Archive for September 7th, 2006

, Spike wrote:

“Playing it safe puts your job in danger. You were not hired to play it safe, were you? I’m not saying that you have to be a loose cannon – but come on. DO something. Will your resume say, “Played it safe at company X for 5 years,” or “Moved the needle. Changed the culture. Pushed the boundaries. Shrunk comfort zones. Made a difference.”

Unfortunately, I have to admit that back when I was a corporate monkey, I was actually hired to play it safe. (The interview was all about innovation and risk-taking and big change, but the reality of the job turned out to be the exact opposite.) After three years at my last wear-a-tie-to-work job, I was told by the HR manager to not to try and change the company’s culture. Not to push the boundaries. Not to test anyone’s comfort zones. Not to try and make a difference.

And the walls came crumbling down…

Spike, Jason, this one’s for you, guys. This is an exerpt of that conversation:

“Olivier, perhaps you should stop sharing ideas with people.”

_ I’m sorry… what?

Ideas. I said you should stop sharing them.”

_ I’m… not sure I understand what you mean.

“You have a tendency to share ideas. A couple of people here have complained about that.”

_ About ideas.

“About the fact that you share them.”

_ You’re joking.

“No. They’ve complained to me about it.”

_ Who?

“It wouldn’t be fair for me to say. A couple of people.”

_ Were my ideas… offensive?

“No, they’re actually very good. They’re fantastic ideas. Everybody really loves them.”

_ … But… this couple of people complain about them anyway.


_ Were they unsolicited ideas?

“No. That isn’t the issue.”

_ Um… I don’t get it.

“It makes them feel that you’re telling them how to do their jobs.”

_ (Chuckle.) Seriously?


_ How so?

“Frankly, if you can’t see it, I’m not sure I want to explain it to you.”

_ What ideas are you talking about? I mean, what ideas specifically are you talking about?

“I don’t know. I can’t think of an example right now.”

_ Well… It’s kind of important that you do because I really want to understand this. These are good ideas that everyone loves and thinks are great… but a couple of people are complaining about them? I… They must have complained about specific instances. They would have.

“I can’t think of one right now. But you should stop sharing ideas with other people. It’s just not something everyone is comfortable with here yet. We’ve been doing things a certain way for fifty years, and not everyone here feels comfortable with change.”

_ Um… You do realize that it’s my job to actually come up with ideas for products and marketing and business opportunities, right?


_ And that we’ve already made and saved a lot of money because of these ideas, right?


_No, I mean. That’s what I was hired to do. It’s my job.

“Yes, I understand that, but these people would like you to just focus more on your other work.”

_ That is my work. There is no other work.

“I’m sure there are other things that you do.”

_ Actually, no. It starts with the ideas. Without the ideas, there is no work.

“Look, I am just conveying to you what has been brought to my attention. There are people here who have worked very hard over the years to put this place where it is. You have no idea how much we’ve grown over the last twenty years. The advances that were made before you came. When you share your ideas and it gets back to those people, they feel like you don’t appreciate that and are telling them how to do their jobs.”

_ You can’t be serious.

(Incredulous and condescending look from the HR person) “I honestly have a difficult time believing that you didn’t think that something like this would happen.”

_ Believe it. Look. I don’t know what we’re even talking about. Other department managers send me articles about stuff that’s marketing related, or design related… I send them stuff too. We have meetings to discuss them. It’s a dialogue we have. It’s collaborative and enriching. It’s simple stuff. Good stuff. I learn, they learn… It’s actually a very cool way to be exposed to new ideas, technology, and emerging trends. It helps us get better. It isn’t like I say Hey, you’re doing this wrong. Do it this way instead. It isn’t like that. We share case studies… Most of the modernization in the plant has been a result of this dialogue. Are you telling me that’s all been a bad thing?

They don’t like it.”

_ So… wait. I still don’t get it. Is it the ideas? The delivery? Am I being condescending or arrogant in any way?

“No, no, no. It’s nothing like that. They just don’t think it’s your place to be sharing any ideas.”

(Stunned look.) _ Huh?

