Books about heaven

Perhaps you’ve seen the legendary New Yorker magazine cartoon that depicts a man standing before two doors, seemingly perplexed. One door is labeled “Heaven” and the other is labeled “Books About Heaven.”

Pick just about any topic you say you are passionate about. Happiness. Innovation. Marriage equality. Immigration reform. Customer experience.  Climate change. Being a better parent. Eating healthy. Whatever.

If you are anything like me, sometimes it’s easier to be preparing to go do something meaningful than to actually wholeheartedly embrace the thing we say we want. If I just research a bit more, I tell myself, I will really be prepared when the time is right.

But there is no perfect time.

We have to start before we are ready.

We have to do the work, rather than just read about the work.

Our own version of heaven is here right now, if we are willing to see it and embrace. And if we are willing to start.

 

HT to Steven Pressfield for the inspiration for this post. If you need help getting started I implore you to read his manifesto  “Do the Work” and his book “The War of Art”.

 

 

 

Welcome to the failure conference

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change”  - Brene Brown

I hope you are familiar with the work of Brene Brown. Brene is a shame researcher and the author of several great books on the power of vulnerability and the gifts of imperfection. She’s delivered two of the most popular TED talks of all time. She’s been on Oprah. She’s helped me change my life. Yeah, she’s kind of a big deal.

In her most recent TED talk, one of the many powerful things Brene said was this:

“You know what the big secret about TED is? I can’t wait to tell people this. I guess I’m doing it right now. (Laughter) This is like the failure conference. No, it is. (Applause) You know why this place is amazing? Because very few people here are afraid to fail. And no one who gets on the stage, so far that I’ve seen, has not failed. I’ve failed miserably, many times. I don’t think the world understands that because of shame.”

When I headed up strategy & innovation at a large retailer several years ago, I had a one-on-one session with the CEO to discuss a new venture my team was just starting work on. Maybe two minutes into our meeting he paused dramatically, looked at me very seriously and said “Steve, here’s the thing. We can’t fail. We can’t afford another (and here he mentioned a failed store concept from years ago which, as an aside, was doomed from the start by a number of bone-headed decisions). I don’t want to take any risk. None. Do you understand?”

Yeah, I understood. I was screwed. We were screwed. Needless to say, innovation, creativity and change were hardly the hallmarks of our culture during that time and any progress we made was, shall we say, not so easily won.

If you are committed to innovation, you are signing up for failure. It’s not being reckless, but it is accepting that failure comes with the territory. The key is not to never fail, the key is to fail better.

If you are committed to creativity, you are vulnerable to criticism. Any time you put something really new out into the world and say “here I made this” judgment (and perhaps outright hatred) is bound to follow. It can’t stop you.

If you are committed to meaningful change, you are almost certain to be walking straight into gale force headwinds. Vested interests and defenders of the status quo will fight you at every turn. Stay the course. In fact, perhaps it’s time to step on the gas.

It’s taken me a long time to learn this lesson–and frankly I still fight the battle every single day–but I know I do my best work when I push through my fear, when I allow myself to be vulnerable, when I accept that failure is inherent to any growth process.

I hope to see you at the next failure conference. Let’s sit right down front where everyone can see us.

 

 

 

Do not cross this line

This past Saturday I was at the Tate Modern in London when I happened upon an installation by minimalist artist Donald Judd.

The piece is a large box that–through its materials and coloration–is evocative of a fire pit. Around the perimeter of the box, about 3 feet out from the sides, is thick black tape, along with the words: “Do not cross this line.”

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I found myself wondering why that was there.

Was it to enhance the work’s visual impact? I could surmise that the piece was best viewed from certain angles and being too close would destroy part of the illusion.

Was it to protect the artwork? It’s certainly common for museums to have various admonitions posted to keep visitors from damaging the displays.

Was it part of the art? Maybe Judd was messing with us. In a museum filled with bold and innovative statements, perhaps this was his way to test and challenge us. Maybe my reaction was exactly what he was going for? What would happen if I crossed it?

