Frequent your competition to positively impact your business

Wouldn’t it be good management and marketing to frequent your competitor’s offerings to understand the market and the differences?

A man examines a tomato at an open air market.
If this man owned a produce market, should he buy his groceries from his competitors? I argue he should. “Shopper” by Carl Mueller, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It was supposed to be a relaxing moment on the couch, with a hot cup of coffee and my local grocery store’s magazine, but it quickly turned into frustration.

As I read the owner’s (and marketer’s) write-ups about the freshest produce at their stores, the highest-quality ingredients stocked in their aisles, and their family atmosphere, which translates to amazing customer service, I thought, “Have they been to another grocery store lately?!?”

And then it struck me, they probably hadn’t.

The reality is, their produce is terrible and rots quickly. It’s also highly overpriced compared to the Trader Joe’s just across the street. And interactions with their staff have been memorably bad.

So how did this gap between marketing and reality happen?

Probably a mix of the following:

  1. When they do go their own store, they are treated differently because employees know them.
  2. They don’t frequent their competitors and incentivize/encourage their employees not to frequent their competitors.

And it makes sense, if this grocery store owner went to a competitor’s store, it’d probably turn into a local public relations nightmare for him and probably hurt his store’s brand.

But is that the way we should react? Wouldn’t it be good management and marketing to frequent your competitor’s offerings to understand the market and the differences? Shouldn’t we applaud employees like this American Airlines executive who flew United?

We can hire secret shoppers, but I would argue that employee everyday interactions with competitors is  the key to small changes that could greatly impact your product or service.

  • If Hyatt hotel employees stayed in other hotels, they may realize how slow their elevators are compared to other hotel chains and investigate why.
  • If an oil company employee went to another gas station to fill her tires with air, she may realize how much safer she feels if the air pump is in front of the store vs. the side of the store and advocate for the change at her company.
  • If a restaurant employee went to a competitor, they may generate new ideas for the restaurant they work at, such as a new way of managing reservations.
  • And if my local grocery chain employees went to Trader Joe’s, they might realize the customer service difference between them and their competitor and work to try to fix it.

So my challenge for you this week is to deeply consider not only your own shopping patterns, but how you may be incentivizing or encouraging your employees’ shopping patterns when it comes to your product or service. Perhaps the best way you can help your own business is by frequenting a competitor.

Increase effectiveness of employee decision-making using Commander’s Intent

As organizations evolve to include more autonomous employees and roles, Commander’s Intent practices are making their way into offices to adjust to this new dynamic. For the concept to work effectively, however, leaders and team members need to fully understand their roles.

A woman facing two different paths through rows of corn, as if trying to make a decision of which way to go
“decisions” by Matt Wiebe, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

“Do you need to check with your supervisor before making this change?” the woman on the other end of the phone said, when I asked her to make a last-minute adjustment to a plan due to new circumstances.

“I appreciate you asking. Knowing our leaders, I’m positive they’d be ok the decision and me making it. And, I’ll accept full responsibility for authorizing the change,” I responded gently, knowing her question came from good intentions.

The conversation above demonstrates a big part of my role; I’m often in a position where I have to make decisions or take actions on behalf of the leaders of my organization. What makes me comfortable in doing so is that we have a strong culture of Commander’s Intent.

Commander’s Intent is a military concept where the leader provides the ultimate goal of the orders (intent) along with the actual orders, so if something changes during an operation the military members carrying-out the orders are still able to take action to meet the ultimate goal.  Example: “The intent is to take the beach. Here are your orders on how, but if something changes, adjust according to your training and meet your ultimate goal: take the beach.”

As organizations evolve to include more autonomous employees and roles, Commander’s Intent practices are making their way into offices to adjust to this new dynamic. For the concept to work effectively, however, leaders and team members need to fully understand their roles.