“Olivier, I am going to be candid with you. You think that we don’t see your talents, but we do. We’re all very aware that you are years ahead of the curve. Decades, even. That you’re smarter and more market and design savvy than anyone here. You are undoubtedly the most articulate and creative person that has ever worked for (this company). Bar-none….”

(picking my chin up from the floor.)

“…But you’ve only been here three years, and these people have been here for over twenty years. You just haven’t paid your dues yet. You need to be patient. When the time comes and you are asked for your input, then maybe your role here will evolve. But right now, you have to understand that some people… who have never worked anywhere else… can feel threatened by someone like you. So you should keep your ideas private. I’m not suggesting that you dumb things down. Just that you… give people time to adjust to the fact that things in the outside world have changed and that they may not have all of the answers.”

_ I’m sorry… I’m still stuck on what you said a few minutes ago. So… you guys realize that I have these skills? That I know what I am talking about? That I am right about most of this stuff?

“Yes. We are very aware of that.”

_ But… you’re asking me to put a lid on it. To stop sharing ideas and no longer participate in the dialogue.

“Until you’ve been here a lot longer than three years.”

_ Like, how long?

“There’s no set amount of time. Most of our VPs have been here more than twenty years. One day, if you keep your nose to the grindstone, you might move up the ladder enough.”

_ The grindstone? You think I plan on still being here in twenty years, having conversations like this one?

I‘ve been here almost that long. They’ve been great years.”

_ You know… we don’t have twenty years. The market is changing now. Today. Things need to be done this year, not twenty years from now, in order for this company to be successful again. Second, why wait? You have me now. I can do this now. You’ve seen the work my team has been putting out. The changes we’ve already brought about. Our customers are coming back, our reps are excited again, we actually have a story to tell now, for the first time in twenty-five years. You would have me stop all of that? Put off innovation for what… ten more years, just because a few people feel uncomfortable with… change?

“Don’t worry. (The company) will still be here in ten years and we’ll have plenty of time to catch up then.”

_ You can’t be serious.

“It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve done it.”

_ Let me get this straight… you actually realize that I know what needs to be done and how. That I can help you win back a huge chunk of market share… that my team can do all of this… That we can do it now and that there’s a need for it now.

“Yes. I do.”

_ But… you’re asking me to sit back and do nothing.

“Not nothing, no. Just… less. More um… routine work.”

_ Until I’ve paid my dues.

“Until you’ve paid your dues, yes.”

_ And you equate my “paying dues” with sitting on my ass in a back office rather than continuing to make this company loads of money like I have been, and helping put you back on the map?

“It would make things easier for a few key people, yes.”

_ And when you hear yourself say this, it sounds reasonable to you?

(Pause.) “I am just telling you how it is, Olivier.”

_ That’s quite a business model you’ve got there. Really. You guys should be proud.

“Yes. It’s worked well for us over the years.”

(end scene.)

Conversations like this can be pretty entertaining if you have a sense of humor, but they’re also heartbreaking. It’s kind of like watching your best friend who had been sober for three years fall off the wagon and start drinking again… Or like watching one of your kids give up on a dream.

It’s just sad.

I guess the questions you have to ask yourself are these: Do you really want to work for a company that doesn’t value innovation? That refuses to push the boundaries of its comfort zone?

Do you really want to spend your life “safely” tucked in the belly of a slowly sinking ship? (Even if on the outside, the ship looks cool and has a popular name?)

These are serious questions, and yes, you do need to answer them.

Sometimes, doing something, moving the needle, helping make a company great again goes completely against the grain, no matter what the soundbites and taglines say. Lots of companies love to talk the talk when it comes to innovation and growth and taking chances, but very few of them actually walk the walk.

Playing it safe is still the corporate religion.

To quote Jason Oke again:

“Most people are driven more by the desire to avoid failure, and more specifically to avoid blame for failure, rather than a desire to achieve success.

“(…) Most companies compensate people based on short-term growth, rather than long-term vision, and stigmatize failure. Nobody wants to be the person who lost a chunk of shareholder money. Really, how many organizations actively encourage risk-taking and challenging convention? Not a lot.”

