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

What are we waiting for?

Are we waiting for the conditions to be just right, for the stars to perfectly align?

Are we waiting to complete our research, to get our tools lined up, to have our mise en place just so?

Are we waiting to have a crystal clear picture of our end-point, our destination, our desired outcome?

Are we waiting for the fear to die down, for that nagging voice that tells us ‘that this might not work’ to go away?

Are we waiting for someone to choose us?

Are we waiting for the right time?

I have some news for you.

The conditions will never be perfect.

You have everything you need to get started. You can always fill in the details and add the polish later.

Starting with the end in mind is a good idea, but the finished product is going to look quite different from anything you can predict or imagine. Enough with the planning.

That voice that keeps us stuck isn’t going away. We must fight it and push through the fear.

And sure, somebody might come along to anoint you or pluck you from obscurity, but I sure as hell wouldn’t count on it. Chances are you’re going to have to choose yourself. 

We have to start before we’re ready. What better time than right now?

 

HT to Beth Dana at First Unitarian Church of Dallas for the inspiration and title for this post.

It’s almost always easier to do nothing

Let’s face it, there are days when getting up off the sofa and heading out the door feels like a big deal.

But finishing that draft, shipping your project, abandoning the usual in favor of the innovative, exposing a new concept to the world? Well, that requires fortitude, vulnerability, risk.

I’ve been part of management teams that observed, studied and endlessly re-worked their plans while the competition sped past them.

I’ve become stuck in a swamp of procrastination, worried about abject failure or even the chance that people might see the chinks in my armor.

I’ve sat at the bedside of a dying parent, afraid to tell them what I really felt for fear that I couldn’t handle the overwhelming emotions.

It’s almost always easier to do nothing.

Until it isn’t.

Until that moment of opportunity is lost forever.

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.