Get Back in the Box Thought Virus #1: One Thing

Over the next ten weeks, I’ll be posting short excerpts – thought viruses, really – from my upcoming book, Get Back in the Box: Innovation from the Inside Out. Yes, this is promotion. Promotion of the book and, more importantly, promotion of the ideas within it. For the suggestions I’m making to the business community (and hopefully beyond) are ones I believe can help transform commerce into a force more aligned with our collective goals. Plus, they should make work more meaningful and fun.

I’ll be picking the ideas most ripe for discussion – the ones that represent the more surprising or controversial implications of this approach. But to begin with, here’s a few paragraphs from the Preface, looking at how businesses have alienated themselves from their core processes, values, and competencies. Thanks to an obsession with maximizing efficiency and short-term revenues, mirroring tactics of the competition, and pursuing “next big things,” they’ve systematically removed themselves from their own equations.

Just last year, I got a phone call from the CEO of a home electronics chain, asking if I could devise a new communications strategy for him. He had read one of my books on Internet culture and was wondering if I could help him make use of some of this ‘below the line’ advertising he’d been hearing so much about lately. He wanted his marketing to be ‘less Saatchi and Saatchi and more craigslist.’ By this he meant he wanted to rely less on the expensive, high-concept traditional television advertising created by agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi, and somehow do his communications through bottom-up online communities, like the one that had developed around the craigslist online bulletin board.

As I reviewed the company’s dossier, product line, and customer experience reviews, I realized this CEO had a much bigger problem than his ads. The chain had lost its way. It had alienated its core customer base by abandoning the electronics business and becoming more of an appliance store. It had pushed design and manufacturing offshore, leaving headquarters without talent who really understood electronics. As a result, the quality of store-brand products had deteriorated, leading customers to buy other brands at thinner margins. Finally, corporate HQ had alienated its store managers through infantilizing incentives schemes, and irritated its employees with oppressive ‘loss prevention’ (antitheft) policies. Yet this CEO really thought a shift in marketing would change his whole business.

That’s when it hit me: What this fellow needed was not to hire companies who could market like craigslist but to be more like craigslist, himself. That is, simply understand what specific product or service he’s really offering, and then do it as well and expertly as possible. That’s not what he wanted to hear. No, he wanted a new marketing campaign to define his business for him, from the outside in.

Too many companies are obsessed with window dressing because they’re reluctant, no, afraid, to look at whatever it is they really do and evaluate it from the inside out. When things are down, CEO’s turn to consultants and marketers to rethink, rebrand or repackage whatever it is they are selling, when they should be getting back on the factory floor, into the stores, or out to the research labs where their product is actually made, sold, or conceived. Instead of making their communications less Saatchi and more Craig, they should be reinventing their core enterprise.

(snip – extended analysis of craiglist’s brilliance at staying on track and Saatchi’s corresponding failure to do so)

Over the past ten years, I’ve spoken with a lot of people about this conundrum, its historical context, and the ease with which so many businesses could transcend their reluctance to draw on their own expertise. Invariably, the Fortune 500 CEOs, billionaire entrepreneurs, and intellectual leaders with whom I engaged implored me to share these insights with the audience who needed them most: businesspeople. That’s why I’m making such a simple proposition: stop solving your problems from the outside in. Get back in the box and do the thing you actually do best. This disciplined commitment to your own core passion – and not a consultant, ad campaign, or business plan – is the source of true innovation.

The longevity and prosperity of any enterprise depends most on its participants’ ability to maintain the wellspring of innovation. And the way to do this is to remember that you are always the source of your own best ideas. The most successful businesses for the next century will turn out to have been based not on infinitely repeatable Harvard Business School lesson plans, but on a combination of competence and passion. Dissecting an enterprise after the fact to see what made it work is akin to conducting on autopsy on a person to see what made him live. The very pursuit is symptomatic of the highly fragmented approach to business we’re leaving behind.

So let’s be clear: this is not a business book. Or at least it’s not just a business book. For your career is not your job and your company is not its balance sheet. Your most personal choices are, in fact, your business choices. And your business choices may as well be your civic choices. Whether you realize it or not, your product purchases and brand loyalties express your politics, and your relationship to money says a lot about your understanding of time, of power, and of belief. It’s all one dynamic picture.

That’s why I’m going to ask you to look at commerce, communications, civics, and community as if they are all part of the same system – an ecology, really, of interdependent activities and needs. There is just one thing going on, here. Pretending that each aspect of your existence or your enterprise can be compartmentalized is, itself, a product of the Industrial Age thinking I’ll be asking you to abandon, and the surest path toward forgetting what it is you might have once, originally, hoped to accomplish.