Collaborate with the unknown

Few truly important things happen in the warm safety of the familiar.

Clearly, the tried and true works some of the time. Yet much of the really interesting and impactful happens as we challenge our self-imposed boundaries and confront the bracing chill of our discomfort. When we choose–and don’t let any one tell you it’s not a choice–to walk through our fear, nearly infinite possibilities come in to view.

Innovation, by definition, implies a dance with uncertainty. Meaningful change occurs when we accept that this might not work, but we forge ahead anyway.

We exert so much energy–and spend so much time–fighting the unknown.

What if we decided to collaborate instead?

Might happen, will happen, has happened

In a classic Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis routine, Rowan asks “what is the secret to great comedy?” But before Richard can offer his reply, Rowan interrupts. “Timing” he blurts out.

Timing is, of course, essential to great strategy as well. Commit too early, and we risk over-investing or distracting ourselves from something more urgent and important. Commit too late, and we might miss a new opportunity entirely or end up falling woefully behind.

Understanding when to act at all, much less knowing when to act decisively, has everything to do with developing keen awareness of relevant factors and acceptance of their implications. Here is where most get it wrong.

Because most brands fail to invest sufficiently in developing actionable market and consumer insight, their ability to discern between “might happen”, “will happen” and “has happened” is woefully lacking.

Because most organizations do not have sufficient commitment to experimentation, they aren’t ready to act boldly when “might happen” becomes “will happen”.

Because most companies spend more time defending the status quo rather than embracing the future, they are often stuck in the past and miss “has happened” entirely.

Many important dynamics have–or are about to–change your customers and your business. Whether you realize it or not, is one thing.

And whether you are prepared to act on that realization is ultimately the difference between winning and wondering what the heck just happened?

 

Adapters and Mitigators. Deniers and Innovators.

It’s hardly a great insight to opine that life is full of change. But whether it’s in business or on the personal front, the increasing pace of change may very well astound you. Or frighten you.

When faced with change we have a few differing personas and postures that we can adopt. I’ve broken them into four types.

Adapters. These folks lean into the reality of the situation. They don’t spend much time or energy lamenting the change, they evolve with it. Adapters are typically playing offense.

Mitigators. This type seeks to reduce the impact of any change, pushing back on the root cause of any shift in the way the world is or is quickly becoming. They are focused on alleviating the pain or damage. They play good defense.

Deniers are those that can’t accept reality or responsibility. Stuck in the past, head in the sand, they don’t really play offense or defense. They just don’t play. They are the CEO’s who have yet to embrace all things digital. They are the divorced man or woman who can’t stop bashing their ex and move on. The people who think dinosaurs and man were around at the same time. Sometimes they are named Dick Cheney.

Innovators are rarely in reaction to the simple here and now. They have the ability to see beyond the obvious and define a new reality. They don’t really adapt or mitigate a situation because they solve a completely different problem or reframe the field of play.

Depending on the situation, being either an Adapter or a Mitigator can be an effective strategy–though rarely does either bring truly remarkable results. Instead, it is the Innovator who has the power to create a step function in utility or orders of magnitude of impact. Easier said than done.

And of course being a Denier just doesn’t work. For anyone.

Unfortunately, when we get stuck in our ignorance or fear, it is a path that is all too easily–and all too commonly–chosen.

We can too better. We have to do better.

 

Shut up and begin

At any given moment, on any given day, my mind is filled with all sorts of things, from the sublime to the trivial. People I should call. Tasks to check off my to-do list. Ideas I want to develop. Projects that–as we say here in Texas–I’m fixin’ to start. That book I’m supposed to be writing. I know I have all sorts of important work to do…and yet…

And yet scarcely a few seconds pass before the Resistance hits. It’s not long before all my doubts and fears begin to find a warm, receptive and, dare I say, familiar place in my brain. Avoidance trumps action. Procrastination is my new best friend.

Sure, I could get started right here, right now, but don’t I require more research? Shouldn’t I let those ideas percolate a bit more before committing them to paper? Isn’t it prudent to prepare more thoroughly before making that call? Isn’t tomorrow a better time to get started anyway?

We all have that inner voice telling us that we are not good enough, that there will be a better time than now, that with just a bit more of this or a smidgen of that the universe will be better aligned for us to do our best work.

Don’t believe it.

In the time it takes to tell ourselves all the reasons we should wait for inspiration, to ponder a wee bit more, to do further research, to seek that perfect confluence of events, we could have started. With rare exception, there never will be a better time than now.

So shut up and begin.

