You know what’s hard?

Customers say they want a more seamless experience across all channels and touch-points. “Sure” you say, “but it’s very expensive and complicated to implement that level of integration.”

Silo-ed data, systems, organizations and metrics are keeping your brand from being more customer-centric and relevant. “I know” is your response, “but greater centralization would be very jarring to our culture.”

In an increasingly noisy world, mass marketing and one-size-fits-all approaches fail to gain share of attention, becoming less effective by the day. You respond, “you’re right, but treating different customers differently is difficult to scale.”

Relentless price promotions and layering of discounts and reward points deteriorate profit margins, teach customers to only buy on sale and accelerate an inevitable race to the bottom. Your defense is to say “well that’s what moves the top line” and to point out how hard it is to justify full price.

In the inevitable battle between denial, defending the status quo and rationalization vs. acceptance, leaping and innovation, we tend to choose the former. And our fate is sealed.

Many of the things we avoid as too risky are, in fact, often just the opposite. The risk is in the failure to change, in the lack of passion to become intensely relevant, in being stuck in “me too” instead of choosing to become remarkably different.

What’s hard is to move where the customer is headed after the competition has already established a beach head.

What’s hard is to break through the clutter with undifferentiated products and tired messaging.

What’s hard is to acquire, grow and retain the right customers with average products for average people.

What’s hard is to catch up when you’ve fallen behind.

Mass or built for me?

All about price, or all about unique value?

Average or remarkable?

My guess is that every brand that’s gone through the work of closing stores, firing people and liquidating inventory might have a different view of what’s hard.

Not quite my tempo

Every individual has a pace at which they prefer to work. Of course it can vary given the circumstances. We can pick up the tempo in a crisis, or slow down when faced with uncertainty. But there is a rhythm that feels most natural to us and, often, folks that consistently work faster or slower than we do can frustrate us.

Organizations are similar. Some are constantly on the balls of their feet, poised for action, working briskly through issues, taking risks, experimenting. When a new opportunity arises, they are ready to pounce. They’re passionate–and in a hurry–to be part of the next big thing.

Others are at the other end of the spectrum. They sit back and observe. They are cautious, timid even, moving deliberately to scope the situation out. They’re more afraid to make a mistake than to fall behind. They constantly need to be pushed into making any meaningful change.

There are problems with going too fast, just as there can be issues with going too slow. This clip from Whiplash brilliantly illustrates that one challenge is knowing and accepting your tempo.

In case you haven’t notice, the pace of innovation is accelerating. Customer expectations are being transformed, seemingly overnight. Whole industries are being disrupted like never before.

Which is why it’s a good time for a tempo check.

And when in doubt, it’s probably better to rush, than drag.

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.