But We’ve Always…

It’s December. For those of us who make our living in any form of consumer business, that usually means two things:

  • We have made it through Black Friday and Cyber Monday, with our projections now being evaluated against actuals.
  • In less than a month it will be a new year, where we can either make the same mistakes again or invent new ones.

That leads to two takeaways I would like you to consider before the year ends:

  • Customer behavior tells us almost everything we need to know to be successful in business, particularly when we study data and benchmark assumptions against metrics.
  • We ignore the realities of customer behavior at our own peril, but darn it all if we don’t come up with really good reasons to flagrantly repeat our mistakes with passion and conviction.

How does our eye come off the ball precisely when it is crossing the plate and our bat is in swinging position?

It all begins with three wretched words:

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS.

Perhaps you’ve heard a few of these pronouncements before:

I know our customers complain when we send them too many emails, but we’ve always sent them at least four offers on Thanksgiving Day.

I know our customers don’t trust our pricing, but we’ve always jacked up our regular prices in the weeks before Christmas so we can mark them “50% off.”

I know it’s irrational to cover the cost of free expedited shipping and lose money on every sale, but we’ve always managed to convince our boss that losing money is the only way we can compete with Amazon.

I know our brand promise is what matters most to our company, but we’ve always managed to slip in a few low-quality products with our best inventory to even out our margins.

I know we believe our customers are loyal and have a lifetime value, but we’ve always cut our customer service costs to force our bottom line into compliance with our budget.

Yep, we know what we are doing is wrong, but we’ve always found a way to justify our shortcomings, weak logic, or poor decision-making because we’re out of time, out of patience, or out of energy to argue for doing what’s right.

Earlier this year I attended the third-annual ShopTalk conference in Las Vegas. It had grown 50% over 2017 with more than 8400 attendees. Ecommerce remains an escalating magic buzz word. There were two types of presentations:

  • “People may think our proud, established, vastly well capitalized legacy brand can’t adapt to new technology, but we’ve always been a customer favorite and there’s no reason anyone should bet against us.”
  • “We’re a new brand and will lose our jobs if we don’t succeed, but our investors are betting that if we brainstorm new experiments and focus on customer behavior, the results will tell us what works and what doesn’t.”

Which bet would you place with your own money?

Let me restate the choice:

  • “We’ve been around more than fifty years, we know exactly what we’re doing having coined a business model for hard-won success, we’re a household name, and we’ll still be a household name fifty years from now.”
  • “We have no idea if we’re going to be around in two years, but we’ll take whatever runway we have to figure out how to do what’s never worked successfully before.”

Don’t bother answeringit’s a trick question. The truth is you need some of both to win the long game, some of the newbies and some of the dinosaurs. Yet too many people convince themselves there’s little downside to a buy-and-hold strategy with “forever” companies like GE or GM. They won’t invest in a risky start-up with a funny name and an unproven business model like Amazon or Apple until it’s a fully valued blue chip.

No one knows what companies are going to win in the future, whether cemented or emerging. They all have unpredictable choices to make. It’s supposed to be that way. It’s how new companies are born and old companies die, or old companies are reborn through reinvention. It’s called creative destruction.

My point has nothing to do with improving your stock portfolio. My point has everything to do with recognizing the death knell of an established brand and bringing life or invigoration to a challenger brand.

It can be a fair fight. An established brand can be a challenger brand when it acts like an underdogwhen it stomps out the status quo and humbly looks to customers for confirmation or rejection of any working thesis.

I am willing to bet few employees at Amazon or Apple wander the halls uttering the words “but we’ve always” as a response to why they aren’t trying something new. Who knows, maybe I’m wrong, maybe they are becoming slow, cynical, and comfortable that they know what they are doing. I doubt it, but if they are, an opportunity for a challenger brand is out there for the taking.

I’ll bet they said “but we’ve always” a lot at Sears.

I’ll bet they said “but we’ve always” a lot at Toys ‘R’ Us.

When was the last time you said it? Still feeling good about that?

This year’s holiday shopping strategy is already behind us. There’s nothing we can do with history except study and learn from it.

The new year awaits all big ideas, particularly those focused on truly delighting customers with a sustainable business model and a resonating brand promise.

My advice going forward in whatever you are doing?

Eliminate the phrase BUT WE’VE ALWAYS from your company’s vocabulary before it eliminates you.

Erase those three words entirely from all conversation.

BUT WE’VE ALWAYS is defensive, uninspiring, and telling.

Try something instead that hasn’t worked, something that you think might work because you have reason to believe in a thesis. Measure the results. If there’s promise, hone it with precision. If it starts to work, stay humble. Stay inquisitive. Question the potential interpretation of every collected data point. Remember that every successful idea has a life cycle, and a bad idea yesterday might be reformed under changing market forces as a good idea tomorrow.

When an idea works dependably and someone questions it in a future review, just don’t say BUT WE’VE ALWAYS done it that way. You haven’t always done it that way. It had a beginning. It can have an end. What can’t end is innovation.

_______________

Image: Pixabay

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Now Wrestling with Normalcy

peacePeople I know on the right tell me the way I continue to feel  unbalanced, lacking foundational equilibrium, wondering what shared values remain among our vast nation that’s how they felt when Barack Obama was elected and now we get to experience the same emotion. I want to have empathy that acknowledges their reflection, but it’s hard for me to grasp the counterpoint.

When Obama was elected we had started an unjust war, crashed the real estate market on unregulated bank speculation, crashed the stock market causing desperate people to liquidate retirement holdings at half their value, and unemployment was spiraling. The night of his election supporters across the nation spontaneously danced in the streets. When Donald Trump was elected, many of the same people who danced for Obama marched in protest against Trump, but I saw no one dancing for Trump. Is repealing the burdens of the Obama administration a cause equally worth celebrating?

I’m not mourning politics. I’m trying to come to terms with shared values, norms of civility, and making sense of my entire education  classroom instruction, professional experience, and community engagement. We can’t all be right about the Trump agenda and approach. If I’m not in the majority, I’m misaligned with about half the people in the places I travel. This is about spiritual identity and wondering what it means to be American.

This is not sour grapes because my team lost and someone else’s won. I didn’t suffer isolation and questioning of self when the Dodgers lost the NLCS and by the way, the victorious Cubs fans visiting Chavez Ravine were pretty cool. This is way beyond a team losing. It’s about losing the team I thought my great grandparents came here to join.

The strange part is, I am personally likely to benefit from Trump’s financial policies, as long as none of his fringe followers assault me for my heritage. I believe the people hungry this Thanksgiving who bought his story will still be hungry the next four Thanksgivings. They will discover they were conned and I will still have empathy for them and be fighting for their human and civil rights.

Yet if you tell me the way I feel on this Thanksgiving spiritually empty   is how you felt when Obama won, I actually feel bad for you. This is a feeling no one should have, that maybe we don’t have enough in common to share the holiday Abraham Lincoln envisioned when he created it during the Civil War. I can’t get over what happened, what our nation just did and what we might do next. I wonder if Obama’s equally offended opponents will get past what they believe was the moral wrong in his election.

16 Things I’m Thankful For Right Now

Last year approaching Thanksgiving I reprinted an oldie which I had sent to a former office team a while back.  Your reaction was kind, and I don’t think I can do much better than that at the moment, but perhaps there is merit in sharing some items that are currently giving me reason to smile.  Here without extended preamble is the short, unscientific list:

1) We live in a representative democracy where the peaceful and orderly handoff of authority is presumed.  As an aside, call me an optimist, but I’m spiritually betting we don’t swan dive over the Fiscal Cliff.

2) I get to write and publish this blog.  I can pretty much say anything I want without fear of disappearing into the night.

3) Diversity is cool, and increasingly, the law.

4) This year I got to celebrate my Dad’s 75th birthday with him, something he didn’t get to do with his father.  And I got to write about it.

5) My brilliant wife’s magical work teaching English as a Second Language and helping immigrants prepare for their American citizenship exams endlessly reminds me that one person can make a difference.

6) I have never run out of reasons to listen to The Beatles, and each one of their songs still makes me wonder how they pulled off that catalogue in less than ten years.

7) Yosemite, just Yosemite.

8) My dog may not see as well as she used to, but somehow she still has plenty of puppy in her.

9) The Giving Pledge will not only fuel a previously unimaginable wave of charity by choice of living billionaires, it can inspire everyday people to give what they can and know each dollar matters.

10) Frank McCourt has been extracted from ownership of The Dodgers and Chavez Ravine has survived as sacred ground.

11) Good health for those who have it.  More help for those who need it.

12) I received a generous inflow of emails this past year from former employees telling me how they are still making People-Products-Profits-In-That-Order work hard for them.

13) There is little chance I will run out of interesting stuff to read in this lifetime, new modes to ingest it, or social sharing networks to circulate my discoveries (the trick is not getting distracted by dreck).

14) I have completed a working draft of my novel, which a few of you have even read, and at last connected with a brilliant editor who totally gets it and can help me get it in front of more of you.

15) With modest prodding, yeast consumes sugar in harvested grapes, and with a few artisan touches the juice becomes wine — so much so that two glasses are never the same.

16) The candle count on your birthday cake may be daunting, but the brightness created by all that light does make it easier to see a bit better.

Happy Thanksgiving 2012.  Celebrate the joys that are yours.  Earn Each Moment.

To Protect, To Serve – Really!

Some things are not right.  Given the current economic turmoil around us, there seems to be an abundance of things that are not right.  It’s almost eerie how the public debate ebbs and flows as we near year-end from one troubling scenario to another.  A quick gaze through recent headlines gives even the most hardened cynic pause in light of the values so many people with different points of view might otherwise consider to be common ground.

Our government is teetering on the edge of being unable to govern.  It is almost impossible for the average American to believe that party divide has accelerated to such a level of dysfunction that we can no longer take for granted the day-to-day work of ensuring the well-functioning of basic social institutions.  We granted Congress the opportunity to redeem its inexcusable failure in not reaching agreement earlier this year on the debt ceiling through an extended negotiation through this week via an appointed Super Committee — and they failed again.  They literally gave up, threw up their hands and said sorry, we can’t find a way to do this, “we” cannot agree.  The “we” referenced is the “we in Congress, not the “we who elected them.”  It is not so much that they failed to make “a deal” as much as it is that they failed to prove the vitality of our democracy, that at its core our celebrated process of governing by, for, and of the people is dependable.  Government failed, and that is not OK.

Last week we learned that one former Speaker of the House does not see an issue with accepting a seven-figure payday from now bankrupt Freddie Mac for providing consulting services of an undefined value other than to say its business model was problematic.  Another former Speaker of the House does not think it necessary to respond to the question of whether being invited to participate in an IPO is a potential conflict of interest for an elected official entrusted with legislating financial policies.  Neither of those is OK.

We also recently got to hear the lavishly compensated CEOs of Fannie and Freddie tell a Congressional panel that they needed to have discretion to continue to pay taxpayer funded bonuses to prevent further brain drain in their organizations.  What talent is it that they need to protect?  They are bankrupt.  Can they be less bankrupt with better paid people to mop up the remains?  National unemployment is still above 9%, many of those people with accounting degrees and MBAs who really want to work.  Bonuses paid from tax dollars are not OK.

Police at UC Davis assaulted non-violent demonstrators with pepper spray.  We have seen the video; there was no threat to the police, the demonstrators were exercising their Constitutional right to free speech and assembly.  For that, they were attacked by armed authorities.  That is not OK.

MF Global “can’t find” over a billion dollars of client money.  Their recent bankruptcy filing reveals sloppy and incomplete accounting throughout a period of aggressive and speculative bets on European debt.  The firm’s CEO was a former Governor, Senator, and CEO of one of the most substantial financial firms in the world.  That is not OK.

Students at a university rioted because their head football coach was terminated in light of a child abuse investigation where he did not report allegations to legal authorities.  They rioted — destroyed public property — because they were angry their football team might not have the leadership to continue winning.  That is not OK.

We also were asked to believe that pizza is a vegetable and should be classified as such for children in our schools.  Even Kermit the Frog found this appalling (for those who missed it, last weekend the Muppets dropped by SNL).   As Seth and Kermit expertly teed it up: Really, the food lobby actually thinks this is acceptable marketing?  No, that is not OK.

These are just a sample of the kind of news we hear daily, as if none of it is out of the ordinary, and all of it will somehow correct itself.  We are numb to hearing of crisis and scandal, and as angry as we become, we turn the page knowing that the next story will break soon enough, and we have to keep our wits about us.  Many of us wonder if these are extraordinary times, or just another chapter in our nation over which we will triumph.

I do think we will triumph, that the bad news can’t go on forever, but I see a very definite trend that will have to become primary before we get from here to there.  What is missing is leadership — true leadership, a sense that management is not good enough, that trust is a higher virtue and brings with it a burden of selfless decision-making.  We won’t get from here to there with party politics, blame, opportunism, poorly constructed argument, well-crafted media bites, or even anger.  We will get there when we chose courageous, well-versed leaders — government, business, and social — who have chosen the path of leadership for the right reasons, where integrity in articulating a vision and administering an agenda far outweighs the perks and power of the office.  The rewards of leadership for those who have enjoyed it as intended are more intrinsic that extrinsic, much less tangible than we imagine from headlines of cynical manipulation, but until we elevate leadership that embraces a giving ethos into high level authority, we aren’t going to get from here to there.  We have to be involved in the selection process by the act of choosing to follow, and we have to demand better.  If we don’t, we’ll continue to be assaulted with more of the same — just like the pepper spray.

As I have written before, it is an honor and a privilege to lead.  If someone chooses to lead, they consistently must accept their responsibilities de facto with the interests of others put before their own gain.  When they do not, they compromise our trust and the fabric of social interaction suffers injury.  Let it happen too often and the very institutions we most cherish can lose all their meaning and authority.  This is not lofty, it is everyday behavior.  Leadership means accepting trust and being willing to be held to the standard of evaluation for that trust.  All leaders can benefit from a remedial lesson in why they have their jobs; if they fail to remind themselves, we need to help jog their memories.

This week we celebrate Thanksgiving.  We express appreciation for the blessings in our lives, for all we have that is good, for the good fortune we enjoy.  That does not mean we offer reprieve to the status quo or give a pass to those who have forgotten what they owe as a result of asking for our trust.  If someone has chosen as a life commitment to protect and to serve, he or she needs to be held accountable for that commitment.  They are responsible for the portfolio they have accepted to oversee or lead.  We are responsible to ensure that they act in the public interest where humility outweighs dissonance as most befits this gracious holiday.  Yes, really.

Are We Thankful Enough?

The following is an edited version of a note I sent to my staff a few years ago.  I started to draft a new version, but then remembered how similar this was in theme:

Each year about this time I like to take a few minutes to share some of my gratitude with colleagues. Given the industry in which we work, it is sometimes hard to separate our business interests in the holiday season from our own more personal sense of human enrichment, but let me try. True enough, the holidays can be seen through the eyes of materialism, and indeed given our dependence and expectations on retail behavior this time of year, it is too easy to allow oneself to “Get Scrooged” without seeing some of the more enlightened generosity that is all around us. Forgive me, Shelley and I attended the annual tour of Trans-Siberian Orchestra this week, so I am in a highly festive and particularly reflective frame of mind. The work we do for our customers and each other is much more than a feeding of the virtual cash register for tabulation by the National Retail Federation. The work we do has meaning because we have chosen to share this time together and infuse it with meaning. It is there if you want to see it, and it is always there for me in each of your own creative contributions and team celebrations.

Let me start with the basics, I am thankful for all of the wonderful people around me each day. As I always say, I have good days and bad days but I never have boring days. The work we do is interesting because the people we share it with are universally interesting. Each day I see your passion expand, your thinking blossom, your communication flourish, and your expectations of yourselves and each other rise to new heights. This isn’t just invigorating for me, it is sustenance. There is reason to come to work each day as long as there is purpose in the day’s activity, and sometimes that purpose is simply rooted in the ability to learn something new. I can honestly share with you that I learn something new from the imagination that surrounds us each day, and I have no sense that has likelihood of disappointing me anytime soon.

