16. SOLVING THE UNDERPANTS PROBLEM

‘An organization’s ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage.’

– Jack Welch1

If you’ve not seen the cartoon South Park, please bear with me. In one of my favourite episodes from 1998, the town of South Park is being inundated by a big name coffee chain and the boys, Kyle, Stan, Cartman and Kenny, go on a quest to stop it from putting the local mom and pop coffee shop out of business.2 In the process, they uncover a secret operation being run by gnomes who sneak into children’s bedrooms at night and steal their underpants. Yes, gnomes and underpants. If you’ve not seen South Park, it’s that kind of humour.

The boys eventually apprehend one of the gnomes and demand that he show them how business works, so that they can stop the big name coffee shop. They follow the gnome to the underground gnome headquarters where all the underpants are being collected. The boys press the gnome to explain the operation to them.

The gnome pulls down a big chart and explains:

1: Collect underpants.

2: ?

3. Profit.

The boys are left more confused than when they began.

What makes it so funny (and sad) for me is how true this chart is for so many start-up businesses. Of course, those running the start-ups can talk their way around phase 2. It gets dressed up, glossed over and buried in the hype of phases 1 and 3. But the question mark is still there.

The Underpants Problem is also the most common social ...

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