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March 30, 2011 9:28 pm
Beyond the Familiar
Long-Term Growth Through Customer Focus And Innovation
By Patrick Barwise and Seán Meehan
It would be surprising if this book were surprising. A dramatic leap of topic or treatment would contradict the authors’ central message that the heroic strategic shifts, breakthrough products and transformational acquisitions that are the stuff of business legend offer a perilous path to success.
Instead, as in their earlier book, Simply Better (2004), Patrick Barwise and Seán Meehan point managers towards the well-mapped low road of organic growth and incremental innovation. The views from here are less spectacular but you are more likely to arrive at your destination in good shape.
Not that this route is an easy one. Beyond the Familiar is better written and less frantic in style than the shelfloads of books that goad their readers towards rash acts of management bravado.
But, like their more excitable peers, the authors promote the idea that business these days is thoroughly exhausting. For instance, the book acclaims electronics group Philips’ reorientation of its brand around the “sense and simplicity” strapline, but the authors make no bones about what this sort of change requires – “extreme persistence ... occasional willingness to be unpopular [and] a never-ending effort by the leadership”. Management teams whose success is celebrated here are “aggressive”, “fearless” and, above all, “relentless”. If you are not relentlessly improving your promise to customers, your communication with staff, your commitment to quality, and so on, you are nowhere.
This goes even for Apple, the acme of effortless cool. The company’s products may be – in the words of actor Stephen Fry, their highest-profile fan – “gorgeous and lovely” but, as Barwise and Meehan point out, Apple did not blaze this trail. To call Apple a pioneer for producing the Mac, iPod and iPad is to “ignore the amount of unglamorous incremental innovation work behind the razzmatazz of the headlines and the big product launches”.
Apple is more of a “fast follower”. Steve Jobs recognised and exploited the potential of breakthroughs by Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center in the 1970s, including the graphical user interface and the computer mouse. Xerox, on the other hand, wrong-headedly envisaged its Star computer “as a networked ‘office of the future’ system ... aimed at its traditional customer base of office managers”. The device flopped because Xerox “never went ‘beyond the familiar’, never made the effort to understand end-users”.
Barwise and Meehan make plain that they offer no silver bullet to guarantee long-term growth. As in the Apple example, they prefer to teach a series of counterintuitive lessons, wrapped neatly around case studies.
Focus groups and market research? Handle with care. In seeking to make the venerable Tide laundry detergent brand “emotionally relevant” again, Procter & Gamble drew on more direct and informal customer contacts. Delight your customers? By all means but devote as much or more attention to not annoying or disappointing them. Customer satisfaction is all very well but customer dissatisfaction can erode trust in established brands faster than you can say “please hold, your call is important to us”.
In the same vein, companies that push to develop unique features for their product or service should remember that customers often just want what they buy to work. By all means improve it (relentlessly), but never lose sight of the baseline of reliability.
Barwise and Meehan certainly do not stray from that line. On its own terms, Beyond the Familiar lives up to its promise, rewards readers’ trust and reinforces Simply Better’s straightforward lessons. The problem with their slim new volume is that it is, well, a bit too familiar.
Where the authors do expand on the earlier work is in placing greater emphasis on the importance of bridging the gaps between perception and reality that blight modern business. What a company thinks of its products can be damagingly different from the way they are received in the marketplace, as the recent financial crisis exposed.
The book illustrates this with a crushing case study of General Motors’ “dismal” record over the past half-century. The company “has had a culture which rejects unwelcome news, and its leaders have been unable or unwilling to change this”, they write. The opposite of a GM-style culture of “fear and denial” is the “open organisation”.
It is no coincidence that the authors put it at the centre of the simple diagram of success that starts each chapter. But achieving and maintaining this ideal state – where problems and ideas are freely discussed, managers get honest feedback and minions’ mistakes earn a pat on the back – will remain a struggle as long as executives remain open to the temptations of heroism.
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