Fish from the other side of the boat

Perhaps you know the biblical story about how Jesus comes upon a group of fishermen at the Sea of Galilee who aren’t having any luck catching fish.

After discovering their plight Jesus says to them: “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” And, as the story goes, when they try the other side of the boat they catch so many they can’t haul them all in.

Now the skeptical among us are likely quick to note that you have to be a pretty lousy fisherman to not figure this out for yourself. And you certainly don’t have to be a divine figure to come up with this rather obvious advice.

Yet despite my particular spiritual affiliation and general level of cynicism–spoiler alert: it’s high–I find the underlying message to be a strong one.

All too often, we get so stuck in habitual patterns that we fail to see the obvious. We return to the same practices and methods well past their point of effectiveness. We stay in relationships that, at best, aren’t growing and, at worst, cause unhappiness and resentment. We go back to the tried and true, because that’s what we’ve always done and it’s scary to let go and be willing to try something completely different.

It seems to me, sometimes we’ve had our line in the water in the same place for so long we don’t even notice we haven’t gotten any bites in a really long time.

HT to the Reverend Daniel Kanter for the sermon that inspired this post.




Quitting is underrated 

We don’t have to spend much time among our friends or on social media to run across the never give up, quitting is for losers, in-it-to-win-it ethos. There’s a whole socially acceptable narrative built around the notion that only weak people quit and that failure is never an option.

It’s ridiculous. It’s wrong. And it’s harmful.

Perseverance, grit, determination and hard work are certainly important to achieving our goals. But frequently our best work–the work that matters, disrupts, challenges the status quo–comes precisely because failure IS an option. It happens when we know “this might not work” and we choose to do it anyway.

Yet the best friend of an intentional choice to go out on a limb and take a risk is knowing when it’s time to quit. The point is not to avoid failure at all costs, the point is to fail better. Failing better means failing faster and failing smarter. It means knowing when to stop pushing too big of a rock up too big of a hill. It’s radical acceptance of reality. It means being vulnerable to the idea that despite our best efforts, despite what our original analysis told us, despite knowing that we might hurt someone else’s feelings, despite the real possibility of looking stupid, we simply need to stop.

I loved it when, in her now classic talk on shame, Brene Brown referred to TED as the “failure conference.” She called out the reality that all these great leaders and speakers we look up to had dared greatly and failed–many of them on more than one occasion. It was, in fact, a room chock-a-block with quitters. But not quitters who beat themselves up about it and became victims. They were all quitters who had indeed failed better. They eventually figured out when it was time to stop, learned from their mistakes and moved on.

It turns out that knowing when –and having the courage–to quit is exactly what frees us up to go and try the next big thing.

I wonder what we are all doing right now that’s worth quitting?

I wonder if we can muster up the courage to stop and simply say “no more.”

I wonder what amazing possibilities that will unleash.



Turn and face the strange

Submitted without further comment.

“The other thing I would say is that if you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.”

–David Bowie

This is not for you

I recently received a comment from a reader of this blog that said “if this is going to get political, I’m moving on.” He was apparently referring to a shot I took at Trump supporters in one of my posts which, I’ll now admit, I regret. I regret it not because it was off point or untrue, but because it was far too easy and obvious.

To be fair, while this blog is mostly about retail innovation, strategy and marketing, I often drift into my broader world view of leadership and spirituality. Regardless of where my musing takes me, it’s always been my goal to be authentic and to speak to issues I care about. It’s never been my goal to appeal to everyone. And, frankly, I don’t do some of the things that would grow a larger but decidedly less engaged audience.

When I ask myself “who is this blog for?” I’m comfortable with the answer that comes back. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. In fact I’ve decided that it won’t be. And if it’s not for you, that’s okay. So happy trails, my friend.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do for our brands –personal and otherwise–is to get crystal clear on who/what we are and who/what we are not. By doing so we make an intentional choice to not cast a wide net, to deliberately chase some people off, to cause some folks to say “I don’t get it.” There is great power in our confidently owning our “this is not for you” position.

Consider for a moment that restaurant that started out as Greek or Chinese or maybe only serving breakfast, but when business gets soft, they start adding things to appeal to a wider audience. Any chance they had to be unique and remarkable slowly gets diluted. Before long, they stand for absolutely noting. Before long their fate is sealed.

Rarely have the greatest artists quickly garnered wide followings. Many never did. Their relevance and importance remains undiminished. Few people “got” Picasso or Pollock early on. Upon hearing Coltrane or Mingus for the first time, most folks thought they were either weird or profoundly untalented.

