Editorial Comment: Excellence And The Habits of Champions
In pondering the nominations and judging of The InternetRetailing Awards Ian Jindal considers the sometimes-challenging study of success and excellence.
Aristotle's contribution to motivational posters runs something like this: "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit". This aphoristic observation echoes a post-Victorian meme of hard work, repetition, diligence. These are also a form of back-handed jibe against the one-off, the single flash of brilliance, the moment in the sun. Excellence, in Aristotle’s characterisation, has something of the Zen thinking of a thousand years later: repetition, honing and persistence. Indeed, one could even argue that the pursuit of excellence is as important as achieving excellence.
As commercial retailers the notion of 'excellence' has its problems. The first, of course, is that it's "more than sufficient" and therefore likely to decrease margin. Retail is founded upon "quality". Quality is not an absolute, but rather a negotiation with a customer. Given certain brand promises, a given price, the expectations I've brokered with you, then the experience of the product has to live up to a certain 'quality'. Good quality from one retailer in one category is not the same as good quality from another retailer or in a different category. When we go beyond that bargain with a customer we have to be sure that the added investment will be appreciated, will make a difference and of course make a profit.
The second challenge with excellence is that the customer is no longer the arbiter of success. When working with visionaries, obsessives and creatives (often the same person!) we find them to be driven by an internal voice, a passion, a vision that can push our views of commercial production to the very limit. They are not responding to an articulated customer need or propensity to pay - rather they're on a mission of their own. Henry Ford's view of the customer predates that of Steve Jobs at Apple: "if we asked the customer what they wanted they'd have said 'a faster horse'". Apple under Jobs was renowned for creating new desire and new standards - a "new normal" if you like. The unreferenced quest for excellence was an important component in this drive to new ground.
A further challenge is that excellence is risk-taking and linked to failure. An obsessive visionary will see the "great" that you and I perceive as a substandard failure. They will seek more, better, best. Furthermore, in the search for better alternatives it's an obvious fact that there will be tests and experiments that fail. "Good failures" those seeking radical improvements are still perceived as failures.
The final challenge is that this continuous seeking and changing is a threat to optimisation. Retail has, for the last 25 years at least, managed costs down by optimising processes. These optimised approaches - once our competitive advantage - are now an inhibition to experimentation and flexibility. It's as if the pursuit of excellence leads to sub-optimal performance (especially if our systems were not designed for flexibility and responsiveness from the outset).
As we survey the many accomplishments of the UK's leading retailers our Judges are having to look through the superficial successes and failures, look beyond the moment, and see the patterns and behaviours that bear the mark of the 'habit of excellence'.
Our Judges - themselves all experts in multichannel retail - know from their own habits some of the approaches to excellence, and can therefore see and appreciate the activity of their peers even where the results of that work may be embryonic. I was surprised last year when our Judges made Burberry the recipient of the prestigious Judges' Award, but barely a few months later the theatrical, game-defining spectacle of their Regent Street store was unleashed on the world… They are a totally deserving and inspiring winner whose activities still inspire others.
I'm reminded of the insights of James Cracknell, Olympic Rower, on the successes of the GB Rowing squad. He commended the dedication to training over many years that had led to the gold medals, noting that young rowers who'd see the unstinting 'hours on the water', commitment in the gym, sacrifice of leisure time over many years by people in their club - would no longer wonder at 'obsessive' behaviour: rather they would nod in understanding. They would realise that this is the behaviour of a Gold Medallist. They would equate that behaviour (the inputs) with the success.
We'll be celebrating the Commended few and the ultimate winners on 26 June 2013, and commenting on the reasons over a longer period. One lasting outcome of the Awards, however, is that in addition to celebrating visible success we'll be learning from the habits of excellence that lead to market transformation and ongoing success. The habits of winners.
Join us to celebrate InternetRetailing's Awards on 26 June 2013. Our thanks to our http://internetretailingawards.net/#judges
for giving their time and insight - they ensure that these are #theawards.