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The difference between winning and just being in the game – Thinking about ‘NEXT’ instead of just ‘NOW’:

Some words of wisdom from Tom Asacker:

“When they asked Wayne Gretsky, arguably the greatest hockey player of all time, what made him more successful than other players, he replied, Most players tend to play where the puck is, whereas I play where the puck is going to be. Or as the professional trend-spotter may explain, Gretsky smartly followed the “drift” or “general course” of the puck. Now, to anyone who has played a game in which hitting or catching a moving object is essential, Gretsky’s insight is absurdly obvious.

And to anyone who has developed a successful business from the ground floor up, so is trend-spotting customer behavior (regardless of the fact that major corporations spend a ton of money to frequently have it done for them). Because the truth about trends – and staying ahead – is that it has nothing to do with the future. It’s about being intimately involved with your audience today! Being part of the dynamics of change now!”

This is something that I have found profoundly lacking in Corporate America, with, of course, some notable exceptions. That elite club of A-list brands seems to always be the same: Apple. Whole Foods. Starbucks. Virgin. Volkswagen. Canon. Target. Nike. Pixar. Disney. On a smaller scale, you can probably find local, regional, and niche brands that seem to always be a step ahead of the game. Pioneers. Innovators. Trend diviners.

Interestingly, the only difference between companies which, like Wayne Gretzky, focus on where the puck is going to be instead of where the puck is now is frame of mind. Actually, no. Let me rephrase that. The difference is twofold:

1. These companies’ leaders makes a conscious decision to be forward looking. To be where the puck will be. (As Microsoft’s Rob Moyer told me earlier this year, “we live in 2008, but we’re already thinking about 2018.” Perhaps not the greatest example in light of Vista’s less than stellar year, but Rob was talking about “the cloud,” which is a completely different thing.) Being where the puck is going to be requires a conscious and deliberate decision to be there, not as an occasional thing (quarterly planning sessions and whatnot) but 24/7/365.

2. These companies’ leaders make sure that the companies they run atually operate in a forward-looking manner. Take Apple for example. Did Steve Jobs create a business culture that simply waited to see what competitors were going to make before releasing an “i-” version of it? Nope. Apple forged ahead with brand new products or entirely new interpretations of existing products they decided to push through a radical evolution. i-Pod. i-Phone. Apple looked 5-10 years into their own future, saw what types of products they thought people would want to own and play with, and they designed them. Whole new concepts, whole new interfaces, whole new hardware, software, accessories, etc.

How lackluster management can (and will) destroy a brand, while inspired leadership creates market icons:

So to recap, the difference between brands that always seem to dominate markets and those which struggle to remain competitive is simply this: They attract and empower a certain type of leadership – Visionaries. Pioneers. Innovators. Folks who, like Wayne Gretzky, look at business as an organic, fluid entity. Folks who seek new ideas. New points of view. New ways of transforming their business into tomorrow’s indispensible brand, not just today’s.

Struggling or slow growth companies instead tend to rely almost exclusively on the health of their P&L to make strategic decisions. They tend to hire people with exactly the same type of experience everyone else in their organization already has instead of cross-pollinating their culture with insight from other industries. They also mostly live in a frenzied cubicle version of Groundhog Day, where every day blends into the next and very little ever truly changes. At every level, risk-adverse managers (not leaders) talk about “incremental growth” instead of shooting for game-changing growth.

And without a game-changing growth frame of mind, you are setting yourself up for failure. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday. And that someday may be a lot closer than you realize.

I was reminded of this yesterday, as “the big three” automakers were on Capitol Hill, begging for help from taxpayers. The question that bounced around in my head was simple: How did we get here? How did it come to this?

The question, of course, was rhetorical. The problem comes down to leadership. What is Apple without Jobs? What is Virgin without Branson? What is Ralph Lauren without Lauren?

Who drives the vision of a company? Of a brand?

Who creates the company culture that either forges ahead with innovation and genius (like Apple) or decides to play it safe?

Who watches trends, invites customers to participate in the product ideation process, and decides to lead the way? (Or conversely, who decides to ignore serious global energy and environmental challenges for years and puts all of their baskets in ever-larger gas guzzling SUVs?)

