What Does Staying in Your Lane Really Mean for a Business?

We just lost a major research proposal and when we lose projects, I take my own advice and ask questions about the decision.

If you ask Google what to do when you lose a pitch, you’ll see my advice in a blog within the first few stories Google delivers to you – a blog that is one of my most-read on our website probably because of that topic, Seven Things to Ask when You Lose a Pitch.

Everyone loses.

But it’s what you do when you lose that is the differentiator in helping you win more than losing over the long term.

This time, when I pressed my client for the reason after a discussion (the project was to verify a trend suspected in the marketplace in order to decide whether to bring in new products), the client said, “We just want to stay in our lane.”

You could hear a touch of frustration in his tone. The response put me back on my heels.

We talked further about staying in your lane and what that might  mean.

There are times when you should stay in your lane. Like now: staying in my lane might mean stopping the probe or analysis of the comment.

But this time didn’t seem to be one of those times. I took a hard right: I told the client, “I think I’ll be writing a blog about this.”

Google Says

Google tells us that staying in your lane means “minding your own business” or “sticking to what you’re good at.” Fine sentiments. However, do they apply to a business?

If everyone in business minded their own business, there would be no business. And if you stick to doing what you’re good at and only what you’re good at, you might end up an expert in doing that thing, but you’d miss out on other things around you. Or, you might wake up and find out what you’re good at is no longer needed by anyone.

As the powerlifters say, “No pain, no gain, remain the same.”

Google also takes “staying in your lane” apart in the results it offers, including what does that mean in business. They say it means “to affirm the importance of doing your assigned tasks and only your assigned tasks.” This comes from the University of Iowa, who offers advice on an important question: when you see an important task that needs to be done that isn’t your responsibility, should you do it?

Semin Park in Harvard Business Review explains when to take on tasks that are outside of your job description, “You don’t necessarily need to stay in your lane — just be sure to merge both out of your lane and back in appropriately.”

Easier said than done.

Lanes in Life

The truth is, we are always either changing lanes or staying in them. WHY we change or stay is often as important as WHEN. The decision to change or stay is always an individual choice – unless as Newton put it, we’re “acted on by some other force.” So even if you decide to stay in your lane, something might come along and knock you out of it.

So “movement” is implicit in changing or staying in a lane. The key, then, is to really define the “lane” itself. Then, the decision to stay or change might make more sense.

In fact, you’re going to do one or the other regardless of how you define lane; that is, you’ll either stay, or you’ll change, or some other force will act upon you, i.e., a road lane with you riding at 70 mph and seeing another vehicle headed at you at a similar speed gives you the choice of changing lanes, or as a force, the vehicle will do it for you if you stay in your lane.


In any lane which contains movement, there are coordinates.

I learned early you can’t tell if you are moving without reference points – some type of coordinates (if you are in an elevator falling through space without windows, you will never know you are falling).

You need these “coordinates” or “reference points” to determine movement.

I also learned that if you change one thing, you change everything that follows that. Thus, if you change lanes, you will change outcomes. Even if you stay in your lane, you will affect outcomes. Einstein noted correctly through the very act of observation, you change the thing you are observing.

But maybe Newton said it best after all: things move in a straight line unless acted on by some other force. You will stay in your lane, for example, unless you yourself change, or something else changes it for you.

Take driving. You go along, staying in your lane, or changing it when you feel you need to. In driving, you have a “blind spot” in that keeps hidden other vehicles that might be there should you decide to change lanes. Blind spots are not exclusive to driving a vehicle.

Staying in a lane or changing it in driving is dangerous.

Changing or staying in a business lane is equally dangerous.

But that’s life, and that’s business.

My client’s comment actually made much more sense after this analysis. My client will be moving in the same lane until acted on by another force, or until they decide to change it themselves.

It was really no different than any other decision in business. I sighed a breath of relief, worried I was over-reacting or making more out of the situation than there was. It was a business decision, pure and simple.

Yet though understandable, in the market they play in, there happens to be plenty of competition at work ready to force them to change their lane, whether they want to or not.

Timing in changing a lane in business is often more important than the change itself. And I’ve found that making the lane change on your own terms is almost always better for a business than being forced to change when you are not ready.

Let me know what you think.

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2 thoughts on “What Does Staying in Your Lane Really Mean for a Business?

  1. “…I’ve found that making the lane change on your own terms is almost always better for a business than being forced to change when you are not ready.”

    That’s the money quote, right there. The client already has a feeling that something is moving in the marketplace that they need to take note of and act upon. (If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be asking about for a research proposal in the first place.) In the end, they’ll be forced to act by competitive pressure or stand “in their lane” watching their competitors go hurtling past on either side, on their way to new business. The truth is, “let’s stay in our lane” is just another way of saying “we’re afraid to take a risk”, even a well-calculated one.

    As the British SAS says, “Who Dares Wins”. You can figure out what happens to Who Doesn’t Dare.

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