Audioblog: The slow death of otherwise great ideas: Purpose-Defeating Implementation
I’m writing a small book right now called Refuse – don’t let ‘business as usual’ cripple your great idea. I’m working on my favorite chapter–“refuse to let fear drive compromise.” This is what I’m learning… fear can easily gut a brilliant idea of its excellent points. Afterward, usually, compromise sweeps in and creates something weird in its stead.
Sadly, some businesses and organizations are so accustomed to compromising, they’re nose-deaf to their own weirdness. As always, I’m looking for great stories and illustrations, so I’ve started to inventory some of the weird things businesses do out of fear. Once I started looking… I can’t stop finding them.
For instance, consider the case of a nationwide coffee-and-donut franchise that now has a sign on their drive-through windows instructing their customers to contact management if an employee asks them for more money than the total of their purchase.
This is craziness.
First, is this a nationwide problem? Are there employees running donut-price-hike scams across the U.S.? Does this reasonably require an organization-wide crack-down? Is there no better way to deal with this challenge than to announce the problem to customers and ask them to participate in the solution?
The mind boggles.
Believe me, I understand the fear this organization must be feeling. They want their customers to have a great experience, and they don’t want a rogue employee skimming money off the top and giving their business a bad name. But in the process of trying to avoid that outcome, they’ve done something worse.
Now, every time a customer drives up to the donut window, they’re reminded that this business doesn’t appear to trust their employees. And worse, they’re expected to police this donut shop’s staff for them (as in, “tell management if this happens to you”).
On the way to building trust with the public, they’re reducing trust in their staff. That’s what I like to call Purpose-Defeating Implementation. The goal is good, but the execution negates the whole point.
Here’s another example: the gym where I work out offers a “towel service.” For a few bucks a month, they’ll give you a “bath towel” when you show up to the gym. That way, you don’t have to bring a towel from home every time you want to shower after a workout. That’s a good idea, and a great goal. But for some reason, the gym doesn’t provide real bath towels, but rather oversized hand towels. Because they don’t come close to actually fulfilling the normal functions of bath towels, they normally give you two.
I’m not sure why the tiny bath towels were selected over large ones–but I have a theory. I tend to think that somewhere there was concern that if they had big fluffy hotel-style bath towels, they’d have the same problem hotels have—towels would start disappearing. That’s a reasonable fear. Perhaps they shouldn’t offer a towel service then. Or, maybe they should offer towels but put an anti-theft device on them. What I know for sure is this–giving customers oversized hand towels and calling them bath towels is weird. That’s definitely not the solution.
And, as a consumer, every time you try to dry yourself with two little towels, instead of one appropriately big one, it accentuates the weirdness.
One of my favorite stories about purpose-defeating implementation is one I heard from my dad years ago. When he was a young adult in the 1970’s, he sold men’s clothing for National Shirt Shop. NSS was a New York chain that sold nice men’s clothes, and dad worked in their Fort Worth, Texas store.
While National did a great business, they did have a weird obsession with bouncing checks. For the time, their initial policy was relatively strict, requiring customers to produce an ID and a major credit card if they wanted to write a check. This was in a day and age when a lot of check-writing customers didn’t carry credit cards. Reluctantly, customers complied. But then NSS went a step too far. In their zeal to avoid bouncing checks, they rolled out a new policy requiring employees like my dad to fingerprint customers. When a customer wrote a check, the employee was expected to roll the customers finger in pink powder and stamp the fingerprint impression on the check.
Perhaps that went over okay in New York. In Fort Worth, Texas, it was a bridge too far. Many customers believed fingerprinting was for criminals, not paying customers. They had a point. From my dad’s perspective, it torpedoed NSS’s business in Ft Worth, even after the ill-fated policy was revoked.
It was a purpose-defeating implementation. The goal was to protect the business’ income stream. In the end it probably crippled sales. And, it weirded out customers.
Here’s the moral of the stories: while it is true that we should exercise wisdom to shape great ideas to make them better, there will always be a huge danger of letting fear gut great ideas, and compromise away our initial purpose. When that happens, businesses look weird, and customers take a justifiable step back.
Zero risk business propositions are usually low-yield (if and when they exist). Brilliant ideas are always risky. But when they get implemented, they look and feel right. And they attract the right kind of attention. Not the kind of attention you get from being weird.
by Jonathan Hoover
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