Leader roles

  • Hire autonomous-oriented team members with good judgment who are willing to learn your intentions and act on those.
  • When giving direction and communicating decisions, go beyond just giving the direction and decision, explain why that’s the right decision, what factors played into that decision, and how you made the decision.
  • Over-communicate what’s going on in the organization and why, and document the past heavily. A leader is often able to make good decisions because they have all of the information needed to make that decision. Give your team members as much information as possible so they can be an effective extension of you when making decisions.
  • Be willing to let go of control. Commander’s intent doesn’t work if you’re a micromanager because team members won’t feel they have the ability to make autonomous decisions.
  • Provide feedback gently when a team member makes a decision that you don’t agree with. The goal of this conversation is to further the employee’s learning and understanding. If it comes across as punitive and judgmental, team members will be discouraged from acting in the future.
  • Communicate what rules are “hard” rules and what rules are more flexible. Communicate instances where employees can make decisions on your behalf and when they can’t.

Team member roles

  • Ensure the leaders you work with are on-board with the Commander’s Intent philosophy.
  • Learn the leaders. How do they make decisions? Why do they make the decisions they make? What other leaders do they admire? What books, magazines, and blogs do they read? What are their key principles, no matter what the situation?
  • If the leader doesn’t give you the intent information, ask for it.
  • Recognize when you’re making a decision on behalf of a leader and make that decision based on what the leader would do, not what you would do.
  • Continually keep abreast of the organization’s goals, initiatives, rules, etc. and use these to drive your decision-making.
  • After acting on behalf of the leader, seek feedback. I format this feedback-seeking in the following way: 1) Decision I made 2) What information about the leader I used to make that decision (previous similar decisions they’ve made, information they’ve shared, etc.) 3) Ask for feedback, such as “Is that what you would have done?” and/or “What would you like me to do in the future in a similar situation?” 4) If they would have done something differently, I ask a lot of follow-up questions to learn and refine my decision-making.

With the above in place, you can foster an organizational culture where team members can effectively be an extension of their leaders, which can greatly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the organization overall.

 

Good in theory, bad in execution

I often use this phrase when something that involved a solid plan with great thought behind the plan turns-out badly.

One of the main reasons that I like this phrase is that it acknowledges that strategic thinking may not always yield good results. And, if something does go wrong, there may not be someone or something responsible for the issue.

Examples:

  • A public relations director planned the perfect timing to distribute a press release to maximize news coverage. And, two hours after releasing it, a major community leader’s house burned down, taking all attention away from the release.
  • A bride and groom can plan their wedding for the time of year with the least likelihood of weather issues, and a fluke weather pattern can still create bad weather that day.
  • A retirement planning firm bought ads during a TV show series. In the ad, they positioned their financial planner, named Mary, as someone you could trust. One of the episodes of the TV show, unfortunately, was about a famous cult leader also named Mary and how she duped so many out of their fortunes.

You can almost always learn some things from incidents that execute badly, despite the best planning, but sometimes they are simply flukes. The trick is to know the difference.

Implementing change series: It’s all or nothin’, baby

“If you want to make a significant change, it’s all or nothing, baby,” was my final thought during a presentation about increasing OER use at a college or university at this years CAMEX college bookstore conference.

a boy jump into a lake
“all in” by popofatticus, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 4.0

“If you want to make a significant change, it’s all or nothing, baby,” was my final thought during a presentation about increasing OER use at a college or university at this years CAMEX college bookstore conference.

Instinctively, we all know this, but we favor the route of least resistance. And, in our time and resource-pressed world, with so many competing interests, it’s difficult to dedicate what we need to make something work. With that said, we have to go all-in if we truly want to make a big impact.

For example, if you want to lose a good amount of weight, you may go to your doctor and ask your doctor how to lose weight. The doctor tells you:

The people who really lose a lot of weight and keep it off do ALL of these things:

  • Eat breakfast
  • Eat primarily fruits and vegetables
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes per day, 6 days per week
  • Reduce their calorie intake by 500 calories per day
  • Incorporate weight lifting into their exercise routine 3 times per week

And yet, so many people will walk away and pick only one. They may say to themselves “Ok, I’ll start eating breakfast each day” and ignore the rest. And then they wonder why they aren’t successful! The doctor said “do all of these” and the patient heard “do one of the following” and did just that.