Who decides to pump out product after product that no one really cares about?

Let me tell you something: Put someone in a car for ten minutes and they’ll tell you everything they love and hate about it: The seats feel weird. The dashboard is too busy. The reading light is in the wrong place. If I buy this truck, I’m going to spend more on fuel each month than on my mortgage. There’s no mp3 plug-in. The interior is too plain. There’s no place for my daughter to stow her toys. The seats won’t last with my two labs. I can’t put a bike rack on the roof because of the way the trunk opens. There’s no room in the trunk for my guitar. Where the hell are the cup holders?

We’re talking about simple anthropology here: Who are you building this product for? A demographic? A set of statistics? Or maybe… people? People with hobbies and lifestyles and passions? People who look to your product to fit into their lives like the perfect puzzle piece. The kind that blends style, utility, value, and awesomeness? (Yes, “awesomeness” is a word here.) Are you just building products because you need to produce something that fits in a specific category, or are you building products that people will crave and want to show off because they complement their lifestyles so damn well?

Translating all of this to Detroit – How the American auto industry could have saved itself every day for the last five years:

Since we’re on the subject of American automakers, here’s a bit from a post I wrote earlier this year, long before the credit collapse on Wall Street:

There is a clear absence of imagination in the auto industry, at least in the US. derivative designs create an “also-in” design culture that offers no clear value to anyone. Sure, I can get excited about Aston Martin or Bugati’s latest supercars, but when I look at cars I can actually afford – the middle of the bell curve – what am I left with? Where is the sexy, smart, well designed sub-$20K car with great gas mileage and suite of electronic interfaces I have been asking for? Where are my power outlets for laptops and media player recharges? (Real outlets, not cigarette lighter outlets.) Where is my built-in hands-free system for my phone? Where is my media player plug-in?

Identity development needs to become part of every new car design – not just at the brand level (a BMW is a BMW /a Mercedes is a Mercedes) but at the level of the individual model. Scion has adopted the concept 100%, but its designs look like someone got a hold of ten-year-old early concept drafts from 2-3 automakers and actually turned them into production cars without making any changes. (Right idea: Unique models for unique uses, but horrible execution: Not a whole lot of curb appeal, and heinously derivative designs – most still look like Korean knockoffs of competitor’s designs.)

Invent something smarter than a cool cup holder. Like a built-in passive cabin ventilation system for really hot summer days. Or a slot for a portable hard drive inside the dashboard. Or a fully insulated trunk compartment for laptops, cameras and other electronics. Or accessible + concealable storage compartments for passengers. Or a new seat adjustment interface. Or yeah… a better cup holder.

Think, guys. Dream a little. Invent something that brings value to the market. More importantly, make your brand, your designs and your every conversation with us, the people who should be dreaming about driving your cars, stand for something. Give us something to desire and crave and get excited about.

This really isn’t brain surgery. If you want to be the kind of company that seems to score more often than everyone else, you have to commit to doing things differently. You have to commit to understanding where the puck is going to go next so you can be there to hit it first.

You have to be willing to be that company. You have to be willing to both recruit and empower innovative, visionary talent. You have to get out from behind your four walls and actually reach out to the world outside. The more time you spend in your office doing the same thing over and over again, the less opportunity you have to discover what will make your company great next quarter. Next year. In the next decade.

And please, do us all a favor and stop blaming the “economic crisis” on Wall Street for every business failure. The big three were already losing ground last spring, long before the Wall Street meltdown several weeks ago. Why? 1) Rising gas prices, 2) uncertainty about the future (buying a car is a big investment), and 3) for the most part, boring, uninspired design. Check out this interesting little US auto industry time capsule from back in April to understand how we really got here. (Again: Don’t blame Wall Street for poor leadership.)

For automakers, being where the puck was going to be instead of where they thought it was wasn’t too much of a stretch: Climate Change + Rising energy costs + seeing the beginning of the end of oil = START FOCUSING ON FUEL EFFICIENT VEHICLES. This would have meant opportunities for new mechanical design, opportunities for new aesthetic design, opportunities for new user interface design, and yes, an opportunity for automakers to redefine their brands for the next decade plus – all things they desperately needed. Surprisingly, some of the most highly paid executives in the world couldn’t do something as simple as that.

