Finding the clear blue water.

A tale of Jim and Judy...

Clear blue waterOne of the biggest challenges for any business, is how to stand out from a crowd of competitors, each of whom is falling over the others to offer the same customers a slightly different take on essentially the same thing.

The answer to the challenge is easy to describe: you need to innovate, differentiate, and put some clear blue water between you and the pack; but it’s a lot harder to execute. Not because the ideas aren’t there – most businesses that I work with have plenty of ideas floating around just below the surface or bubbling up in their supply chain; the problem is that those ideas get ignored or worse, taken up only to be neutered by managers who are afraid to step out of their depth.

For example, I once asked two product managers to come back with some big ideas for how they could dramatically grow their sales. Judy came back with three: one was totally impractical; one looked exciting but we couldn’t make it work; and one became the second biggest growth initiative in the whole company that year.

Jim came back with a plan to do what we always did: clear out the slowest sellers and add more of the popular lines. He’d been in exactly the same supplier conversations; I’d like to think his team were every bit as creative and ambitious; but nothing exciting had made it through Jim’s risk filter. He knew how to paddle in the shallows, so that was where he was staying - heading out into the wide, blue, unchartered water was not for him.

Six months later, when the numbers started coming in, I challenged Jim to take Judy’s approach and adapt it to his category, but the plan that came back was almost identical to his original. The words were different, he’d even used Judy’s headings in his presentation, but her innovative idea had been watered down to essentially just clearing out the dusty stock and adding more of what worked.

Since then, I’ve met many more Jims in many more organisations. Jim is the “safe pair of hands”; champion of “keeping the wheels turning”; bastion of the status quo. Ask a Jim about his plans for the future and he’ll describe his team’s actions in the present. Challenge him to do something radical, ambitious or untried, and he’ll return, having reflected and consulted, with a plan that looks remarkably like what he’s already doing. But for every Jim, there’s a Judy – someone who listens well, thinks big and learns fast. Someone who will turn the world upside down to find ways to make something work, rather than ways to explain why it doesn’t.

You will never put clear blue water between yourself and the competition by staying in the shallows.

You’ll never become differentiated if you’re not prepared to think differently tomorrow than you did yesterday.

And you’ll never deliver anything innovative, let alone transformational, if you’re asking a Jim, rather than a Judy, to make it happen.

Do you know who the Jims and the Judys are in your organisation?