Of course these eventual legends could have strived to broaden their appeal, they could have worked to smooth out the edges or stay in the realm of the more familiar. Thankfully they proudly stated “this is not for you” and forged ahead, working to deepen their craft.

It’s worth remembering that when we try to serve everything, we end up serving nothing.

When we try to please everybody, we end serving no one.




Swimming in the deep end

I want to live a life of purpose. I hope to see the world changed for the better. I want to innovate. I’d like to make a real and lasting difference.

So here’s my plan…

I’ll lay low. I’ll take little or no risk. I’m going to please everyone and try to get them to like me. When given a choice, I’ll take the path of least resistance. I’ll say things like “failure is not an option” and mean it. I’ll spend most of my time pointing out what others are doing wrong.

“But that’s a terrible plan” you say.

It is and it seems glaringly obvious. But it is, in fact, what so many of us (and the organizations we are part of) have chosen as our strategy, despite our statements to the contrary.

I wish there were an easier, softer way. Spoiler alert: there isn’t.

The work that matters gets done when we let go of our people-pleasing default mechanism.

The work that matters gets done when we accept that–as Seth reminds us–“if failure is not an option, then neither is success.”

The work that matters gets done by working out in public, by sitting right down in front where everyone can see us, by being in the arena, instead of the stands.

The work that matters happens when we show up, over and over again, as our most authentic selves.

The work that matters is set in motion when we have the courage to make a conscious and intentional choice to leave the shallow end for something deeper. To take the plunge. And to start swimming.


h/t to Brene Brown for the virtually constant inspiration.


Small is the new interesting

It’s been at least 20 years now that most value creation in retail has been driven by big. Big stores–both physical and digital. Big assortments. Big advertising.

Walmart and Target. Home Depot and Lowes. Amazon and eBay. Best Buy, Ikea, Office Depot and on and on. Superstores, category killers and the “endless aisle” online guys have won big (heh, heh) on scale, efficiency and low prices.

There’s a lot to be said for pushing the frontiers of big. When your goal is to be the “we have everything store” your marching orders are pretty clear. When you have to be the winner in a price war, your focus is obvious.

The problem is that big has its limits. And a closer examination of many “winning” retailers’ strategies reveals that big is losing momentum.

It turns out that a strategy of big eventually faces diminishing returns. It turns out that most of the winners of the past decade or so are running out of new stores to build. It turns out that many of the mass promotions that drive incremental business lose money. It turns out that for most of these brands e-commerce growth is unprofitable. But mostly it turns out that big is boring. And consumers are starting to notice.

There’s no question that big is here to stay. There’s little doubt that for many consumers–and a vast number of purchase occasions–the quest for dominant product selection, convenience and great prices will remain paramount. But that doesn’t mean that’s where the future opportunities lie or that your strategy shouldn’t shift.

Shift happens. And it’s a shift away from mass marketing to becoming more personalized. Away from overwhelming assortments to editing and curation. Away from products that everybody has to items and experiences that the consumer creates. Away from the seemingly inevitable regression towards the mean to a deliberate choice to eschew the obvious and explore the edges.

Many brands will have a hard time breaking out of the pursuit of big. They are too vested in building scale, too scared of Wall St.’s reaction to a strategy pivot, too addicted to mass advertising.

Of course, therein lies our opportunity. Maybe it’s time to embrace small while the rest of those guys continue to flog big.


Whose idea of stupid?

Since we seem to be a society that judges quickly, we often waste little time affixing all sorts of labels to all sorts of people and all sorts of situations.

That guys a loser (not to mention low energy).

We tried that before.

This will never work.

Your idea is stupid.

To be sure, there’s no shortage of dumb ideas. Yet sometimes stupid wins.

Facebook and Amazon were once pilloried as concepts that couldn’t possibly work. When Google started it was the 20th search engine to launch and completely lacked a revenue model. It also followed in the footsteps of several high-profile flameouts.

Tesla, Instagram and PayPal were all once seen as pretty ridiculous business models by just about everybody.

Psychologists talk about “projection”–the notion that when we feel the need to point out the failings of others it’s often rooted in our own insecurities. “If you spot it, you got it” as some like to say.

Sometimes there is stupidity in the world that needs to be called out and confronted.

But sometimes it’s better to judge slowly.

Sometimes it’s better to realize innovation frequently happens at the razor’s edge of stupidity.

And sometimes you just need to consider the source.