This series is titled “The Sexiest Topic in Leadership” because strategy is something that seems to intrigue all who are interested in leadership. Everyone seems to like the idea of thinking strategically and sees value in doing so. Most who are interested in leadership love to hear stories about how a particular strategic move vaulted this or that company into new levels of performance and achievement. There’s cachet in the idea of strategy. That’s what makes it “The Sexiest Topic in Leadership.” In last week’s posting we noted that one of three things strategic leaders do is Prioritize the Hunt For Better by investing in the search for “incremental progress.” This week, we turn our attention to the other side of Prioritize the Hunt for Better — looking for “monumental, game-changing paradigm shifts.”
There are three habits that assist us and those we lead in the search for monumental, game-changing paradigm shifts. To introduce the first, I’ll share one of my favorite business stories.
There once a company that made laundry detergent. They operated in a third world country where it was customary for people to wash their clothes in the local river. They had a good product that got clothes clean but their sales were much poorer than expected. They did the usual market surveys but still could not figure out why their market share and sales were not higher.
One day, a member of the laundry detergent company’s marketing team decided to do a little research on his own. He went down to the river to watch the townspeople wash their clothes. Soon he found himself not only watching, but talking with the townspeople as they washed their clothes. (He might have even helped out with a few loads.) After a full evening of observing, visiting, and washing, he had the answer.
At the office the following day, he called for a meeting. He shared with all that he had discovered the reason for their substandard sales. “What is it?” everyone asked with urgency. “Suds,” he said. “We need more suds.” In the process of getting into the water with the townspeople, he heard and saw things he never would have otherwise seen or heard. In the end, he discovered that the townspeople valued the presence of suds. The presence of suds — and lots of them — is what gave the townspeople confidence that their clothes were getting clean.
The truth is that suds are not a required part of cleaning clothes. The only real impact of suds is to make us feel like our clothes are getting clean. The detergent formula for the marketer’s company had lower suds production than that of their competitors; therefore, the townspeople believed their clothes were not getting as clean when they used the marketer’s detergent.
The marketer’s company immediately put more suds-creating additives into their formula. They also created a new marketing campaign focused on the “Now With More Suds!” tag line. Over the next few months their sales grew dramatically. The shift in sales — and more importantly the knowledge of why those sales were increasing — was not an incremental improvement, but a paradigm shift for the entire business.
New Angles, New Ideas
I can’t vouch for the authenticity of that story. I’ve searched for verification but have never found it. It is in all likelihood a business fable. Nonetheless, I believe it holds within it valuable lessons. Many business people tout the story for its lesson in understanding customers; to be sure it has that element. But the more intriguing lesson to me is in the marketer’s willingness to change his perspective while on the hunt for learning.
The following phrase has been attributed to different sources from Albert Einstein to Henry Ford to Mark Twain: “If you always do what you’ve always done you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” I would suggest a corollary to this phrase plays an important role in our ability to find strategic paradigm shifts. That corollary would say, “If we always look at things from the same angle, we’ll always see the same things.” The foundation of the laundry detergent company’s step-change improvement in sales wasn’t in technology, production, distribution, or even marketing. It was first in the willingness of one person to see the product from a different perspective. That willingness is one of the ways that paradigm-shifting improvements happen.
Shifting our perspectives to see things from new angles is not something most people do naturally. It requires intentional, conscious effort. It almost always requires us to be uncomfortable. Most often that discomfort is intellectual. As we purpose to see things from new angles, it often feels as if our minds have a gravitational pull toward our old, established perspectives. But the discomfort doesn't necessarily stop there. If we are deeply invested in our previous perspectives, the discomfort can also be emotional. If we are to be strategic thinkers we must have the fortitude and discipline to push through these discomforts.
Looking at things as we always have rarely produces significant innovation. Therefore, we must require ourselves and those we lead to periodically look at our products, processes, and organizations from new perspectives. In the spirit of the laundry detergent marketer, we must be willing to get in the river if we are to be strategic thinkers.
Stay tuned for our next posting when we continue our exploration of how to look for and find monumental, game-changing paradigm shifts.
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