This is clearly a leadership problem. If the people who write the rules for their companies don’t create environments, ecosystems, cultures which systematically empower their employees, encourage their involvement, and reward them for their contributions, who will? If they don’t publicly kick stale methodologies and outdated business models to the curb, if they don’t turn their backs on the death-trap that are “playing it safe” strategies, who will?

Sometimes, not playing it safe, moving the needle and breaking through barriers does put your job in jeopardy. When that happens, trust me on this, it is a sure sign that you are working for the wrong company.

Life’s too short to be a tool.

Just remember this: More often than not, a job is just a job. It isn’t a career. Don’t waste your time working for a company that isn’t right for you.

Have a great weekend, everybody.

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Spike – over at Brains On Fire – struck a major cord with this post today:

“I just don’t understand how SVPs of marketing departments can afford to play it safe. Playing it safe means trying to please all the people all of the time. Playing it safe is the bedfellow of “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” (…) It’s the antagonist of courage…and of change. It’s paying attention to office politics. It’s the tradition in traditional advertising. It’s complacent. It’s the same spread in the same pub for the fourth month in a row. Playing it safe has never, ever merited good results. Playing it safe always gets found out. Exposed.

“Playing it safe puts your job in danger. You were not hired to play it safe, were you? I’m not saying that you have to be a loose cannon – but come on. DO something. Will your resume say, “Played it safe at company X for 5 years,” or “Moved the needle. Changed the culture. Pushed the boundaries. Shrunk comfort zones. Made a difference.”

“Is the choice really that tough?

“Marketing can be meaningful. But you have to make it that way.”

Equally insightful is this post left by Jason Oke – over at Leo Burnett:

“I’ve been thinking about this exact point for a while as well. In my experience, it seems that most people are driven more by the desire to avoid failure, and more specifically to avoid blame for failure, rather than a desire to acheive success. Most people would rather have safe 1% growth on their brands than aim for 50% or 100% growth and changing the category, because that entails risk of failure (if it was guaranteed, everyone would have done it already). This is partly driven by the inherently conservative nature of people – people who have kids and mortgages and so on – to not want to put their neck on the line. It’s partly driven by a cultural belief that failure is bad and demeaning, rather than an opportunity to learn and grow. It’s also partly institutional culture and economics – most companies compensate people based on short-term growth, rather than long-term vision, and stigmatize failure. Nobody wants to be the person who lost a chunk of shareholder money. Really, how many organizations actively encourage risk-taking and challenging convention? Not a lot.

“This is why so many decisions are not made by individual judgement, but by committee, or by research. These are structures that mitigate individual responsibility for a decision. I’ve seen people approve something which no one really believes will work because “the research said people liked it” – even if everyone kind of knows the research was flawed. But they approve nonetheless, because if it fails, they’re blameless: “the consumers told us to do it.”

“It takes a brave individual to base a decision on their own judgement, especially in defiance of conventional wisdom or company politics or research. That makes it a rare individual. But these are usually the people who change the world.”

I have worked for the company that Jason describes… and chances are that anyone reading this blog has as well. (If you’re still in school, you haven’t yet, but you will.)

It basically comes down to management culture… which sometimes changes not just from company to company, but also from department to department – and is completely people-driven: One manager or director may be a bold visionary who drives innovation and fuels excitement in the marketplace, while her replacement may be a conformist functionary who will let internal politics dictate his decisions. Subtle HR changes like these can make or break departments, divisions, companies, and… yes, brands pretty-much overnight.

I’ve found myself caught in the middle of these types of management shifts, and I am here to tell you that they suck. There is nothing sadder than seeing a company with enormous potential throw its success away by “playing it safe.” By not having the guts to stand out. By not having the oysters to try and be the best.

I could tell you stories that would make your blood turn to ice. I really could.

Like Spike says, taking chances isn’t about being a loose cannon. Quite the contrary. I hate to use sports metaphors because they’re so cliche… but they’re also easy to understand. Here’s the thing: No matter what sport you’re into, games are won not by playing defensively. They are won by playing offensively. You have to score in order to win.

I will say it again: You have to score in order to win.

