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Should you aim to be the leanest and fittest?

The redoubtable Mrs Simms is in training for her second marathon. Or at least she was until a rather nasty cold struck her down, leaving her somewhat under the weather.

I have to report that the current Mrs Simms is quite high maintenance when she's ill. Here's a top tip for all husbands: regardless of what your wife may say about not being hungry and really not being able to face any dinner, always buy two portions of chips, because you know the minute she spots yours... But I digress. What left my wife really miffed about her cold was a) that she caught it from me, and b) that while she has been suffering for the best part of a week, I shook off the pesky virus in just a couple of days. Here am I, someone who pours scorn on the 'five portions of fruit and veg a day' nonsense and who gets very little in the way of exercise (unless you care to count running up and down the stairs to the kettle four or five times a day), while she, on the other hand, eats and drinks very sensibly and runs four or five miles a day. Where's the justice?

I tried to make an analogy to motoring. She is like a Formula 1 car, whereas I am more of a Volvo 760 estate. She may be faster, leaner and in better general health, but she needs a lot more maintenance to keep her going. I, on the other hand, despite being a little bloated and somewhat underpowered, just seem to keep going ad nauseum. Another tip for husbands at this point: never compare your wife to a car. You're just digging yourself a hole. A better comparison is between the average Joe and a finely honed athlete. The average Joe may never run a world record 400 metres, but neither is he constantly recuperating from a torn this or a strained that. The more you push something towards its absolute limits, the more likely it is to break down.

All of this got me wondering about business. There is constant talk about how businesses need to run leaner and fitter in order to thrive and survive, but I wonder if we end up focusing too much on the wrong thing. Okay, shedding a little fat is never going to do any harm, but surely the most important focus has to be first on having a product or a service that customers actually want, second on how you make that product or offer that service, and third on how you maintain and then grow your customer base. Optimise as far as you can, but push beyond physical limitations at your peril. Cut back where it's beneficial as part on a considered plan, but never cut too savagely or too quickly, because if you make a mistake it's so much harder to recover your strength afterwards. The adage that reputations are hard won and easily lost is an old one, but it's a good one.

An increasing problem in the Simms household is that my wife's drive to become leaner and fitter has in turn driven me down the meals-for-one aisle at our local supermarket more often than would perhaps be deemed healthy. The irony is that my steadily expanding frame seems to be forever nursing her leaner and supposedly fitter frame back to health. So the redoubtable Mrs Simms may well scoff that I'm not very fit, but I argue that actually I'm fit for purpose, and surely that is more important. In my case, and perhaps in the case of business generally, the key to success lies not necessarily in being fitter per se, but rather in carefully defining the purpose.

Mark Simms, 8 November 2011

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