection letters stated, “Don’t quit your day job.”

As we now know, Rowling was a single mom on welfare at that time. She eventually penned the seven-book series and it is the best-selling book series of all time, selling in excess of 500 million copies worldwide. The Harry Potter franchise is valued at $15 billion.

Rowling still writes—now anonymously, mostly— and still receives rejection letters for her work. But was firm with her first successful series, so she knows the value of sticking to your guns, believing in your work, and not giving up.

Bezos and Rowling—two people who found immense success traveling down different paths and prioritizing different strategies. Flexibility and firmness. It is with both of these characteristics that people become successful, but how can that be so? Flexibility and firmness are opposites—how can both end up as the correct course of action?

Keep reading to learn the secrets of balancing flexibility with firmness.

Innovate or Die! (Flexibility for the Win)

Some of the best examples of organizations that would not adapt or adjust have ended up being infamous for their stubbornness to change with the prevailing winds surrounding them.

Eastman Kodak Company (one of the largest and most successful companies dealing with the reproduction of images, film, and cameras) failed to see the innovation that was going on around them with the progress of digital images.

They were too caught up in the processing and production of film for cameras that the digital world totally passed them by. Ironically enough, in the 1970s Kodak invented the digital camera, but they never took advantage of their invention because they did not see the use for it since they made tons of money selling and developing film. Talk about a missed opportunity.

The list of companies that refuse to innovate could go on and on—Blockbuster Video, Nokia (the cell phone company that pioneered cellular networks), Xerox (the first to invent the PC), Blackberry (the kick starter of smartphone technology), Atari (the first video game console producer), and beyond.

These companies—all of them great, profitable, and ahead of their time—died because they were inflexible and refused to acknowledge and adapt to the changing market conditions around them.

Of course, there’s also an exceptionally long list of companies and individuals that were flexible, willing to reinvent themselves time and again, and chose to adjust when needed.

This cast of characters had wildly different origins than what we probably know them for today:

  • Amazon — Remember, they were destined to be the world’s biggest bookstore.

  • American Express — They were actually founded in the 1850s as an express mail company.

  • Corning — Originally, they made glass for Edison lightbulbs. Then they invented Pyrex cookware, produced glass wire (fiber optic) which allowed for the internet revolution, and then moved into making the resilient glass used in iPhones and iPads.

  • Netflix — Founded in 1998 to rent DVDs by mail, Netflix was initially bypassed by Blockbuster as an investment opportunity during the early stages when they need cash. Now well, it is Netflix—need we say more?

  • Starbucks—In the 1970s, Starbucks sold coffee beans and coffee equipment. Howard Schultz, who worked for the small company, bought it and then grew it into the coffee-making business it is today. Then, he reinvented again, adding in food options and expanding internationally. Today, it has the most regularly-used customer loyalty rewards app in the industry.

  • Play-Doh—Play-Doh was originally invented in the early 1900s as a cleaning compound to remove coal dust off of wallpaper. You would press the glob of white dough on your walls and it would pull up the coal dust stains from the wallpaper without damaging the walls. Once Americans moved away from burning coal for heat, Play-Doh was destined to die. However, the company heard that a teacher in Cincinnati was using it for art projects. Upon realizing this was true, Play-Doh was reimagined with lots of colors and eventually sold to Hasbro.

Stay the Course or Risk Being Average (Don’t Fear Being Firm)

Are you familiar with the story of Rudy Ruettiger?

Even if you do not think you are, you probably know what I’m talking about. You know the guy that has a football movie made about him? RUDY!

He was told he would never make it in college—let alone Notre Dame. He was told he was too small to play football—let alone play for the Fighting Irish. He was told he could never dress-out for a game—let alone play in a real game.

He stayed firm. He kept with his convictions. He never altered his dream. Rudy eventually did play in a real game—because the crowd chanted his name until he came to the field.

Stephen King’s first book, Carrie, was rejected 30 times before a publisher took a chance on him.

Fred Astaire—the actor, dancer, singer, and choreographer who some consider the most influential dancer in film—was rejected on his first screen test. The casting director said, “Can’t act, can’t sing, slightly bald, not handsome – can dance a little.”

Henry Ford—the most successful car inventor of all time and the man credited with inventing the modern assembly line—did not become successful because he was flexible. He found success because he stood firm with his ideas and kept at it until it worked.

In 1899, Ford founded the Detroit Automobile Company with $150,000 of borrowed funds. Within one year, he went bankrupt. The next year, he formed the Henry Ford Motor Company. The year after that, he left the company bearing his own name because the investors brought in a consultant that pushed him out.

Then in 1902, Ford started his third automobile company. He ran into financial trouble, so he reincorporated the business which became the Ford Motor Company in 1903. In 1908, Ford debuted the Model T, the car that would set in motion the automobile as the main focus of American development and expansion.

To be firm is to be resolute.

The most requested and used desk by the President of The United States is the Resolute Desk. It is a symbol of resolve, endurance, and firmness.

When to Be Flexible and When to Be Firm

Being firm and being flexible are both necessary traits—but how do you know when to stay the course or change the program?

That is the million-dollar question.

As you have read, the decision to do one vs. the other can be the difference between success or failure, and even fame or obscurity.

Here are several key questions to ask in that decision process:

1. Is my original idea or product still sound and relevant?

2. Is the execution of the idea or product the reason it is failing or a success?

3. Do we have the resources and stamina to continue the journey?

If you look at your answers to those questions, you should be able to see whether or not you need to pivot from your current course or stay with the original idea.

For example, selling directly to the consumer and skipping all the costs of a ‘brick and mortar’ retail outlet allowed Amazon to pivot and expand from selling books to selling anything. The idea of going with a direct-to-consumer approach was sound, but the application needed to be flexible.

JK Rowling believed her product or idea was solid, but the execution of the idea was the problem. Not enough publishing houses were exposed to the idea. So she stayed with her book and just kept marketing it until it was discovered.

Rudy knew he could do college work and he knew he could play football—it was just a matter of stamina and endurance to outlast his detractors.

The real answer to the question of “stay or change the course” is not always one or the other. The answer, as evidenced by the examples, is to do and be both.

Sometimes, you must pivot the idea but stay firm in your process because it is sound. For example, American Express—a great company with a great process, but they had to change their product offering to stay relevant. Think about Netflix, too. They had an amazing idea to offer entertainment directly to the customer quickly and affordably. At the time, mail was the fastest yet cheapest way. Now, it is streaming directly to the customer for a flat fee.

The real trick is to know what to keep the same and what to change. You can do both if you plan accordingly, reflect, and ask the right questions while always seeking genuine answers.

Looking for more insight on how to be flexible and firm in business and in life? Drop us a line at to chat. If you enjoy our posts and want to make sure you never miss an update, click here to have our posts delivered directly to your inbox!

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