By Chris McClure, Contributing Editor

Sometimes the things bouncing around in my head don’t fall into nice, neat categories the way I would like them to. Instead, it’s a lot like that idea of herding cats – you never know where they are going to lead. The funny thing is, I kind of like it that way. If everything is nice and neat and orderly, it is boring.

The marketplace is never boring. If you think it is, you are probably missing opportunity – you know, that thing that elusively bounces from here to there in ways that keep you guessing which way it is about to run – like herding cats. Making the most of opportunity requires creativity, perseverance and, most of all, flexibility.

Most of us claim to be flexible in how we respond to the world around us, but we’re not. If you don’t believe me, just let your spouse hide the television remote.

We tend to build systems that become well-worn paths that define our daily behavior. We call them habits and, hopefully, the ones we build around us are productive. At some point in time they were the best fit for circumstances and needs that you could devise. The trouble is that everything has likely changed since you reached that optimum and you are still stuck in the same path that has left a worn spot on the carpet at every point of constricted flow, such as a doorway.

When things “click” into place, we quit looking. It’s like focusing on a conversation across the room and missing what the person sitting across the table from you said. We lock in on a perceived target and miss nine others.

Consumer preferences are changing and, in spite of our perceptions, they are becoming more sophisticated in their views and their demands. They aren’t always “right” even though they are, ultimately, the customer. Signals constantly ripple back and forth through the system that should provide insight as to the direction we need go, but like our cats, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus. That makes it hard for the decisionmaker who is tossing around ideas about a “branded” product that carries along a healthy dose of risk vs. trying to optimize existing product to fit the constantly moving grid – even the negotiated one – that is driven by a market that is also as skittish as those blasted cats.

An extremely bright and perceptive gentleman told me the other day that perhaps it is best to quit looking for opportunities and start making them. He had a valid point. Too many targets create indecision. My dad was adamant when coaching me on the fine art of hunting quail or even the larger, faster pheasant, that I should “focus on one at a time. If you shoot at the covey you’ll miss them all.”

Now, where was I going with this? A dang squirrel jumped up and I lost sight of the cats. Oh yeah, focus.

I think our biggest challenge is to isolate the things that matter and to zero in on them. (Here come those well-worn paths again.) So, how do we focus and yet remain flexible when things change? That is something we each must determine for our own operation. Sticking with metaphors, it is “choose your battles.”

There is a cost and risk associated with every opportunity. Of course we are all aware of the relationship between risk and potential reward. It becomes a matter of cost relative to potential reward. If you are like me, before you go to the casino you must first decide how many dollars you are willing to leave with their management as a token of the great pleasure you derived from losing it. Some of us leave more at the tables than others.

When it comes down to it, we each have to decide whether to grab the horns or the tail. Either way, there’s going to be some plowed ground, snot or something greener in the face, and a few skid marks that are hopefully not on our battered bodies. The prize is not for the timid but for those who go for it with everything they have. The broken and bloody carcasses keep the emergency personnel on the payroll.

Given the number of cats scampering around at the moment, the most conservative approach might be to convert the feed mill into a processing plant for granola bars. It satisfies the vegetarian craze while still employing the most important asset, other than people, that occupies that acreage covered with bellowing beasts needing to be fed on a regular basis. It probably wouldn’t take much investment – maybe an extruder and then a packaging system. Oh, wait, that package is a problem. It requires a brand – a label. Someone’s name has to be on it.

It’s not difficult to slap a mark on a hip, but when it comes to a branded beef product that must be consistent and of the highest quality, we stop and think a little harder. What does that say about the product going out the door? If we are hesitant to take the route of a branded product, maybe we need to look a little harder at the product we are producing and figure out how to achieve the things that the ever-more-sophisticated consuming public demands – quality, consistency, known origin and a name that is no longer hidden in anonymity. Then perhaps, when we get all of that lined up and marching like ducks instead of cats, we will be more willing to pull out the irons and make our mark.