Timid transformation

Funny how many companies speak of the fundamental shifts affecting their industries but haven’t gotten around to changing much about they way they go to market.

And isn’t it peculiar how most brands talk about putting the customer at the center of everything they do yet–with few exceptions–they are still organized by channel and cling to a heavy reliance on mass marketing techniques?

As disruptive new business models emerge and gobble up market share in just about every sector of our economy, you would think that more industry incumbents would be motivated to change and to change profoundly. Alas, mostly we get rhetoric, empty promises and tepid experiments.

The transformative forces shaping consumer behavior–the connection economy, all things digital and so on–fray traditional loyalties, make many historically strong business models obsolete and only serve to accelerate the shift in power away from brands toward the customer.

So you would think that companies would realize the need to change as fast as their consumers. But evidence suggests that this rarely happens.

It’s far from obvious that timid transformations work.  So why then is that the path you’ve chosen?

 

 

 

Unleash the demos

Yesterday I finished a several day “spiritual” retreat in Sedona with Deepak Chopra (I’ll pause while you conjure up your cynical comment).

One of the things Deepak talks about is “the field of infinite possibilities” (insert second cynical comment here. I’ll wait some more. Time is, after all, merely an illusion).

Anyway, in his view we are all born inherently creative beings, but as we grow up our experiences and conditioning lead us to impose limitations on our capabilities. Many of us are left seeing the world narrowly and often being ruled by fear. Over time, we come to believe that our possibilities–our choices–are rather finite.

So after the seminar ends I’m driving toward Phoenix and I begin exploring the radio stations on my rental car. After a few minutes I discover the XM Billy Joel channel. The very first tune I hear is an early demo for his classic “Piano Man”–a song I’ve heard hundreds, if not thousands, of times. I quickly notice that many of the familiar lyrics are there, but a number are quite different. The bridge evokes the memory of the final product, but definitely doesn’t sound quite right. The arrangement also seems off and the song is much shorter than the publicly released version we’ve grown to love.

After the “Piano Man” demo ends I’m reminded of the story Paul McCartney tells about how The Beatles would start their creative process by inserting meaningless lyrics while they worked out a new song. The most famous is probably the original lyrics for “Yesterday”: “Scrambled eggs, oh my darling how I love your legs.”

My guess is that few of us are surprised that the creation and refinement of demos is inherent to the music making process. It’s not the least bit shocking to learn that successful artists often go through dozens of variations–tweaking, adding, destroying, reworking–before the polished version is ready to ship.

Yet despite the obvious benefit of this creative process, few of us apply the same or similar notion to our lives or our work. We let our fear keep us from exposing a rough cut to the world. We let our perfection control us. We tell ourselves “I’ll show it to someone when it’s ready.” And then it’s never ready.

Maybe you are one of those people who can totally work out an idea in your head.

Maybe your concept wouldn’t benefit from exposure to peer review, market testing or your own version of a hack-a-thon.

Maybe.

But for the rest of us, unleash the demos!

 

 

Your baby is ugly

If you are anything like me, you find it pretty easy to sit on the outside and pronounce judgment on others’ foibles, follies and plain old dumb ideas. If you are anything like me, it’s also easy to be oblivious to our own misadventures in the same or similar realms.

I’ve worked on growth and innovation strategies for most of my career. On occasion we did not make the progress we wanted because we were short on ideas and inspiration. Much of the time, however, it was because someone in a position of authority was holding on to something they had birthed and they weren’t willing to let it go. If I’m honest, sometimes that person was me.

When we put our heart and soul into something it is often difficult to see it objectively. When our ego becomes attached to that concept’s success–when the strategy and our sense of self begin to meld–than we often find ourselves in a bad place.

I worked with a well-known brand whose CEO was credited with crafting and executing a strategy that was wildly successful. Financial results were excellent and the company had substantially distanced itself from its nearest competitor. Unfortunately the evidence was mounting that not only was the strategy losing steam, but major pockets of weakness were emerging, creating considerable vulnerabilities should there be an economic downturn. Subsequent analysis and consumer research revealed the scary truth.

Those of us who were growing increasingly alarmed made numerous presentations to try to persuade the CEO to see our version of reality and convince him to take action. For the most part, we failed.

We failed not because our analysis was flawed or that our logic was shaky or that we didn’t have some kick-ass PowerPoint slides. The simple fact was we were telling him his baby was ugly and he was way too identified with the strategy to see that he had over played his hand.

I’m a firm believer in data, analysis and logic. I’ve had a fair amount of success being pretty darn good at persuading people to move outside their comfort zones. I like to believe that when presented with the facts I’m open to changing my mind.