Alas, I never reached a totally satisfactory answer. And I didn’t cross the line.

As I an enjoyed a post-visit coffee, it occurred to me that we are told not to cross certain lines all the time. Sometimes explicitly, other times the inference is clear. Often the lines that are set are completely arbitrary. Most of the time they are drawn as a means of protection.

The most insidious, I think, are the lines that we draw for ourselves out of fear. Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment. Fear of discomfort. And on and on. Sometimes we aren’t even aware that we’ve set those boundaries. They’ve become part of who we are. They keep us stuck.

It’s obvious that drawing lines that don’t get crossed is part of any modern, well-ordered society. It’s also obvious that little that is innovative and meaningful happens without certain lines being crossed.

I guess if we’re going to have lines that we don’t cross we had better be sure they’re drawn in the right place to begin with.

 

 

 

 

Hanging around the edge of the pool

It’s pretty comfortable on the pool deck. We get to relax in a chaise lounge, soaking in the warm sun, taking in the scenery. Maybe somebody will even bring us a fruity drink with an umbrella in it.

It’s pretty comfortable being a consumer. It doesn’t take much energy to absorb while somebody else creates and produces; to catch while the other guy or gal pitches.

It’s pretty comfortable being a critic. Where’s the risk in pointing out the shortcomings of the innovator and the failings of the artist?

It’s pretty comfortable being a cheerleader. Not much chance of injury as we watch those in the arena from the sidelines and shout enthusiastic words of encouragement.

Of course nothing meaningful actually gets done through observation. Knowledge of a problem doesn’t solve the problem. Cheerleaders don’t win the game.

Let’s face it: there’s no shortage of people hanging around the edge of the pool.

What we need is more of us willing to take the plunge.

 

HT to Paul Shoemaker and Seth for reminders that inspired this post.

Oh, they’re not a competitor

Shortly after I became the head of strategy and multi-channel marketing at The Neiman Marcus Group I was asked to lead a strategic planning session for our senior executives. One of the exercises I suggested was a deep dive on our opportunities and vulnerabilities against each of our key competitors. As I reviewed my overall plan one of the top leaders responded, “I like the overall approach, but you need to take Nordstrom off your list. They’re not a competitor.”

Having come to Neiman’s after 12 years at Sears–which I affectionately call my journey from the outhouse to the penthouse–I will admit that my experience in the nuances of the luxury industry was pretty lacking at that point. I certainly understood that a substantial percentage of our customers were fabulously wealthy and preferred brands that you simply could not get at Nordstrom. But I had already learned that many of our shoppers were much less affluent and that we sold quite a few brands that overlapped. Nevertheless, being the new guy–and not especially confident in my hypotheses–I acquiesced. We didn’t talk about Nordstrom.

About a year later my team initiated an in-depth analysis of customer spending and activity trends. Ultimately what we found was pretty disturbing. While our very top spending group was growing in sales and margin rate, customers that represented about 2/3 of our sales had weakening stats.

As it turned out, virtually all our sales growth during the preceding 5 years was driven by raising our average unit prices and the growth of our e-commerce business. After much hemming and hawing about the value (and cost) of doing consumer research, we finally got approval to do a series of studies to understand the underlying drivers of these outcomes. We learned a lot, most of which Neiman’s failed to act upon until the financial crisis hit. But the overwhelming conclusion was that when we lost customers (or a portion of a customer’s spending) the majority of that leakage was to Nordstrom.

Oops.

The point of this story is not to point out the limitations of the Neiman’s culture at that time, nor the power of my intuition. The fact is you don’t have to do much digging to find similar examples of mis-reading the consumer and failing to respond adequately playing out, over and over again, in any and all parts of industry.

Sometimes competition is rather direct even when there is a major value proposition innovation. Flash-sale sites clearly competed for a certain segment of the fashion business. Digital books and music obviously challenged the underlying business models of Borders and Blockbuster.

