Knowledge Bank Blog, Category Strategy, New Product Launches

Perfect Doesn’t Start Perfect

Are you too reliant on getting things right first time?

In 1957 the young first time novelist Harper Lee submitted a manuscript to an editor named Tay Hohoff.

The editor was receptive but made it clear she thought the book would require significant reworking before being published. In Hohoff’s words, the book was “more a series of anecdotes than a fully conceived novel”.

Over the course of several rewrites that took more than 2 years – essentially a new cast of characters and a new plot – Lee created ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. It is recognised as one of the great works of American literature and has been studied in classrooms around the world.

This type of editing and rewriting process is nearly always hidden. You rarely see first manuscripts, song demos or pre edit films. However, To Kill a Mockingbird is different. In 2015 (58 years later) Lee’s original manuscript was published as ