Recently, I sat in on a management meeting of a company that I was asked to advise on. When I brought up the point that regardless of what they did to improve their products and services and become more efficient, it really didn’t make much of a difference as long as they were invisible to the world.
The problem with this company is that they have been losing business for an extended period and aren’t managing to win any new accounts. Somehow, they also seem to have established a culture of shunning an online presence because they believe that by fixing their internal issues, business will just show up at their doorstep again. If you ask me, the fear of being online has it's roots in a deeper feeling of insecurity...
Do you know the old saying: "If a tree falls in a forest and nobody's around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
The same is true for business. No matter how amazing you think you are, unless the world actually knows about it, you may as well be mediocre.
But this discussion topic sparked a disturbing debate. It was very much like the defence of an exhausted and weathered garrison.
“I don’t know Baldwin. Our clients don’t really like it when we show off like that…”
That was the remark of the Alpha member of the team. Immediately everyone agreed that ‘showing off’ would make them look bad.
“Our industry is conservative, people don’t want to see ideas that are too weird or creative…we might lose credibility” Said another member of the management team.
Again everyone agreed.
“We are already sending out monthly updates...” Said another person.
I guess that statement was intended as an honourable exit from the discussion.
Then I asked “Are people reading those updates?”
Nobody knew. But that didn’t seem to matter because everyone in the industry sent out monthly updates so they were compliant with the norm...
“Are you measuring open rates? Do you know who is opening these emails?” I continued...
The Alpha person was now asking to take the conversation ‘offline’. As you may know, that is common code language in companies for stifling threats to questionable authority.
This company lives so deep in that prodigal forest that nobody could even see the smoke if they were ablaze in fire.
People pay me for advice - to come and ask questions like that - to help them ‘think out of the box’. Most of the time that’s exactly what we get to do but every now and then it feels like I get compensated for something entirely different.
I really don’t know why I was asked to attend that meeting. But it was an interesting experience, especially when you consider the fact that there were 4 MBAs and 2 PhDs in the room...
My unstoppable desire to reject the status quo is also the reason why I am essentially unemployable, ironically, it is also my main asset.
My job is to come in from the outside, unbiased by what goes on in the hallways of power. If I help people find routes to fertile ground, I earn my keep. If I don’t, the phone stops ringing. It’s simple, devoid of politics, result driven and clean...
The thing is that when people in companies cling so strongly to the status quo, it is not really their fault!
I believe it is our education system that is the origin of the ‘smartest man in the room syndrome’, that cultivates mediocrity as a standard in most businesses. Our system trains us to what is considered textbook wisdom. It fills our heads with outdated B.S. It values expertise. It rewards knowing and punishes guessing. It rewards those who comply by parroting back the knowledge better then others.
Unlike what happens in science, this culture rules most forms of business education. Because excellent scientists can only thrive on unstoppable curiosity, I believe all business students should spend time in science faculties to learn the scientific method that drives all groundbreaking discovery. It is the mindset of embracing “I don’t know, let’s go and find out”. It’s where mere assumptions are never ever good enough.
I'm not a scientist but I’ve often been labelled as an ‘Anarchist’. I love it when they say that because when I hear it I know I am exploring unchartered territory. The sound of the ‘A’ word is like that alert on my dashboard that tells me that I am pushing things outside of the comfort zone. It tells me I am exploring. That is where I want to be because it is the most fertile ground for innovation.
But often that alert can be an alarm. More often than not, these routes can and will lead into deserts where ideas perish. Our system doesn’t reward that kind of outcome. It is regarded as failure with an ‘F’, just like what they write on a bad school report card.
Lawrence of Arabia liked the desert so much because he believed it was ‘clean’. I couldn’t agree more him, when ideas perish in deserts, they provide clarity by adding sharpness to the vision of a better alternative.
But we get drilled into believing that failure is horrible, that it will bankrupt us, take away our possessions, ban us from the realm of employment and result in exile.
In the US they have this popular visualisation of failure with the expression ‘working out of your mother’s basement’. What on earth is wrong with that? What if your mother is great company? And/or has an amazing basement... One thing's for sure, when your mother is no longer around, you’ll wish you would have spent more time in that basement!
But the only way to innovate is to accept the notion that you know nothing but have the training and maturity it takes to safely explore and find the right answers.
To clearly see successful innovation, you must be able to offset it with failure, as often as you possibly can!
The way to do this is by building systems or “laboratories” where you can continuously try new things out, in the real world...
Just as you don’t have to go all in when you make a bet, the same is true for this kind of exploration because you can perfectly well run new ideas by smaller segments of your prospects and customers.
Select groups of customers and tell them you are trying to improve whatever it is you do and you will be amazed at how positively those so called ‘conservative’ people will respond.
We often have scripts running in our heads that make us believe that our customers are allergic to change, but these are often just projections of our own limited perceptions.
You’ll probably even start realising that your customers, even those strategic B2B accounts, are actually real human beings.
Put these experiments in a context that you are trying to make things amazing and they will probably share much of the excitement of the experiment.
Ask them to be candid. Ask them to talk to you and share their honest feedback. I always use the following wording that goes something like:
“....I am hoping to hear your honest feedback, no matter how critical it may be. You won’t hurt my feelings - I promise - because I thrive on criticism and suggestions to become better at what we do and provide you with more value…”
It works like a wonder. Repeat that simple line often enough and it can make all the difference between mediocrity and excellence. Most people don’t like to offend others so by neutralising that concern, what you get is golden.
You will build a closer relationship with you customers because they will feel like they have a say in getting better value for their money.
You will earn more trust with prospects because they will grow a sense of trust with your transparency.
But before you can do this, you must build a system that can support the effort. You need a ‘laboratory’ that is up to standards.
You need to set up a system where you can easily have an ongoing dialogue with every single one of your prospects and customers.
You need to be able to make accurate measurements and observations.
It needs to be easy to scalable and simple to organise.
Many people think this is out of reach...
You may even think you need a big budget for this kind of work.
But that is a very wrong assumption because such systems exist and they are very simple to use.
They are even so inexpensive that they are more than affordable even for individual use. I’m talking about $10-20/month kind of affordable - that’s about 1 cup of coffee at Starbucks…per week!
That is what makes today's technology so amazing, you get oceans of value for the price of just one cup... But as I keep on saying, it's not about the technology, it's about what you do with it...