You’re going to like irrelevance even less

As a senior retail executive and consultant I’ve worked on more strategic growth and innovation projects than I can possibly enumerate.

Regardless of the size, industry sector or maturity stage of the company, every effort has had a common denominator: risk. And every one has had a common enemy too: fear–or, more specifically, fear of change. Fear of change is always the bogeyman to be conquered, the dragon that must be slain.

To be sure, some of my employers or clients have been better at managing change than others. Yet the fear of change is always there, sometimes lurking like a ravenous lion ready to pounce, other times it is right up in our faces, obvious for all to see. Unless conquered, progress simply doesn’t happen, innovation is stalled.

Years ago, despite what was espoused, most of these efforts were really seen as optional–as “nice to do’s.” Of course, we’d like to grow faster. Obviously we want to be seen as innovative. Naturally, more or different might be better. Yet as a practical matter, unless the initiative operated well within our comfort zone, the chances we’d actually take the plunge we’re rather small indeed.

Yet what’s different now–what matters more and more–is that change can rarely be viewed as optional. Increasingly, the status quo is a prescription for disaster. Legacy brands are being challenged by disruptive technology. Once stable customer loyalty bonds are fraying. What worked splendidly before is now merely a dim signal amidst the noise. The tried and true is anything but.

It’s becoming hard to ascribe a value or judgment to change. It is neither good, nor bad, neither easy, nor hard. It just is.

And, as a wise person once said “if you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

seth

The useless revolutionary

There is something intensely appealing about revolutionary figures.

Their vision of a very different world often has a certain sex appeal that captivates our imagination. The sheer notion of shaking things up, fomenting rebellion, kicking those rascal outs, reinventing an industry or whatever clarion call the revolutionary rallies around can be deeply inspiring and plainly seductive.

The revolutionary may tap into real oppression or the zeitgeist of restless frustration. They may play on our aspirations or merely our desire to eschew the conventional and confront the status quo.

When we think about seismic changes in the world, innovations that redefined the business landscape, breakthroughs in scientific understanding, fundamental shifts in the way we experience the human condition or the redefinition of art, it’s hard not to attach the name of a revolutionary. Mandela and King. Bezos and Jobs. Galileo and Hawking. Gandhi and Pope Francis. Pollock and Cobain.

Of course, some revolutionaries are far more useful than others.

There are the revolutionaries who merely tap into fear. In their world, anyone who doesn’t see things as they do is an enemy who must be thwarted.

There are the revolutionaries who are really just critics re-branded. They find it easy to point out what isn’t working and to carefully label the “idiots” and the “losers” they deem responsible.

There are the revolutionaries who are long on vision, but short on details; whose sails are filled with the bluster of righteous indignation but who sorely lack the power of enduring human connection.

It IS useful to define the opposition and to draw clear lines. Calling out what we don’t like is a start. Throwing down the gauntlet can certainly command attention. Yet while anger may get us started, its utility as a means of sustaining fuel is highly questionable.

To be a useful revolutionary you need more than a picture of what isn’t. To be a useful revolutionary you need more than a list of enemies and a bloviating side-show. And you’ll need a whole lot more than a call to “take our country back” or a pitch deck that has “disruptive” in every other sentence.

You say you want a revolution? Well, we’d love to see your plan.

You picked a really bad time to be boring

There was a time when you could get away with average products for average people.

There was a time when rapid growth could smooth over patches of mediocrity.

There was a time when being just a little bit interesting could hold our attention.

There was a time when relationships were built over time, face-to-face.

Now, consumers live in an anything, anytime, anyway world and there’s simply no reason to settle.

Now, largely stagnant markets require us to steal share if we wish to grow–and good enough isn’t.

Now, we are overwhelmed with choices and, more and more, the battle for share of attention is won by the weird, the purple cow, the remarkable.

Now, posts that include “more for Sagittarius”–or are merely a running commentary on your activities–get eliminated from our feed in one easy click. And winning back a lost relationship is harder than ever.

There’s a reason people don’t come to your store, leave your website within seconds, hit “unsubscribe”  or unfollow you.

Now is hardly the time to be dull, uninteresting and outright boring if you hope to make any kind of impact. If people see what you put out in the world and their first reaction is “who cares?” you’re either focused on the wrong folks or it’s time to rethink what you’re doing.

The fact is the tried and true no longer is. What once seemed safe is now often the most risky.

Yes, it’s a really bad time to be boring. But the good news is we can change.

What better time than now?

PurpleCow

Ask the nearest hippie

In his dissent on the Supreme Court’s historic decision on gay marriage Justice Antonin Scalia offered this:

“Who ever thought that intimacy and spirituality (whatever that means) were freedoms? And if intimacy is, one would think that Freedom of Intimacy is abridged rather than expanded by marriage. Ask the nearest hippie.”

Regardless of where one stands on the question–and I stand firmly on the side of love–we should be impressed by Scalia’s ability to reach back some 50 years for a cultural reference, all the while doing virtuosic leaps of logic. Then again, perhaps he meant “hipster.” Also perhaps his marriage of 48 years ain’t going all that well. Maureen, you are in my thoughts and prayers.

