“Do Something Different”

I heard something very smart yesterday and wanted to share it.

I was meeting with Kurt Tietjen, Chief Traffic Officer at Purch yesterday. I recently joined the board of Purch and am coming up to speed on the company’s business. Based on my earlier interactions with Kurt and the rest of the management team, I had fully expected to be impressed–and I was. He demonstrated great mastery of the the traffic sources of the business and a very perceptive grasp of how audience patterns are changing across the ecosystem. Kurt has built a very elegant suite of analytics that help the Purch management team make smart investment decisions. However that isn’t what impressed me most.

Almost as an aside, Kurt said that he required his people to take time every day to “do something different” related to the Purch business. Purch’s core business is to help consumers make better buying decisions–smarter, easier, more satisfying. Kurt wants to make sure that his team is thinking about these decisions the way that their customers are thinking about them and seeing what their customers see–not only what they expect to see. This could be looking for a product using a different search strategy or any number of other things.

Sounds simple. So why am I so impressed?

One of the core things that I have studied across my career is how change impacts businesses. Why some companies thrive but many fail. One of the most common, fatal flaws is institutionalizing corporate blind spots. Companies only see what they expect to see and only respond to threats that they expect.

There are many compelling examples in the larger world. At Pearl Harbor for example, the battle ships were clustered together so that they would be easier to guard against sabotage and a ground based attack. In reality, they created a perfect target for the carrier-based planes that the US didn’t expect. Three hundred years ago, the French lost their position in North America because Montcalm, an otherwise excellent general, assumed that the British general, Wolfe, wouldn’t scale the cliffs near Quebec. He was caught with his army facing the wrong way.

One reason that financial analysts were caught so off-guard by the housing market collapse is that they were using financial models that didn’t allow for a scenario where housing prices actually dropped. The real world unfortunately didn’t care much for the constraints of their model.

In business, many companies are caught with their troops facing the wrong way because they only develop strategies for the competitors and consumer behaviors that they expect. This may be comfortable and convenient but it’s also extremely dangerous. The expected only wounds you. The unexpected kills you.

The antidote for the risk of the unexpected lies is taking Kurt’s advice. Do something different every day.