Similarly, you see this in advertising and marketing work often with small businesses. Their agency will say, “your goal is x and this is your program that will get you there.” The client business will then pick-out one thing on that list, do only that, and wonder why they didn’t meet their goal. The client gets mad and fires the advertising agency because their plan didn’t work. Except, the client didn’t follow the plan.

In my work consulting colleges and universities on how to dramatically increase Open Educational Resources (OER) use on their campus, I’ve found there is a specific formula to success:

  • Do a minimum of 8 direct tactics throughout the academic year
  • Have day-to-day involvement from each of the key departments for success (faculty, library, instructional design, disability services, bookstore, etc.)
  • Have one active, vocal senior administrator sponsor that will champion the initiative through communications
  • Plan your year of activities out in advance to keep a continual high intensity level of activities and communications going throughout the academic year
  • Track successes and progress by outcomes for each action: Number of faculty interested, number of faculty adopting OER, number of students impacted, student success metrics.
  • Modify your plan to favor the strategies that you are having the most success from (based on the number of faculty interested, number of adoptions, and number of students for each action)

Schools will contact us regularly saying,  “Our initiative is great, but this OER thing just isn’t working for us.” When I dig deeper, something is missing from above formula, they’ve tried to skip a step or a few steps. I’d love to tell them that less effort could get them the results they want. If it could, I’d recommend less, but the truth is, if they want significant change, they have to do all of the above.

Are there times it makes sense not to go all-in? Absolutely. You may not have all of the resources to go all-in, or your political climate may not be right yet. And that’s ok; it’s not unusual, when working with schools, that I recommend a slower approach until they are ready for the big leap. At that point, however, you need to adjust your results expectations to match your effort. And, if you want to get to the high results, work toward getting in a position where you can go all in.

I think your child might be President someday

My friend was distraught. A week before, her four year old daughter Jamie had  been kicked out of a very progressive school, with a reputation of excelling with difficult children, because she was refusing to follow the rules. They asked my friend to come get her child, and had her tuition check ready for her when she arrived.

I should admit now, I’m probably not the best person to comfort someone in these types situations. With that caveat, I tried to reassure and comfort my friend by saying “Angela, I know this is hard, and this will pass and may actually be a blessing. I think Jamie might be President someday.”

“What?” she said, looking confused. You see, Angela is a rules follower, and a very good one at that; she’s carved a very successful career for herself following the rules. Her daughter, however, is not this way. She questions and resists everything, which is why the school asked her to leave.

Rule-bending leaders

Over the years, I’ve been grateful to be able to spend time with some highly successful traditional and nontraditional leaders and I’ve noticed that most have one thing in common: They aren’t so keen on society’s rules.

This comes out in a variety of ways, for example, the extremely successful tech workers who regaled stories over beers of the crazy stunts they pulled on their high school and college’s computers. The hacker mind is indeed a unique one, they like to break things to see if they can make them better, which is useful in the tech field, but seen as a nuisance in a controlled system.

Or my extremely successful colleagues swapping tales of who they got in trouble for writing papers that were beyond the norm. One colleague wrote a paper for his American Government class questioning our system of government. For my non-American readers, while that’s completely permissible in the U.S. it’s not something most high school teachers would look favorably upon. I personally caught some heat for papers I wrote in junior high about the Salem Witch Trials and the atrocities of World War II. There was nothing wrong with these papers or me; in fact my intent was to highlight atrocities so we don’t repeat them, but they stood out as “not normal” because my classmates were writing papers on horses and cars.

Raise your hand if you got in trouble a lot for talking in class

“Raise your hand if you got in trouble a lot for talking in class,” asked a leader of The Chair Academy during one of our training sessions. Almost every hand went up. The Chair Academy is a leadership development program for future college and university Presidents and Chancellors, and everyone in the room was somewhere on that path. I found it fascinating, what was seen as insubordination during grade school was most likely them developing their networking skills that they use now to advance their career and the goals of the colleges and universities they work for.