But whether he meant hippie or hipster, he may be on to something.

Hippies defied convention.

Hippies valued love over war.

Hippies created lots of music and art that has stood the test of time.

Hippies were inclusive.

Hippies challenged the status quo, often pushing society to embrace new norms.

Many hippies were far more remarkable than those who shunned them.

Maybe we could use a few more hippies?

Ask the nearest hippie indeed.

And we just might want to heed their advice.

Why we don’t know why

If you are anything like me, whether it’s in your personal or professional life, you have a list of goals you seek to achieve.

And if you are anything like me, you don’t always achieve them. Which begs the question: why?

Sometimes the answer is painfully obvious. Other times it takes more work. Yet, I am struck by how often, whether it’s my own stuff, interactions with friends and colleagues or issues my clients are struggling with, the answer is “I don’t know.”

Why are we losing share to the competition? I don’t know.

Why isn’t our social media strategy working? I don’t know.

Why am I working harder and harder and getting less accomplished? I don’t know.

Why does an innocuous statement by my partner, make me instantly defensive? I don’t know.

It seems to me there are a few reasons why we don’t why.

Sometimes, no matter how hard we dig, it’s simply unknowable. I’d put the “God” type questions in this bucket.

Sometimes, we haven’t dug deeply enough. If it’s important, if we make it a priority, more work–or perhaps a radically different approach–stands a pretty good chance of unlocking the root cause.

Sometimes, if we’re brutally honest with ourselves, we don’t want to know the answer. We’re afraid of being confronted with the harsh reality of our situation. We fear being seen for who we really are or having to acknowledge that we aren’t a victim. Accepting accountability and seeing that the only road is difficult and scary is often to great a burden to bear, much less wake up to and own.

Of course it’s pretty easy to go through life blissfully ignorant, to avoid an honest look in the mirror.

Until it isn’t.

I fought the math and the math won

Emotion often trumps logic.

We buy the story before we buy the product.

How our experience with a brand makes us feel can overcome the simple calculus of pro’s and con’s.

Because of this, I advise start-up entrepreneurs and deeply experienced corporate types alike to start with the story, to envision the full experience we want to deliver, to design for how we intend the customer to feel and how we hope they will amplify our message to their tribes.

But then comes the math.

And, alas, there is no escaping a few basic equations.

You can’t escape the fact that customers can’t buy your product or service if they aren’t aware of it. In an increasingly noisy world, where the toll-takers who often control getting your brand in front of the right customers keep raising their prices, you had better crunch these numbers.

If you are in any kind of retail, you can’t escape the math that your sales are a function of the amount of traffic you drive to your store or website, your conversion rate, the average unit retail of the items sold and the # of items purchased. Failing to understand these dynamics–and the throughput at each stage–is often where things start to fall apart.

In any business, if the lifetime value of the customer is less than the cost of acquisition and ongoing costs to serve, your numbers will never add up.

If it’s costing you more and more to acquire new customers, while you are experiencing high-rates of churn among existing, lower cost to acquire customers, the wall is fast approaching.

If you are adding a lot of cost to become omni-channel while merely spreading existing sales over a now higher cost base, you don’t have to be Descartes to know that’s not a long-term winning formula.

There are two ways we fight math. The first is to ignore it in the first place. The second is to stick our head in the sand when it starts to become more and more obvious that our numbers don’t add up.

Math–like feelings, ironically–doesn’t go away because we ignore it. Math doesn’t care that we are all about brand building. Math doesn’t have an opinion on how disruptive our start-up is. Math couldn’t care less that we hope to get acquired and cash out before we have to demonstrate profitability. Math is immutable and dispassionate. Math is a stubborn you-know-what.

Fight the industry incumbents all day long. Fight The Man, the power, the haters and the status quo as much of you want. Math doesn’t care.

But at some point, your numbers will have to add up and multiply through. And you’re going to want math on your side.

The tranquilizing drug of gradualism

In his “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged a slow and steady pathway to civil rights reform.

Those in favor of an incremental approach feared that making waves–that being too confrontational–would backfire. It was seen as too risky a strategy.

MLK argued that patiently working against the wrongs endured by millions created the illusion of progress. He worried that by merely chipping away at injustice, we were lulled into a sense of advancement when very little was actually being accomplished. Gradualism was not only misguided, it was actually more risky. Ultimately, our delusions prevented us from making substantive change; the change that was so desperately needed.

These challenges are hardly unique to the struggle for social justice.

Many organizations say all the right things but do very little. Companies invest piles of money and countless hours in largely meaningless tweaks to their offerings. Simple product line extensions count for “innovation” at most brands. New executive titles are created, and organizations re-shuffled, to give us a sense that we are doing something. Yet that something is typically more of the same under a different guise. All too often we become intoxicated by our words at the expense of our actions.

Continuous improvement amidst fundamental disruption doesn’t cut it.

A go slow approach to innovation when customers and markets are evolving rapidly only guarantees that we will fall further and further behind.

A frenzy of activity (supported by cool PowerPoint decks) may make us feel good, but until it ships it doesn’t count.

And unless we can rise above the clutter and the sea of sameness–if our work doesn’t make waves–we might as well not bother in the first place.