I was watching the hockey playoffs last night and had a thought about business. You might not find that strange given that for several years of my life hockey WAS my business. However, what occurred to me has both broader application and a less-obvious path. It has to do with obstruction.
Getty Images via @daylife
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, obstruction (and its cousins hooking and holding) is what players do to decrease the flow of the game. An easy way to think of it is as a player preventing another player who doesn’t have the puck from skating, obstructing their ability to play. Almost a decade ago, the NHL cracked down on the practice by enforcing the existing rules against it in an effort to improve the flow of the game and allow the more skilled players to show those skills. As one might expect, teams adjusted their rosters over the years to emphasize great skating and stick-handling over the clutching and grabbing that was so prevalent .
Watching the game last night, I was struck by how little free-flowing skating was going on. Many of the other games I’ve watched during the season have seemed the same. The rules, or at least their enforcement, seem to have changed. Which is the business thought.
If you’ve built your team to play the game a certain way and the rules change, how do you compete? If you’re a media company that’s built on ad revenue for eyeballs, what do you do when the audiences you’re selling evaporate to other channels? If you’re selling SEO, what happens when the algorithms change and everything you do is now wrong? Even if you’re in online commerce, what do you do with inventory when tastes change?
Ultimately, I think our success and failure revolves around change management – what happens when the rule book gets modified. We need to be thinking about that as we bring on new hires – how well have they dealt with change in the past? We need to maintain flexibility in our planning – why spend money to a budget that’s based on old rules?
I’m sure it’s frustrating to the coaches and managers when they find a different set of rules on the ice than in the rule book. I know it’s frustrating to find a different set of business conditions and consumer preferences. What do you do when the rules change?
How often have you walked away from a business or personal encounter with someone thinking “they just don’t get it”? I find myself doing that a lot more often these days. Maybe I’m just becoming a grouchy old guy or maybe I’m just becoming more aware of the lack of empathy that seems so prevalent.
Empathy is the capacity to recognize or understand another’s state of mind or emotion. It is often characterized as the ability to “put oneself into another’s shoes”, or to in some way experience the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself. It is important to note that empathy does not necessarily imply compassion. Empathy can be ‘used’ for compassionate or cruel behavior.
And that’s really one big key, isn’t it? My daughter teaches little kids and is good at it. I think it’s because she’s very much in touch with her inner child and thinks as the kids do. The checkout person at the supermarket who swipes their saver card so you get all the discounts when you forget your card – either they get it or their bosses do.
Conversely, we’ve all had those encounters where you feel as if you’re talking to a wall. “Sorry, the policy is…no, we don’t do that (no explanation)…I can’t help you, sir…” At some point, we’re all on the other side of the situation – the person who works for the phone company who needs help with medical benefits, the person at the cable company who can’t get their electric bill straightened out. How do they not “get it” after that? Why can’t they see those experiences are not separate and their behavior in business needs to match their expectation as a consumer?
We had an incident a few years ago at the NHL where we ran out of jerseys in our online store (and offline too!). Customers had placed orders and were getting neither information nor jersey from our commerce partner. We assigned people internally to do nothing but answer their questions. We couldn’t get them jerseys but we did diffuse the situation by letting people know what the facts were (why we were out of stock), what we could do for them (not much), and, most importantly, that we CARED and were listening. And that, dear reader, is mostly what people want to know. Someone is there, is listening, is acting if they can, and empathizes with you even if they can’t.
If you run a business, teach empathy. Your salespeople will sell more, you’ll spend less on customer service, and your email box won’t get filled up with hate mail quite so much.
A few years back, when I was running the NHL’s digital businesses, I took a walk down the hall to the office of the fellow that ran the events department. These are the folks who put on things like the All Star Game, the Draft, and even make sure that the Stanley Cup shows up when someone wins it (as Detroit should have done very early this morning – nice win, Pens, but BOY am I tired this morning…).
Outside of his office was a dumpster and in the dumpster were dozens of items such as street banners from old All Star games. “Whats all this?” my inquiring mind asked. “Garbage” was the quick response. “To you, maybe. To our fans, this is gold.” And the dumpster, once he had finished cleaning, made its way to my department where were promptly auctioned off the garbage for thousands of dollars.
How many content creators throw cash away because they have a narrow view of their product? While I’m not an advocate for things like Beckham’s used chewing gum becoming the basis for your business, if you’re creating content for one platform and not exploring or exploiting many others, you’re missing out. I do believe in The Long Tail as long as the incremental costs are justified by the returns (which implies you probably don’t want to – or have to – break the bank). This is the sort of thing I work on with clients.
Step back and take a look at the entirety of your output and then survey where your potential audiences live. I’m willing to bet you’re throwing away some pretty good potential revenue.
This post isn’t about baseball or diversity, although The Mahatma, as Mr. Rickey was known, was an expert in both. Hard for someone who is a lifelong Yankees fan (stop it – I can hear you from here) to admit, but true.
Nope. This post is about the start of the Stanley Cup Finals and one of my former employers, the NHL. The NHL has set a number of records on the business side this year – higher TV ratings among them. There are some who say that the outdoor game (Winter Classic – sorry!) and its huge TV viewing (for something not football) on New Year’s Day distorted the season’s numbers. There are others who say that the good fortune of having Detroit, Dallas, Philly, and the Pens in your final four, all teams with good Canadian appeal yet no Canadian team to hurt US TV, was a stroke of luck. The fact that the US teams are from BIG markets and not smallish ones helps too. Lucky!
Well, to quote an expression that was more popular in Mr. Rickey’s time, pshaw. In general, pro sports teams ARE in big markets and the past few years have been the aberration. Giving fans an alternative to college football, even on its biggest day, isn’t a bad idea and hockey doesn’t need huge numbers to be successful.
How about we all acknowledge that this “luck” may be due to solutions that reflect careful thinking and long-term planning? It’s very easy to duct tape something together and say it’s fixed. Really fixing things takes time and maybe the odd banged thumb here and there. That’s how we try to approach solutions with our clients.
With no team in the Final from west of the eastern time zone, the scenario isn’t perfect but the residue of design that’s ready to start is pretty appealing none the less.
Luck is the residue of design.
Branch Rickey, Lecture title, 1950
US baseball administrator (1881 – 1965)