Does Your Business Really Need a Flying Elephant?

Flying Elephant

Illustration by Dwight K. Schrute -

Let’s say a team of top scientists, who’ve been dedicated to the creation of the world’s most amazing new technology for the past twenty years, have finally released their brand-new invention to the world: a flying elephant!

The media jumps all over the story.  The early adopters rush out to buy, tame and dissect their very own flying elephants, and then they reverse-engineer them in order to create flying pigs, flying snakes and flying eggbeaters.  Someone you’ve never heard of becomes world-famous as The Flying Elephant Expert, and you probably buy his book, Flying Elephants for Dummies.

Suddenly, the world is abuzz about all the ways flying elephants have changed everything, forevermore.

And somewhere in this whole wild process, someone in your company walks into your office and insists that you absolutely, positively MUST buy a flying elephant for business use, right now.

“But why?” you ask.

“Because everyone else is doing it,” they say.  “And if we don’t, we’ll fall behind.  The truth is, we can’t afford NOT to have our own flying elephant!”

But there’s just one problem: Your company makes teacups.  So what the hell are you going to do with a flying elephant?

Well, let’s figure that out.

Your Guide to Buying a Flying Elephant

First, let’s be clear: not everyone needs a flying elephant.

Sure, you might want one, and your advisers might be telling you to get one, but unless you understand how a flying elephant is going to make your business better / faster / easier / more profitable, you shouldn’t buy one.  New technology is great, but not when you have to find an excuse to apply it.

Sometimes it can be hard to see all the ways new technology will change your business.  No one in 1960 could have predicted exactly how computers, cell phones and the Internet would revolutionize business in 2011, so investing in those technologies when they were considered “cutting-edge” would have been an inefficient use of operating capital for most companies.

But once that change can be understood, documented and proven, that “cutting-edge” technology becomes a little less risky and a lot more justifiable of an expense.  For example, having a Facebook fan page for your business in 2006 would have been cutting-edge, and potentially unprofitable, but having one in 2011 makes complete sense.

So, before you buy a flying elephant, ask yourself the following questions:

1. What are the alleged benefits of this new technology?

Yes, you may get an initial PR boost from being among the first companies in your field to have its own flying elephant.  But what else are you promised?  In what other ways will your daily process — and your bottom line — be improved?  (Are those improvements guaranteed?)

2. What existing aspects of our business process will this new technology replace… or complicate?

If you have a flying elephant, you may not need a delivery truck anymore… but you might need more padding around the teacup warehouse.  If you have a new online store, you may be able to save money on print advertising… but you might need more online security.  Look at both sides of that coin before you invest in the change.

3. How much time and effort will we need to spend on implementing this new technology?

Can your team afford to divert their attention from their existing tasks in order to feed and train your new flying elephant?  If they do, what existing tasks will need to be reassigned?  And will you need to hire new personnel to specialize in flying elephant care and maintenance, or can that be rolled into your daily workflow?

4. How soon can we expect this new technology to make our company better / more profitable?

The newer a technology is, the steeper the learning curve is, and the longer you can expect to wait before you see a return on your investment.

… and, most important of all:

5. Does acquiring this new technology bring us directly closer to our stated business goals?

If your company’s mission is to be “the industry leader in ___,” you may want a flying elephant as soon as one rolls off the assembly line.  But if your company is focused on “the best customer service,” or “the most cost-effective solutions,” a flying elephant might not directly improve your process — at least, not until all the bugs are worked out, and someone else releases a case study on the best (and worst) ways to implement it.

“Does Not a Flying Elephant by Any Other Name Still Sound as Awesome?”

With apologies to Shakespeare, it’s not just flying elephants that cause today’s CEOs, CMOs and other top decision-makers to get distracted.  Every day, another new technology makes headlines, and someone in your company has to decide whether or not this opportunity represents a positive disruption, a negative threat or simply doesn’t merit further attention.

Sometimes it’s too early to tell.  For example, Google just released their Facebook-killing Google+ service last week, and the early adopters are currently working overtime to understand exactly what this means for business, for society, and for the web (and the world) at large.

Does this mean your business needs to be on Google+?

That depends:

Does Google+ help you sell more teacups?

If you don’t know, ask someone who does.  And if you can’t find anyone who seems to know for sure, do yourself a favor:


Eventually, you’ll know.  Or you’ll find someone who does.

But, in the meantime, you have teacups to sell.


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  • Anonymous

    Yeah, I’m right there with ya. Objective-Oriented Marketing. Do you need one of these, one of those, two of the other thing? I don’t care what that thing is – you gotta know what you’re doing in business before you decide whether or not you need the bloody thing.

    Great post. Great photo, too.

  • Justin Kownacki

    Thanks Dave. Of course, the paradox to all of this is that the early adopters often dictate how a product or service will be used in the end. So yes, you may not need Google+ (or a different tool) now, but those who make the time to tinker with it today will impact how it’s used tomorrow — and that will most likely affect your business directly. Nonetheless, it’s still a matter of time: can you afford to adopt new tools (and impact how others use them) now, or do you have to teacups to ship?

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