Heck, you have to score more than the other guys in order to win. The tougher your competition, the more you have to up your game. The more you have to score. As we all know, every successful goal or point or touchdown comes after a string of failures. You try and fail. You try and fail again. You keep trying and failing until you finally score the point. The faster and systematically you can do this, the faster you will score more points. No matter how good you are at anything you do, success is always a numbers’ game, especially when it comes to innovation. Remember IDEO (the design juggernaut that brought us the computer mouse, for starters)? Their product development motto is pretty-much this: Fail often to succeed faster. Sound familiar? You bet.

The point is this: Defense doesn’t win jack diddly. Sooner or later, defense fails. It aways does. Playing it safe is a sure-fire way to make sure that you, your company, your career, your relationships, your life, your talents will never go anywhere. You have to take chances in order to win. Calculated risks. You have to be willing to risk tripping all over yourself in front of everyone… and chances are that you will. A lot. And that’s okay. If it falls into your methodology, if you make it clear from the start that it is part of the game plan, then no one with a brain and a drive to accomplish something special will have a problem with your planned failures. I guarantee it.

Within the right context, failure is not failure at all. Every hurdle, every speedbump, every obstacle is a point along a learning curve, and a step in the right direction. It is part of a process. Nothing more.

I used to get excited when the products I was in charge of developing failed a test during their prototyping phase. Why? Because the failure exposed a weakness we hadn’t anticipated (or confirmed one that we had). Because failure in testing meant that the engineers would quickly find a solution to it… and that we were one big step closer to being ready to go into production. Every new product, every new idea, every new campaign has a finite number of inherent weaknesses and flaws. One of the jobs of a project manager, no matter the discipline or indusrty, is to uncover each of these flaws BEFORE its final release. Every discovered flaw reduces the pool of unknown flaws, until there are none left and the product is ready. In this way, failure testing is a wickedly effective process.

In this context, failure is good.

Very good.

The “safe” execs don’t always understand that. Interestingly, the products they were in charge of bringing to market (copies of copies of copies designed and made overseas) never failed in testing, but had a very high failure rate out in the real world. (But by the time these problems occured, it was easy to pass the buck and blame the failures on manufacturing and quality control issues. Lame.) The products that my group designed hardly ever failed in the real world, but getting them launched was a much tougher battle. (Wow. Was it ever.)

And our products were cool and exciting, but that’s a whole other story. Ahem.

One of the fundamental differences between the “safe” execs and the visionary ones is always this: In a meeting, the safe group always asks “tell me how this thing works,” but avoids the tough questions. The visionary group asks “tell me how it fails,” and immediately starts working on finding solutions to the failures and make the idea work.

Some people are afraid of challenges, because of the risk of failure. Others get excited by challenges because of the possibility of success. Belonging to one group or the other is a choice we make every single day: We choose to work for innovative companies, or settle for the relative safety of boring cubicle jobs. We choose to go for it and risk failure, or settle for average. We order something new off the menu or go with the same old chicken sandwich. We take charge of our careers or let other people mismanage them for us. We choose to make a difference or to not. We choose to be successful, or to be… safe somewhere in the middle of the bell curve.

When it comes to innovation, to revolutionary product design, to the way that you interact with your customers, to the way that you create fans… to the way that you create something extraordinary, there is no place for safety. Sorry. It’s just the way it is.

If you want your business to succeed, not just survive at 1-6% annual growth, you have to take the wheel, put your foot on the gas, and take the lead. You have to take chances. You have to make decisions. You have to be the one to pave the way. You have to be willing to fail, learn from your mistake(s), and keep going.

If you are a business leader, a CMO, an athlete, a military officer, a researcher, a movie director or a politician, unless you are willing to do exactly that, you might as well pack up and go home.

(Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how – more often than not – most of our “jobs” are weighed down and stalled by “don’t rock the boat” swampwater.

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Design, Design, Design.

If you shoot with a Canon DSLR (or have drooled over the 1D in any of its incarnations), you’ll get a kick out of this.

I’m not sure what I like best – The call Spock button, the Adams Mode set of buttons at the base, or the pee break now light. Brilliant.

And um… you just couldn’t do this with a Nikon.

Let me just say this: Iconic brands don’t get to the top of their categories by blowing off design.

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