If you build it, they might yawn

Through my various roles I’m exposed to a lot of new ideas and business concepts. Some come from clients looking to grow, others from entrepreneurs hoping to create the next big thing and still others, somewhat randomly, from connections within my network or who find me via my writing and speaking.

Regardless of how our worlds collide, I generally find that most proponents have a decent sense of the customers they intend to serve and almost everyone can clearly articulate the features and benefits of their idea. It’s all good, but it’s rarely enough.

While technology has advanced to the point where many ideas–including your competitors’–can be developed and scaled rapidly and inexpensively, saying you’re a “lean startup” doesn’t automatically convey any advantage. And in a world where customers are overwhelmed by information and choice, your marginally better mousetrap isn’t likely to get easily noticed, much less considered.

The real battle today, the one you need to win, is for attention and trust.

It’s helpful to have a demonstrably better product or service, but to standout out among all the noise, your signal needs to be amplified. And that happens by being intensely relevant and truly remarkable–not merely incrementally better–and by delivering a story that demands to be told, again and again.

Building trust takes time. But if you are serious about building a brand it’s completely about creating an expectation of excellence and emotional power over time. And average or slightly better no longer works.

The reason so many new products and brands struggle is they are merely slightly different rifts on the same old features and benefits. Nice, but hardly remarkable.

The reason so many solid innovations struggle as well as that they fail to connect at an emotional level. Remember, people buy the story before they buy the product.

Just because it’s easy to build the product, don’t be seduced. Just because the internet allows for seemingly easy and cheap customer access, don’t under-estimate the challenge of breaking through the noise.

It’s never been easier to be innovative. It’s also never been easier to be boring.

Pure unicorn dust

Do you know companies that say they are all about growth and innovation, yet completely lack any semblance of a process or a modicum of dedicated funding and resources to support these efforts? Do they even possess a culture that not only celebrates taking risk, but that actually knows how to fail better?

Have you heard brands’ espouse a commitment to omni-channel and seamless integration that still operate with silo-ed organizations, silo-ed customer data, silo-ed systems and channel-driven, rather than customer-focused, metrics?

Perhaps you have a friend or a loved one who say they are full of love and compassion and who constantly speaks of making big changes in their life, but has yet to put any of it into practice?

When was the last time something worth doing spontaneously emerged at your organization? When the last time a major transformation happened without an all-in commitment from leadership and a willingness to take on the status quo? When was the last time you’ve made a big change in your life merely through talking about it?

Intentions are great. Concrete plans are better. But the work that matters is in the doing, in taking the plunge, in taking head-on the things that scare us, in making a ruckus.

Yes, it might not work. Sure, you could look stupid or reckless. And, there is a pretty good chance you’re going to piss some people off along your journey. That’s probably a clue that you’re on the right track.

Get out of the stands and into the arena. Anything else is just really good imagination.

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.