The unexpected virtue of ignorance

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Shunryu SuzukiZen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

If you are flying my plane, performing my surgery or repairing my car, I want you to have a darn good grasp of the details. True knowledge reigns supreme.

Before you deny rights to others–or steadfastly attempt to impose your opinions–you probably should be well versed in the facts. Ignorance is not bliss when it comes to how we treat each other.

But in a world where large and mounting problems linger, too often it seems as if all our experience isn’t helping very much. In fact, in the business world, it’s not hard to name dozens of once powerful brands that lost their mantle to inexperienced upstarts.

While the experts were all saying it couldn’t be done, the ignorant entrepreneur was out there doing it.

Once we tell ourselves we know what works, once we hear ourselves saying “we tried that before and it didn’t work”, once we have something we’re afraid to give up, the trouble begins.

And the door is opened to someone who doesn’t know any better.

 

 

 

Because it’s 11:30

Saturday Night Live celebrated its 40 years on the air last night. As we all know, SNL has launched the careers of many now famous stars and created dozens, if not hundreds, of iconic moments. Its catch-phrases are legendary and the program’s effect on popular culture is hard to exaggerate.

At the same time, any regular viewer is well aware of the flubbed lines, missed cues and the outright lameness of an occasional entire episode. Casting decisions seem to range from inspired to “who was asleep at that audition?” For every genius sketch there is at least one “what the heck were they thinking when they wrote that?” moment.

I can only imagine the thousands of times that cast members, writers, producers and the director must have desperately wished for additional time to re-write something or do a few more rehearsals.

But as SNL founder and long-time producer Lorne Michaels has said: “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready. The show goes on because it’s 11:30.”

SNL has brought us many incredible moments of entertainment, but it also teaches us some great lessons as well…

. . . to start before we are ready

. . . to err on the side of putting our art out into the world

. . . to realize that ‘this might fail’ and do it anyway

. . . to appreciate the power of the deadline

. . . to accept that sometimes the strangest idea can be the most powerful

. . . to ship, on time and often.

Now isn’t that special?

It’s 11:30. Let’s get out on that stage.

Incompetent, but valuable

We may tell ourselves that we know what we’re doing. That we are the masters of our domain. That we’ve got this and everything would be great if others would just get the heck out of our way.

Other times we fight the imposter syndrome, striving to maintain a brave face and hoping against hope that no one figures out how deeply we are struggling.

Or we may not even start something in the first place simply out of fear. We’ll feel foolish. We’ll never be good at it. Others may laugh.

Of course, the reality is that much of the time none of us completely knows what we are doing.  But here’s the thing . . .

We don’t have to be an expert to add value. Often it is the mind of the beginner that uncovers an innovation that matters.

We don’t have to be great to be useful. If I’m just a bit better at something you need than you are, I can be of service.

We don’t have to be perfect. Good enough is often just that.

 

HT to Aaron White for inspiring this post.

Setting yourself up for failure

If you fly airplanes, perform surgery or work for the Department of Homeland Security, when you have a bad day somebody dies. Avoiding a mistake is all important.

For most of us, however, our success is rooted in finding ways to differentiate ourselves and our brands in a world that is ever noisier, overwhelmingly crowded and increasingly blurry. Without innovation–without nearly constant evolution and change–we risk falling behind, or worse, sinking into the sea of irrelevance.

For the work we do, safety is not found in dogged adherence to a process designed to guarantee a specific result; where variation is inherently what needs to be exposed and eradicated.

For most of us, the works that matters requires that we adopt a process that explicitly recognizes failure as an inevitable outcome. Anything less–anything seemingly safer–is too timid, too boring, too fundamentally devoid of the remarkable, to have a chance to make the impact we need.

Setting ourselves up for failure is precisely what increases our odds for success.

 

 

Overplaying our hand

We’re told to hyper-focus on our core customers. After all, doesn’t most of our profit come from a small group of loyalists and “heavy-users”?

We’re admonished to double-down on our highest ROI marketing strategies. Surely if a moderate amount of email or direct mail or re-targeting is working, more must be even better, right?

And exhortations to find our strengths, exploit our core competencies and “stick to our knitting” are central to many best sellers and legendary Harvard Business Review articles

Lather, rinse and repeat.

And this all makes a lot of sense. Until it doesn’t.

The past few years have brought us dozens, if not hundreds, of brands that have gone away–think Blockbuster, Borders and, very shortly, Radio Shack–largely through adhering to these notions.  Still others sit on the brink of irrelevance–I’m looking at you Sears and Blackberry–because they pushed a singular way of thinking well past its expiration date and, sadly, the point of no return.

Even far stronger and far better managed brands fall into the trap of overplaying their hands. Neiman Marcus (my former employer)–along with many other luxury brands–have had to re-work their strategies because they became overly reliant on a narrow set of highly profitable customers and failed to acquire and retain other important and emerging cohorts.

It’s all too easy to become distracted by peripheral issues or to stray into areas where we have few useful capabilities. We always must be mindful of where the customer gives us–or where we can readily earn–permission to go.

But in a world that is changing ever faster, and where new competitors can often launch highly disruptive business models in short order, what got us to where we are isn’t likely to get us to where we need to be.

 

 

Innovating to parity

Let’s face it, most traditional retailers aren’t very good at innovation. There is no such thing as an R&D budget at most of them. Many barely even have any real process or tangible goals centered on bringing new things to market. Labeling your typical large retailer “reactive” when it comes to innovation is being generous and polite.  Not surprisingly, most of the useful disruption in the retail space has come from outsiders and start-ups.

Recently we have seen a number of sleeping giants begin to awaken to the need to raise their game and pick up the pace. The digital transformation that has swept through retail, and the resulting blurring of the channels, makes it impossible for even the most conservative of brands to sit idle.

Yet, here’s the problem. Most of these retailers are merely focused on closing the gap between them and the obvious or emerging leaders. Once some new technology or marketing technique or experiential dimension begins to prove itself out, then these companies kick into action. Apple starts doing untethered checkout, a couple of  years later mobile POS starts springing up nearly everywhere. A few brands have success with order online, pick up in store, and soon that is on everyone’s list of 2015 projects.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being mindful of which new strategies are gaining consumer and economic traction and positioning yourself to be a fast follower. And to be sure, if a company finds itself in trouble, it is completely sensible to find the areas of innovation that can quickly deliver the greatest near-term leverage.

But most of these brands are really just innovating to parity. By the time their innovation efforts get to scale, the next big thing is beginning to emerge and once again they themselves behind. It’s the proverbial difference between skating to where the puck is, rather than skating to where it’s going to be.

It’s great that more companies are embracing innovation. But it’s not enough to merely step on the innovation treadmill.

Winning in today’s environment requires a commitment to anticipate, to leap, to experiment, to fail, to refine and get up and try again.

Leading from behind has never worked.

And hoping to lead from parity probably won’t cut it either.

 

 

 

 

Going out on a limb

I don’t normally promote things on my blog, but I feel compelled to call your attention to Seth Godin’s new project “What To Do When It’s Your Turn (And It’s Always Your Turn).”   With any luck you’ve been exposed to Seth’s innovative work in the past. But if not, here’s a fantastic opportunity to dive in and get inspired.

Now in the spirit of full disclosure I should mention that I’ve known Seth for more than 30 years. He was my first business partner. He was Best Man at my wedding. So I’m hardly unbiased. However, if you feel the need to be challenged, prodded, cajoled or motivated to leap into the unknown or risky, you will not be disappointed.

See you out on the limb.

seth