The status quo is expensive

Most organizations are pretty good at conducting a cost/benefit analysis for a contemplated new program. If a brand is considering investing in IT infra-structure or building a new concept store or making a strategic acquisition, the finance team will crank out cash flow analyses ad nauseam.

Executive teams will debate assumptions, argue over the appropriate discount rate and likely spin multiple scenarios to try to gauge the risk of saying “yes.”

Ultimately when the “no” comes, chances are it’s because the project or venture is deemed too expensive. Too much cash to invest, too much risk, too much of a distraction to the core business. You’ve heard all the reasons before.

But with all the time, energy and angst put into what happens if we say “yes” how often do we really contemplate what happens if we say “no?”

Maybe you’ve noticed that much of the incremental value created for consumers and investors comes from innovative start-ups that steal share from industry incumbents.

Maybe you’ve realized how quickly the world is changing and how the tried and true can become obsolete almost overnight.

Maybe you’ve witnessed your company fail to act soon enough and decisively enough in the face of new technology or rapidly evolving consumer demands.

Sure investing in innovation can be very expensive. But you are kidding yourself if you don’t think the status quo is pretty damn pricey as well.

I am the Pope

“It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it. Then I wake up completely and remember I am the Pope.”

- Pope John XXIII

We don’t suffer from a shortage of people who are happy to point out all the problems in the world. They regularly remind every one of the great harm being done to us, by all of them. A lot of their sentences start out with some variant of “if only they would just…” Problems have a way of finding them.

It turns out that if you throw a pity party it’s always well attended.

It turns out you can build a “news” network rooted in telling the world about all the problems with the other guys. And it turns out a lot of people will watch. Because it’s so easy to do only that. Watch.

If we kept score in this little game it would be something like Victims 55, Doers 2.

Now I have no illusions of papal grandeur (note to self: great band name!). And I engage in plenty of thinking and telling. The irony of this post is hardly lost on me.

But when I let my ego seduce me into thinking that I am actually accomplishing much by being the judge, jury, critic or analyst, then I am living a delusional life.

There may be only one Pope. But there are a lot of us who would benefit from waking up completely to the reality of what we all can go do.

 

 

Wabi-sabi

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese aesthetic concept that finds beauty in imperfection and the universe’s natural cycle of growth, decay, and death.

Embracing wabi-sabi means eschewing the unnecessary, getting rid of the clutter and valuing authenticity above all else.

Wabi-sabi requires us to accept the reality that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. It requires us to not only believe that this is okay, but to see that there is great power and serenity in the practice.

For me, it is precisely my wrong-headed attachment to a concept of perfection that keeps me spinning, stuck in my fear of shipping.

For me, I can easily get distracted, adding complexity to a project or adorning an idea with superficiality, when it’s more than good enough just as it is.

For me, it’s so easy to see the risk in being wrong, without seeing the risk of inaction and the uselessness of endless worry.

When I inject wabi-sabi into my creative process, I produce more and stress less.

When I practice wabi-sabi I am able to fail better.

And that’s perfect enough for me.

 

 

 

All in

There is no shortage of business bestsellers, insightful white-papers and Harvard Business Review articles regaling us with multi-point programs to drive successful growth strategies. Consultants abound–including this guy–pushing clever frameworks to guide your brand to the corporate promised land.

Best demonstrated practices. Core capabilities. Disruptive innovation. Business process re-engineering. We’ve heard it all.

Yet despite an abundance of knowing, there is a paucity of doing. The same companies with the same access to the same information–employing high quality, well-intentioned  executives–get widely (and sometimes wildly) different results.

Having spent more than a decade working in omni-channel retail driving customer-centric growth initiatives, I’m often asked which company is the leader in this space. I usually say Nordstrom.

I led strategy and multi-channel marketing at Neiman Marcus during the time Nordstrom began investing in customer-centricity and cross-channel integration. So I can spout chapter and verse about the differences between our approaches and all the opportunities we missed. But with Neiman’s announcement this week of their new customer-centric organization (better late than never!) there are a few key things to point out:

  • Neiman’s has a lot of catching up to do
  • We knew the same things Nordstrom knew when they aggressively committed to their strategy nearly a decade ago
  • Nordstrom acted, we (mostly) watched.

