Simplicity is key.
May 21, 2013
But it’s not easy.
Scenario: You set out to make a list of the top 3 strategic initiatives and end up with 20. You just can’t help adding the rejects to the bottom of the list…or the little things. Just in case they make it. It makes everyone feel better to have them captured, so you keep them. But in fact, there’s nothing so demoralizing for the team as the list that never gets done. We need to stop thinking of it that way.
The top initiatives are just that. It doesn’t have to include the little things. The little things are the things we do everyday to support the big things.
Does your company excel at identifying the top few things? One company I worked for called it the “critical few initiatives”. It made it very clear, at all levels of the organization, how to make the right decision about what to focus on, everyday.
It’s not so different from having a clear brand position: once you have it, everyone can use it as a guiding light for behavior, decisions and how they articulate the voice of the brand and apply it to what they specifically do every day.
But why is it so hard to do? How do you do it well?
It’s hard because it requires sacrifice. You can’t do it all at once, with the resources you have. You have to know what’s really important. Startups do this everyday- they have a few good people laser-focused on a clear goal. So they get it done. I’ve been with big companies and little companies, and I can tell you that it’s not size that defines a clear business strategy- it’s courage. That’s right- it’s the courage to take a stand on what’s going to drive your business forward, rather than a mega diner-sized menu that will have something for everyone, and nothing spectacular for anyone.
J.Crew does this extraordinarily well.
Mickey Drexler, in one of his recent features in Fast Company, says: “Simplicity is very difficult to achieve.” But he has done it- over the past 10 years, with Jenna Lyons as the extraordinary creative lead- they have completely reinvented one of America’s favorite brands. They have a vision, and it has paid off, big time- with Michelle Obama and Jessie Jackson (this Jessie, not the reverend), among many others, as devoted fans to the brand. Why? They don’t do just what’s expected. They keep it fresh and creative. And they don’t try to have something for everyone. Each collection has a point of view. It has become the single most coveted American fashion brand at an affordable price point. You don’t achieve that by being indecisive about your priorities. You can find links to Fast Company’s recent features on Mickey and Jenna, here.
Learning Agile Methodologies helped shape my thinking about how to keep it simple. It’s a flexible, yet highly structured way to prioritize and execute on an on-going basis. It requires decisive action and attention on a daily basis to remain focused. And you can still keep your wish list (your backlog), on the fringes to pull from when each new sprint planning meeting comes up. This isn’t a long term strategic planning tool- but it’s a great way to organize the work to support your key strategies. What it does for strategic planning is give you a better sense of how much time things take- how to structure the research around your plans and whether they’re achievable in the desired time period. It’s a great way to support your strategy company wide, and keep everyone focused.
But it all starts with keeping it simple. You have to start by defining the high level goals. And then constructing a plan of the things you need to have in place to get there. And then editing, editing, editing down the list to the things that REALLY matter. And then staying focused, every day, on those things.
It’s not easy, to plan to do less. But what I’ve found in the past year is that planning to do less actually empowers you to do more- both because you don’t have to rethink your priorities every single day, and because you make a bigger impact with a few great things than with a zillion insignificant ones.
Aspiration or discrimination?
May 17, 2013
All this bad press about Mike Jeffries and his reprehensible statements has created a firestorm in social media. Has he gone too far this time? Well, yeah. He always does. But…
Is Abercrombie bad because of what he said, or because of what they do?
Indeed, his comments are awful. While I could argue that Abercrombie’s aspirational brand vision goes too far (something that’s been hotly debated for years- ever since they launched the magalog with naked teens on the cover), it’s not a new marketing tactic to use shock-value to get media attention. Abercrombie has always pushed the limits, and in fact, revels in going over. But they’re not really doing anything new, now. They’ve always marketed the brand for cool, skinny people. They’ve always had teeny-weeny little sizes that could fit your toddler. So why is everyone so hopping mad about it, now?
Because he crossed the line. He didn’t just cross it, he leapt over it. He said what no one would say. And defies the ideals of inclusion, acceptance and diversity. In the 2006 Salon feature that’s been so widely publicized this past few weeks, the interviewer asks him how important “sex and sexual attraction are in what he calls the ’emotional experience’ he creates” and Jeffries says:
“It’s almost everything. That’s why we hire good-looking people in our stores. Because good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”
“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”
(“The man behind Abercrombie & Fitch“, Benoit Denizet-Lewis for Salon, 2006)
Is this exclusionary strategy so different from other high profile fashion brands? Or is he just brutally honest? Let’s focus on the sizing issue. Abercrombie’s sizing is notoriously small. It doesn’t carry extra large sizes for women at all. Even the men’s sizes are downsized: a men’s size XL sweatshirt fits like a women’s size 12.
If you look at the sizing for many upscale fashion retail brands, it’s not really that different. Abercrombie defines a Large as equivalent to a size 10. Many fashion brands define a large as a size 10-12. Some go even smaller, defining it as an 8-10. And others (the less trendy) define it as a 12-14 or even a 14-16. There’s no standardization for sizing, and we all know it, as frustrating as it is. It always differs by brand. Some are just cut slim- others more generous. We all know the brands we can wear, and the ones we can’t. So Abercrombie is hardly unique when it comes to size range.
Considering the brand issue, Abercrombie is not unique in having a passionate and specific vision of its aspirational lifestyle and target customer. Countless fashion brands have an aspirational look that celebrates, young, thin, beautiful women, with a target customer that exemplifies the aspirational lifestyle. That’s not news. The key difference? Most brands don’t celebrate the exclusion. What’s hateful about the Jeffrie’s incident is that he didn’t focus on what’s good about his brand- he focused on what’s bad about the people that don’t fit into his brand image. And that’s bad business.
Jeffries has since posted an apology on facebook that reads:
“I want to address some of my comments that have been circulating from a 2006 interview. While I believe this 7 year old, resurrected quote has been taken out of context, I sincerely regret that my choice of words was interpreted in a manner that has caused offense. A&F is an aspirational brand that, like most specialty apparel brands, targets its marketing at a particular segment of customers. However, we care about the broader communities in which we operate and are strongly committed to diversity and inclusion. We hire good people who share these values. We are completely opposed to any discrimination, bullying, derogatory characterizations or other anti-social behavior based on race, gender, body type or other individual characteristics.”
This isn’t the first time Jeffries has hurt the brand he worked so hard to build. He’s been dragged through the mud on many other occasions for discrimation against…well, just about every group except his target audience. So far, Abercrombie has always weathered the storm. But I wonder, will the cool kids really want to keep buying into this? Time will tell.