There Is No Prize for Originality

Earlier today, I was reading a reddit.com post about a young man ready to graduate college this summer who was desperately looking to start his own business. He didn’t have a business idea and was looking to the readership to help him come up with one. I often suggest to clients with a desire to start a business, but who lack an credible idea, to simply find something that works in one place and considering bringing it to another.

For instance, Elliot and Ruth Handler went to Switzerland with their kids, Ken and Barbie. While there, they saw an adult doll dressed in work cloths. The doll was not a kid’s toy, but was marketed to adults. Up to that time, all dolls in the U.S. were marketed to young girls and were babies so that the girls could pretend that they were the doll’s mommy. As their daughter Barbie handled the doll, the Handlers got an idea. They replicated the doll in the U.S. and named them after their kids, Ken and Barbie. This new toy helped launch their company Mattel.

Learn more about how the Barbie doll helped launch Mattel.

In another example, I was watching a current affairs show on T.V. the other day. The story featured a bar in Tokyo that featured a show made up of robots. That bar is crazy popular in Tokyo. I asked myself why wouldn’t the same idea make sense here in the U.S.?

A number of years ago, I was opening an office to support a contract we had with HP in Stuttgart, German. As I sat in a lawyer’s office, discussing Germany’s employment laws, an automated window shade called a “Rollladen” began to come down. Fascinated by the idea of an automated shade, I asked the lawyer what that was all about. He explained that when it gets hot outside, the shades automatically close to reduce the load on the air conditioner and save energy. I asked myself why wouldn’t the same idea make sense here?

Finally, as a child in the 1960’s, I traveled to Germany for the summer to stay with my Aunt and Uncle who spoke very little English in what I call “my total German immersion vacation.” I made some friends over the summer, as all kids do, and was offered a milk box by one of my new friend’s parents one day. I had never see a drink in a box before, but it made incredible sense. Juice boxes were not introduced into the U.S. market until the 1980’s, some 20 years later, and they became an instant success. Again, why did it take so long for ideas like the juice box that was successful in one part of the world to make its debut here in the U.S.?

There is no prize for originality. Like my old boss, Debbie Sagen, once told me, “R&D stands for Ripoff and Duplicate.” So, if you are still looking for that one thing to start your next great business venture, look at what is popular somewhere else and consider bringing it to a new market.

Where will you find the next great product marketing idea?

This post was originally published March 3, 2017 at SteveBizblog.com. Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveImke

Changing your business and its culture

Probably the hardest thing to do at a business is to change its culture.

How did Genghis Khan and other medieval rulers change the culture of their acquisitions? Eliminate every male over a certain age or they rounded-up all the nobility and professionals then eliminated them. Another step communist rulers like Mao Tse-tung of China used to change culture, in addition to eliminating critics and sending people to work camps; he eliminated historical and cultural icons, books… Harsh, and unnecessary, with time and good leadership culture can change, especially if it’s for the better.

I have led the change at a few organizations; with change came cultural change. The U.S. military was pulling out of Iraq in late 2011 and I leading the replacement organization for the Department of State (DOS). DOS was taking over the airport operations in Baghdad from the US Air Force (USAF). I was also an USAF reserve officer so the transition started out fine; I was working with peers to change from a USAF operation to DOS. My DOS operation had less than 10% of the USAF workforce so we were taking a different approach to how we were going to run things. The USAF began to resist our new operation, they made it hard for us to train, limited our access to facilities, they wrote letters to HQ to complain that our operation would not be able to do the USAF mission… They were correct; we were going to run a new DOS operation with different procedures and a different culture. It was sad to see; we were all on the same team, we all had the same goals but some of the USAF leaders could not accept the change. The date for the US military withdrawal from Iraq was set in stone, so the day came and out went the USAF, the new DOS operation stood up and worked smoothly. The new culture was less hierarchy and more collaborative; we trained workers in multiple tasks and made a much flatter organization.

In another organization, I helped lead the transition to save a failing manufacturer. We established a plan before we showed up at the manufacturer; we planned to fire the President and his closest advisors. The culture wasn’t team oriented, power resided in a few and little information on the business flowed to the owner, the President was secretive. When we arrived, we implemented our new processes and reorganized the staff. We improved morale by making the organization more inclusive, giving everyone a voice in the success of the business. The management team led by being very open to the workers and we established open door policies to get everyone’s input. However, despite recommendations from the management team, the new President did not eliminate the next level of leadership. She allowed the Chief of Operations to stay. My consulting team completed our reorg and left. 6 months later, I got a call from the owner of the company, he had to fire the new President because the manufacturer still wasn’t profitable, it turned out they had reverted to the old processes and they had the same problems with completing projects on time. Lack of leadership allowed the company to fall back to its small circle of power; it did not provide progress updates and failed.

If you lucky enough to start a new business you set the standards, you set the culture. Take the time to think about the culture that will work best for your type a business. A collaborative culture is great for a creative organization; a more authoritarian culture may be better for inflexible manufacturing processes with lower skilled workers.

I’ve found that changing an organization is difficult but doable. Changing the culture is also difficult and often goes together with organizational change. Ensure you have a culture that is positive and works for your business.

Sometimes during a reorganization or planned cultural change, you must make difficult decisions. There may be a time you must let some people go to make room for the change. You may need to let someone go after the change if they are resisting it or reverting to old practices.

Establishing a new culture takes LEADERSHIP. It also takes deliberate planning and action. State your values, vision and mission; post positive information on your work place culture. Talk about what you expect within your organization, what is expected of your team. Bring in trainers if required. You may need to change the layout of your office to improve communications or the work floor to improve workflow. Then most importantly, live the new culture! Be the example!

Yes, that is all you need to do to change the culture but it is harder than you think because you cannot take a day off, you must hold everyone accountable. Most important, you as the leader must live the culture, be the example and hammer if necessary.