We can quibble about some of the facts and the differences in our relative situations, but when it comes down to why they are the leader and Neiman’s–and plenty of others–are playing catching up, it comes down to this:

  • Nordstrom had a CEO who fundamentally believed in the vision and who committed to going beyond short-term pressures and strict ROI calculations
  • They went all in.

In a world that moves faster and faster all the time, organizations are really left with two core strategic options: Wait and see or go all in. Most choose the former and end up going out of business or stuck in the muddling middle.

Going all in doesn’t mean investing with reckless abandon or rolling the dice. Most all in companies do plenty of testing and learning. But testing with a view toward scaling up or moving on is a sign of commitment and strength not uncertainty and weakness.

Going all in must start at the top, with an executive who is wired to say yes. An all in strategy is fraught with risk. Mistakes will be made. You need a boss who has your back.

Going all in necessarily requires a supportive culture, but without complete organizational commitment it’s not nearly enough.

Going all in doesn’t pre-suppose a journey without bumps in the road. All in companies know how to fail better.

Culture eats strategy for breakfast?

Commitment eats strategy for lunch, dinner and a late night snack.

 

Okay, so what’s your plan?

It’s so easy to be the judge or critic.

It’s so easy to dismiss a new idea.

It’s so easy to do absolutely nothing. Until it’s not.

Being hesitant to adopt a radical new organization structure to address changing customer demands is understandable. It’s risky. But the problems and opportunities don’t disappear because you won’t act.

Refusing to compete against yourself makes a certain amount of sense, until you wake up to how much market share you’ve lost to the competition through your inaction.

Hating the Affordable Care Act may get you on Fox News, or make you the big man at the backyard BBQ, but it doesn’t fix the spiraling cost of health care or deal with the huge societal and financial costs of the uninsured.

Defenders of the status quo mostly get a pass. Until it’s too late. Than the day of reckoning can be pretty brutal indeed.

Fine. You see the failings in my idea? You don’t like my proposal?

Then you owe us your plan.

Go ahead, we’re listening.

 

January Christmas lights

I bet you know at least one family who leaves their Christmas decorations up way past the end of the holiday season.

Those of us who think we know the appropriate time to take things down, box them up and move on, roll our eyes or derisively mock our neighbor who just doesn’t get it. “What’s the deal with these people?” we wonder every time we walk or drive past their place.

Of course, the “guilty party” is oblivious to our judgment–or simply doesn’t care.

Of course, all of our consternation won’t change anything.

Of course, none of this is very important anyway.

So why do we care? Why can we not resist pointing the finger at the guy down the street?

I wonder whether deep down we all know that we are holding on to ideas, beliefs, practices and resentments that no longer serve us. And it is so much easier to shine the light on what YOU should dismantle or let go of, than for me to cast aside or put away MY things that are well past their expiration date.

I wonder how many things all of us–and our organizations–cling to when it is well past the time to move on.

And I wonder how many people are able to see my metaphorical list of January Christmas lights and think “what’s the deal with this guy?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grey is my favorite color

I know a lot of people who see the world in black and white. And I love you, I really do. I am a recovering black and white person myself.

A world of fair or not fair, right or wrong, this or that, may tilt toward the boring, but it is unquestionably a whole lot more simple. Once we discover the truth, our way is clear. Once we pick our side of the street, the lines are clearly demarcated. You are either with me or against me. A believer or not. Sinner or Saint. Enlightened or ignorant.

To be sure, I have my list of immutable truths about the universe, my personal moral compass and so forth. But it’s a pretty short list.

For me, the reality is that the world can almost always be seen in varying shades of grey–and yes, there are many more than 50. This no longer bothers me. On the contrary; I embrace it.

When I learn to live in the grey, I see endless possibilities, rather than limitations. Abundance, not scarcity.

When I learn to live in the grey, I’m far less judgmental and far more accepting of other’s unique journeys, personal struggles and beautiful differences. Connection and compassion are the powerful by-product.

When I learn to live in the grey, that spreadsheet analysis, marketing campaign or strategic plan, create options, not a monolithic view of a certain future.

When I learn to live in the grey, I don’t beat myself up because I fail to meet some impossible standard of perfection.

When I learn to live in the grey, I don’t delude myself into thinking there is only one way forward. My journey is a continuing series of mid-course corrections, not an ego driven quest to be “right” and to make you wrong.