To be fair, Japanese automakers in the US market haven’t been doing too hot either. (Even fuel efficiency can’t make up for bland design and an absence of ca-ching value, but at least they get the fuel efficiency part.)

Still don’t believe me? Let the numbers speak for themselves: Even as every American Automaker was experiencing a frightening drop in sales, some foreign brands which focus on design and value were doing extremely well:

BMW: The highest-volume luxury-car seller in the U.S. market managed to generate an increase of nearly 10 percent in April sales of its BMW and Mini brands. The company said that a raft of new products launched this spring – BMW M3, X6 and 1 Series, and the Mini Clubman – helped its April results.

Mercedes-Benz: C-Class models posted a 34 percent gain for April and a 38 percent jump for the year to date. Mercedes-Benz also bucked trends and posted increases for its SUVs, both the M-Class and GL-Class models.

Subaru reported record sales for April (a gain of 22 percent over year-earlier levels).

Mazda North American Operations (MNAO) reported a double-digit increase in sales for April with 23,760 units sold in the U.S., a 12.8 percent increase over previous year.

Meanwhile, most American automakers were looking at double-digit declines in sales back in April compared to same month sales a year before. (Chrysler: -23%. GM: -16%. Ford: -12%.) The only American models with growth were either those which offered superior fuel efficiency or those which offered very clear value.

Simple.

Yet…

Alan Mulally, Ford president and chief executive officer, whose total compensation in 2007 was $21,670,674 (salary, bonuses, the Company-recognized expense for stock options and other stock-based awards, as well as all other compensation) couldn’t figure out what most ten-year-olds in the US could clearly figure out from either riding in a Ford or just… you know… being part of the conversation. -12% already back in April

General Motors’ Chief Executive Rick Wagoner’s salary and other compensation rose 64 percent in 2007 to about $15.7 million. The GM compensation committee cited significant progress over the past few years in reducing the automaker’s health care cost burden, increasing growth internationally and improvements in its cars and trucks in the 2007 awards to executives. -16% already back in April

Robert Nardelli, Chrysler’s current CEO (you may remember him from his days at Home Depot, from which he managed to very publicly walk away with a $210M exit package) hasn’t discussed his compensation package for 2007, but we can infer from the 10,000 jobs he cut in his first year that it must have been hefty. -23% already back in April

My point: These guys couldn’t read the writing on the wall? Really? They couldn’t figure out what anyone behind the wheel of a car – let alone someone with a modicum of marketing savvy – could plainly see?

They couldn’t, for one instant, even try to play where the puck was going to be? Or at least hire someone who could help them play there?

At that level in the game?

Watching them begging for cash on Capitol Hill is just sad. And scary. How many companies today are run by executives with the same myopic management style? The same lack of vision? The same absence of insight? And the same looming problems? Executives who, in spite of every tool at their disposal still won’t take the necessary steps to redefine their markets and ensure their companies’ success through the next decade or two?

Leadership matters.

The choices companies make (or choose not to make) matter.

The right combination of vision, focus and drive matters.

Now more than ever.

If you own or manage a business, the choice is simple: Either learn to play where the puck is going to be (and choose to be there), or follow thousands of other lackluster companies down the path of obsolescence and failure. That’s it. Those are your only two options in today’s economy.

If the latter doesn’t appeal to you (and it shouldn’t) but you don’t know how to transform your business into a forward-looking one, find someone who can help you. More often than not, you probably have a small group of talented people inside your organization who can give you guidance and help you make the best out of the current reality. If you don’t, hire someone with the right blend of talents and skills. (I know a few, so get in touch and we’ll get you hooked up pronto.)

Before I move on to my projects for the day, let me leave you with one last thought to tie all of this together (again courtesy of Tom Asacker):

“Easy times are the enemy, they put us to sleep. Adversity is our friend, it wakes us up.”
– The Dalai Lama

Time to wake up. (Hey, better late than never.) Have a great Thursday, everyone. 😉