But sometimes our baby is ugly. Until we are ready to let go of our ego–to being attached to the idea that our worth and our idea are intrinsically linked–chances are that all the forceful arguments and clever PowerPoint decks are merely annoyances.

 

 

The status quo is expensive

Most organizations are pretty good at conducting a cost/benefit analysis for a contemplated new program. If a brand is considering investing in IT infra-structure or building a new concept store or making a strategic acquisition, the finance team will crank out cash flow analyses ad nauseam.

Executive teams will debate assumptions, argue over the appropriate discount rate and likely spin multiple scenarios to try to gauge the risk of saying “yes.”

Ultimately when the “no” comes, chances are it’s because the project or venture is deemed too expensive. Too much cash to invest, too much risk, too much of a distraction to the core business. You’ve heard all the reasons before.

But with all the time, energy and angst put into what happens if we say “yes” how often do we really contemplate what happens if we say “no?”

Maybe you’ve noticed that much of the incremental value created for consumers and investors comes from innovative start-ups that steal share from industry incumbents.

Maybe you’ve realized how quickly the world is changing and how the tried and true can become obsolete almost overnight.

Maybe you’ve witnessed your company fail to act soon enough and decisively enough in the face of new technology or rapidly evolving consumer demands.

Sure investing in innovation can be very expensive. But you are kidding yourself if you don’t think the status quo is pretty damn pricey as well.

Wabi-sabi

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic concept that finds beauty in imperfection and the universe’s natural cycle of growth, decay, and death.

Embracing wabi-sabi means eschewing the unnecessary, getting rid of the clutter and valuing authenticity above all else.

Wabi-sabi requires us to accept the reality that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. It requires us to not only believe that this is okay, but to see that there is great power and serenity in the practice.

For me, it is precisely my wrong-headed attachment to a concept of perfection that keeps me spinning, stuck in my fear of shipping.

For me, I can easily get distracted, adding complexity to a project or adorning an idea with superficiality, when it’s more than good enough just as it is.

For me, it’s so easy to see the risk in being wrong, without seeing the risk of inaction and the uselessness of endless worry.

When I inject wabi-sabi into my creative process, I produce more and stress less.

When I practice wabi-sabi I am able to fail better.

And that’s perfect enough for me.

 

 

 

All in

There is no shortage of business bestsellers, insightful white-papers and Harvard Business Review articles regaling us with multi-point programs to drive successful growth strategies. Consultants abound–including this guy–pushing clever frameworks to guide your brand to the corporate promised land.

Best demonstrated practices. Core capabilities. Disruptive innovation. Business process re-engineering. We’ve heard it all.

Yet despite an abundance of knowing, there is a paucity of doing. The same companies with the same access to the same information–employing high quality, well-intentioned  executives–get widely (and sometimes wildly) different results.

Having spent more than a decade working in omni-channel retail driving customer-centric growth initiatives, I’m often asked which company is the leader in this space. I usually say Nordstrom.

I led strategy and multi-channel marketing at Neiman Marcus during the time Nordstrom began investing in customer-centricity and cross-channel integration. So I can spout chapter and verse about the differences between our approaches and all the opportunities we missed. But with Neiman’s announcement this week of their new customer-centric organization (better late than never!) there are a few key things to point out:

  • Neiman’s has a lot of catching up to do
  • We knew the same things Nordstrom knew when they aggressively committed to their strategy nearly a decade ago
  • Nordstrom acted, we (mostly) watched.

We can quibble about some of the facts and the differences in our relative situations, but when it comes down to why they are the leader and Neiman’s–and plenty of others–are playing catching up, it comes down to this:

  • Nordstrom had a CEO who fundamentally believed in the vision and who committed to going beyond short-term pressures and strict ROI calculations
  • They went all in.

In a world that moves faster and faster all the time, organizations are really left with two core strategic options: Wait and see or go all in. Most choose the former and end up going out of business or stuck in the muddling middle.

Going all in doesn’t mean investing with reckless abandon or rolling the dice. Most all in companies do plenty of testing and learning. But testing with a view toward scaling up or moving on is a sign of commitment and strength not uncertainty and weakness.

Going all in must start at the top, with an executive who is wired to say yes. An all in strategy is fraught with risk. Mistakes will be made. You need a boss who has your back.

Going all in necessarily requires a supportive culture, but without complete organizational commitment it’s not nearly enough.

Going all in doesn’t pre-suppose a journey without bumps in the road. All in companies know how to fail better.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast?

Commitment eats strategy for lunch, dinner and a late night snack.