I’m not saying grade school teachers aren’t right to enforce rules, their job is hard enough as it is. I’m not saying my friend was wrong to worry, most of our systems are set-up to reward those who follow rules. Finally, I’m not saying everyone who is a rules follower needs to change their ways, our society works well because we have both types of personalities working together for the greater good. And, there are some leadership roles where following the rules is a huge plus. What I am saying is, we should stop responding with “There’s something wrong with you,” as one of my friends’ moms used to tell her, and instead find a way to channel these kids to focus on their strengths.

Back to to Jamie

By the time I was done trying to explain all of this to my friend, we had arrived at Jamie’s new school and she went in to have a quick discussion with the teacher while I waited in the car. A few minutes later, the car door on my side opened and an angelic voice said, “Well hello Ms. Nicole. It’s very nice to see you. How are you today?” Four year old sweet and politically savvy beyond her years, Jamie, beamed at me. “I’m well, Jamie. How are you?” I said as she climbed in the back seat. Her mom proceeded to buckle her in and climbed in the driver’s seat.

“Yep,” I said to her mom, “President.”

Measure success by results, not actions

Quick quiz: Which answer would you prefer if you were the one asking the question?

 

Did you get your grades up?

a) I studied more and spent more time at school.

b) Yes, my grades now all B’s or better, up from C’s and D’s.

 

Did you sell more of our company’s chocolate?

a) We spent $100,000 in advertising and had sales reps pitch over 100 grocery store chains a special chocolate package.

b) Our sales of chocolate are 50% higher this year than last year, increasing our profits by $500,000.

 

Have you impacted our school’s students with free textbooks?

a) We formed a committee that meets regularly. We also held a workshop and a webinar.

b) Compared to last year of 600 students using free textbooks, we now have 3,000 students using free textbooks, saving them approximately $300,000 this year. Our class drop rate has declined by 10%, and our students are doing as well or better in the courses with free textbooks.

 

Did you increase our employee retention?

a) We conducted a survey and found out why our employees are unhappy. We plan to have a forum to share the results. Then we will decide next steps.

b) Currently we’re losing 10% of our workforce each year. We conducted a survey and used those results to create the following next steps. Our goal in the next 12 months is to use these steps (including a forum) to reduce our employee turnover to 5% from the current 10%.

 

Actions (all a’s above) are important steps to results and they can be powerful goals on the way to results, but they aren’t results. To be truly successful in your initiative, decide what result (all b’s) you want to see, and measure your success by that.

Build big goal momentum with early wins

Oftentimes, building momentum through early wins doesn’t seem efficient. It seems like a very long, continually twisting and bending curved path to success. The straight line to your big goal seems the most efficient.

Success straight line, what people think it looks like. Success, really squiggly line, what it really looks like
“21 Steps to Success” by Bernard Goldbach, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 2.0

If you want to reach your big hairy goal, you need to build momentum through early, small wins.

Your logic (and most definitely mine) would argue otherwise. Oftentimes, building momentum through early wins doesn’t seem efficient. It seems like a very long, continually twisting and bending curved path to success. The straight line to your big goal seems the most efficient.

But the reality is, it isn’t.

There is a reason that financial guru Dave Ramsey advocates for his debt snowball (paying smallest debts first vs. those with the biggest interest rates vs. paying down the one with the most interest first) plan. There is a reason that The First 90 Days advocates for early, quick wins in your first 90 days of a new job.

That reason is: Momentum

Or more specifically:

  • Building your confidence in you
  • Building others’ confidence in you
  • Building confidence in your big goal
  • Building others’ confident in your big goal
  • Starting the process of change with small steps
  • Having people see success in those small steps and be motivated by it

Big hairy goals are what we all need to reach for, but early wins, even if they aren’t directly on the path to the big goal, are what will get you there.

 

Photo: “21 Steps to Success” by Bernard Goldbach, via Flickr Creative Commons is licensed under CC BY 2.0