Sometimes competition might be less direct and its game-changing impact may be harder to glean at first. I’m not sure what the brand management teams at Folger’s and Maxwell House were thinking during the initial growth of Starbucks, but it’s now clear that there was a dramatic consumer preference shift that those brands failed to address–and a huge value creation opportunity that they didn’t participate in.

Even harder to see is when consumers have a more macro-substitution effect. For example, with some consumer segments, we’ve seen a broad and long-term trend to greater interest in personal experiences. This shift has, in many cases, supplanted spending on certain physical goods.

As in most elements of good strategy development the keys are pretty simple:

  • Clearly articulate a data-supported and trackable customer segmentation scheme
  • Stay current on the wants, needs and long-term value of each of those segments
  • Monitor direct competitors and emerging competitors for EACH segment
  • Model impact scenarios for nascent opportunities and threats
  • Develop potential responses and testing plans under each of those scenarios
  • When the time is right test those responses
  • Assume the time is right much earlier than seems comfortable
  • Be prepared to compete with yourself.

And one more thing. If someone tells you “Oh, they’re not a competitor” you might not want to take their word on it.

In God we trust, all others must bring data.

 

Out of an abundance of caution

With recent health scares and a surge in terrorism threats, we’ve heard many public servants justify their actions as being “out of an abundance of caution.” Of course what they really mean is “there’s virtually no chance anything bad is going to happen, but we’d all freak out a bit less if I do this. And, by the way, if anything remotely related to what we’re afraid of occurs, I’ve covered my butt.”

For many organizations outside of the government sector, making decisions “out of an abundance of caution” might as well be in their mission statement.

It’s out of an abundance of caution that we keep repeating old strategies and tactics hoping for different outcomes.

It’s out of an abundance of caution that we keep measuring and rewarding people the same way we have for years despite seismic industry shifts.

It’s out of an abundance of caution that we don’t budget for innovation.

It’s out of an abundance of caution that we keep hiring and promoting folks who look and think just the way we do.

It’s out of an abundance of caution that we’re afraid to experiment.

When government officials exercise overkill on precautionary measures at least they are trying to prevent large number of people from getting killed or injured.

When leaders in businesses or NGO’s do it, they may think they are being prudent. Yet in fact it’s an abundance of caution that is precisely the reason their organization is becoming more risky every day.

 

 

But first you have to believe

I’m all for market studies. And consumer research. And fact-based analysis. I’ve rarely met a 2 x 2 matrix I didn’t like.

I’m all for laying out reasonable hypotheses and putting together a sound testing plan. If I’m honest, I’m pretty solidly in the  “in God we trust, all others must bring data” camp.

But for me there’s no getting around this pesky little slice of reality. More times than not, the truly innovative, the remarkable, the profoundly game-changing, emerges not from an abundance of analysis and left-brain thinking, but from an intuitive commitment to a bold new idea.

More than a decade ago the folks at Nordstrom didn’t have an iron-clad, ROI supported business case when they made the big leap into investing behind channel integration. They believed that putting the customer at the center of what you do is ultimately going to work out.

Steve Jobs eschewed logic and conventional wisdom to pursue Apple’s strategy of “insanely great” products. He believed that leading with design and focusing on ease of use creates breakthrough innovation and customer utility.

Just about every successful entrepreneur adopts a strong and abiding belief in her product or service in the face of facts and history that suggest that, at best, they are wasting their time and money and, at worst, they are simply nuts.

On the other side–with clients and in organizations where I’ve been a leader–a lack of belief that getting closer to the customer is generally a good idea or that it’s okay to fail has resulted in an unwillingness to invest in innovation. Any meaningful action was predicated on a tight business case and, when that was lacking, it was easier to do nothing than to take a chance. All these brands are now struggling to catch up.

Obviously commitment to a belief is not, in and of itself, sufficient. Execution always matters. And there are certainly plenty of strongly held beliefs that are wildly misguided or morally reprehensible.

Yet, when I embrace the notion that just about every great idea starts with a belief not a compelling set of facts–or that often some people see things way before my logical brain can-the field of possibilities expands.

And I believe that sounds like a pretty good thing.