I am thankful for the good fortune of being alive at this precise moment in history. To truly appreciate and understand the power of the Internet is to have lived without it for so many years before. I used to say this about the personal computer, that to discover it as an artist’s palette was for me not a continuation of history, but a reinvention of history. Just as many of our parents were born into a world without television, the advancement in democracy of being able to see news from around the world each day was almost a miracle, as was radio before that, and widely available print before that. To be alive today at the inception of the digital age is to me a gift as well as an invitation to have a profound impact on establishing a set of norms that are as evolutionary as they are unknown. Our younger kids see texting and mobile communications and even social networking as quite ordinary, if you were here before them, my sense is you share my awe in the privilege of codifying the extraordinary.

This takes me to my third thank you for the year, appreciation for being able to have even the smallest impact on reaching out to change our world. Our technology has impact, our creativity is unbounded, and our business relationships are honest and crafted around the principle of win-win-win: a win for us is a win for our partners and a win for our customers. You may not always get to work in a culture that embraces notions of empowerment, I certainly have had my own ups and downs over the years in various places I have worked. Yet more than that, we get do fun things like embrace Make-A-Wish kids, give thousands of prize dollars away to families who need it, offer great discounts to families who might not get by without them, help people make the world slightly greener by encouraging them not to drive somewhere if they can shop at home. We also save moms time, lots of time, time that can be better spent with their families enjoying more moments than they might otherwise spend away from home on errands and chores. No, it’s not the work of Mother Theresa, but it is very positive and uplifting, especially when you read all those comments each day from people saying they “love” what we do for them. That’s a powerful word, and each morning I read it in our customer comments, I know we are doing something right.

So I wonder, are we thankful enough? Can we make Thanksgiving something more than a time to power-eat and start charging up our credit cards on the big sales days that follow?  As we enjoy two days away from the office, what is it that we can reflect on that keeps us coming to the office? Thanks for our incomes – I am sure there are varying levels of satisfaction there, but to have a regular income is still unfortunately rare in world of six billion people. Thanks for the people who sit next to us, or in front of us, or in the next room over – again, I am sure there are some around us whom you like more than others, but then again, I am confident that every one of us is within talking distance of at least one or two people we really appreciate, and as I said, don’t take that as a given, it will not always be the case. Encouragement to pursue excellence – OK, I know there are cynics out there who say this is just work-speak, but I promise you it is not, we have created an environment where we expect you to do your best and create work that makes you immensely proud, you’d be missing an important moment if you didn’t embrace and enjoy that, a lot of places it really is just work-speak. And finally, memories and future foundations – the accomplishments we enjoy, the education we give and receive from each other, the stories we are creating to enjoy at a later date, all of that is worth a moment of meditation; time escapes us in precious illusion, and though you are likely to forget this project or that deadline in the years out, if you look around you and thank your colleagues from time to time for even the smallest favor, you just might be making history, as that could become a moment you will share for years to come.

Freedom is such a difficult concept to appreciate because most of us have always known it, it is in the fabric of our society. Yet again, look around, is it the norm or a gift we can cherish? As we keep the women and men who serve us in uniform at the top of our thoughts this time of year, perhaps we can also reflect on just what it means to have the lives that we do, where we can pursue career aspirations and friendships and family and creative contributions to our world all at the same time. As I type these words, it all seems like a pretty big deal to me. I wouldn’t take it for granted. To be thankful is to truly enjoy all that we have, and as I look around our company, I see that we all have so much. I am never sure that I can personally be thankful enough.

I hope you are all enjoying this special time of year, it comes with a lot of work stress and family stress and Scrooge-Stress! Yet the journey is the reward, so let’s do our best to enjoy it and share it and where it makes sense, be thankful. You’d be surprised, it really can be a magical world when you look for the magic in each of the people around you. I see it, so very clearly!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Originally published: 11/22/07