The Man from Mars

O wad some pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

I’ve always liked those lines from Rabbie Burns’ splendidly titled To a Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church.

And you know what? I think the two lines provide some of the best business around.

I’ve written before about Bob Townsend’s book, Up the Organization. Townsend was the CEO of Avis at the time of the ‘We Try Harder’ advertising campaign and one of the first advocates of Theory Y management.

His book was the first business/management book I ever read, and large parts of it have stayed with me. In particular there was a section called ‘Mars, Man From.’ I’m going to indulge myself and quote it in full.

In solving a complex problem, pretend that you are a Martian. Assume that you understand everything about man and his society – except what has been done in the past by others in your industry trying to solve this problem.

For example, when the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority was about to tear down the Avis Headquarters in Boston, we asked ourselves, “Where would a man from Mars locate the headquarters of an international company in the business of renting and leasing vehicles without drivers?” The main criteria became clear: near active domestic and international airports so we could go see our managers and they could get to us; and in a good accounting and clerical labor market. So we moved to Long Island between JFK and La Guardia, while our larger competition isolated itself on the tight little island of Manhattan.

To me, the parallel between Rabbie Burns writing in 1786 and Bob Townsend writing nearly 200 years later is very clear. What’s important is the ability to step outside yourself – whether it’s about you as a person, or whether it’s about the business you’re running. To see yourself as others see you, and to see your business from a totally different viewpoint.

For a business owner, it’s the ability to remove yourself from the day-to-day running of your business: as Michael Gerber puts it in his series of E-Myth books, it’s working on your business, not in your business. It’s also the ability to see your business through another person’s eyes – specifically, your clients’ and your potential clients’.

The problem, of course, is that it’s not easy to do. Despite the fact that we have Evernote and Outlook and online diaries and the smartest of smart phones… despite all that everyone in charge of an SME seems to be running faster than they’ve ever done. Fitting in an appointment that doesn’t immediately relate to a client, product or supplier is almost impossible. Damn it, you can’t even find the time to go to the dentist…

But you have to. I hope I’ve made the point by now that writing the nativity play in your diary as an absolutely unbreakable appointment is a core part of my philosophy. Well so is finding the time to think, reflect and to stand in someone else’s shoes.

Am I advocating that you take yourself off for a couple of days, stay in a hotel, walk in the gardens, lounge around and think? Yes, I am.

And when you come back, re-energised and bursting with a new perspective and new ideas, share it with your fellow board-members. That is the huge strength of TAB. Your ideas will be tested and scrutinised and there’ll be seven or eight points of view. They’ll all be different – but they’ll all be working on your business. Messrs Burns, Townsend and Gerber would approve.



  1. Richard Shaw · March 15, 2013

    You’re leaning on an open door with me on this one Ed.

  2. simonjhudson · March 15, 2013

    Spot on. And, spookily, my business partner and I were talking about doing just that only last night. We just need to think of somewhere good to go. Suggestions welcome…

    • edreidyork · March 15, 2013

      Hi Simon – well I’m in Rome this weekend with Davnet; you and Taran would be very welcome to join us!! Plenty of nice spots for contemplation…

  3. tommortonharrogate · March 15, 2013

    Excellent blog, Ed — nice to meet another Townsend fan. Brilliant book and changed my approach to management. From memory he advocated holding meetings standing up…. and if that didn’t work, insisting that the person speaking stands on one leg. My have dreamt the last bit though!

  4. Pingback: Don’t Hide your Light… | EdReidYork's Blog

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