The Virtue of Conservatism.

I recently read a very interesting article in the Australian Financial Review quoting the philosophy of the so-called ‘Father of Conservatism’ – Edmund Burke (a 17th century British political theorist, member of parliament, philosopher and author). His view of ‘conservatism’ was that politicians never fully grasped the complexity of a society and economy and the intended and unintended consequences of changes that they made to how things were done. With that in mind, ‘conservatism’ advocated that no change of any kind should be enacted until due diligence had been undertaken to comprehend the complete context and effect of a decision to the broad constituency and to ascertain whether – on balance – the outcomes represented an improvement on what already existed. Without a gain for society as a whole, he couldn’t see a justification for the pain of change.

Of course today the word ‘conservative’ is almost universally recognized as an excuse to either slavishly worship the old fashioned or do nothing. However Burke’s original sentiments seem as appropriate in the current political climate as they were in the 18th century.

They also apply to the retail business world.

Let’s get one thing straight – complacency in any era or in any context is a recipe for disaster. But too often today in both the political world and the retail world we see restless minds producing solutions we don’t need for problems that don’t exist. Specialized ‘expertise’ has brought with it a great deal of un-necessary operational complexity and over-simplification of the thinking process through the narrowing of terms of reference to the specialist area in isolation.

As any great retailer from any era will tell you, “Retail is a sweat game. It’s not rocket science but it burns huge amounts of energy to attain and maintain success.” There has never been any shortage of issues to wrestle with in the history of retail and we will never run out of things to consider. The great retailers always knew – relative to the context that their specific business competed in – what issues mattered and they understood that whatever changes they made (to address issues of significance) to their retail business must only be those that lead to a material improvement for the business as an integrated operation.

If it can’t be operationalized through the business; if it can’t be monetized; if it doesn’t materially lead to more gains than losses across the entire business; don’t even entertain it.

It might sound strange coming from a person who makes his living from helping retail businesses to change, but ‘conservative’ thinking is what we need to re-discover in retail. Not in the distorted 21st century incarnation but from the inspiration of Burke’s 18th century philosophy.

Context matters. Intended and unintended, direct and indirect consequences of any change action affect the short, medium and long-term health of a retail business. Think conservatively. Then act with haste and passion.