 

The truth is undefeated

Every day–and virtually every minute if you spend much time on social media–we are bombarded with half-truths, relentless hyperbole, jaundiced spin and flat-out lies.

Much of this is driven by plain and simple ignorance, as the ongoing “debate” between scientists and “creationists” sadly illustrates.

A lot stems from people believing what they want to be true. If you are against big government, you think Keynesian spending programs kill jobs. If you dislike Obama, then it seems clear to you that he was born in Kenya and is a Muslim, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Sometimes, attachment to our selfish interests causes us to lose sight of what’s really going on and hyper-control and manipulation consume our attitudes and behaviors.

Other times, our fears keep us in denial of reality. Confronting a failed relationship, pivoting from a business strategy that has run its course or letting go of habitual behaviors that no longer serve us, requires complete awareness of the truth, radical acceptance of the new reality and a willingness to take action, no matter how difficult the circumstances.

If you are in a battle against facts you don’t like, or clinging to hoped for victory over someone or something just to assuage your ego, you are engaged in a fool’s errand.

If you are afraid to face the harsh reality of a universe that doesn’t always conform to your world view, spoiler alert: facts are stubborn, facts are cruel, facts don’t do what you want them to.

It may take more time than we like. It may be a rocky and painful road to get there. It may not be what we think we want or need.

But eventually, no matter how hard we fight, in the battles that matter, the truth is undefeated.

 

HT to Gary Vaynerchuk.

It must be the suit

“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.”

- Jack Sparrow

If you follow the Winter Olympics you know there has been a controversy surrounding the US speed skaters’ new high-tech racing suits.

After a disappointing performance last week, the team blamed the outfits. Under Armour, the suits’ designer, went into damage control mode, defending their state of the art creation. Eventually they agreed to made adjustments so as to give the athletes “improved confidence.” Ultimately the team decided to ditch the new suits in favor of the ones they’d been using all year. And guess what happened in the next round? Same underwhelming result.

Now, I’m certainly no expert on aerodynamic sports apparel, so whether the outfits actually made one bit of difference in the outcome is beyond my normally powerful gift of prophecy.

I do know, however, that I have blamed my golf clubs on a poor shot as well as named the faulty string tension on my tennis racket for my inability to get my first serve in.

I also know that I’ve procrastinated on work I need to–or tell myself I want to–do because the circumstances weren’t quite right. Tomorrow will be better I’ll say. And I’ll start on that book when my office is finally renovated, or tackle that important problem once I clean out my emails or see what’s happening on Twitter.

Maybe if you are an Olympic athlete and success or failure can be determined by a difference of a tenth or even one hundredth of a second, the focus on the equipment is warranted. For the rest of us it’s very rarely the equipment or conditions that keeps us from doing our best work.

It’s easy to blame the timing or the lighting or the lack of the perfect accoutrements when we fail to face our demons and do the hard, uncomfortable work. But more times that not we already have exactly what we need.

So stop blaming the suit.

You say you want a revolution

There are a lot of things I say I want to see changed. About the world. About myself. About you, if I’m honest.

I’ve shared with friends, in these posts, and to just about anyone who will listen, my exhortations about innovation, leadership, new ways to market, my desire for a more compassionate universe, the urgent need for creative solutions to societal problems and so on.

I’m often that annoying guy who posts motivational sayings on Facebook or Twitter and I regularly share inspiring stories of transformation or enlightenment. I’ve rarely met a Buddha quotation I didn’t like.

I say quite a bit. I’m not always so good at the doing part. And chances are neither are you.

It’s so easy to take the moral high ground from the cocoon of social media, by hiding behind religious doctrine or through verbalizing our strongly held beliefs over a glass of wine with friends.

Easy. Safe. Little chance of having to actually confront the real issues. Little chance of our looking foolish. Little chance of the discomfort from doing the actual hard work.

And no chance, really, of what we say making a damn bit of difference.

We say we want a revolution.

And yeah, we’d all love to see the plan.

But I’m finally starting to learn that beliefs are cheap currency. That knowing something is just the warming up part of the practice of doing. That planning is helpful, but very, very over-rated.

The world doesn’t have a shortage of well-intentioned people. Awareness of our problems is rarely the scare commodity.

What we need is a lot more action. We need to take the plunge.

I hope you’ll join me.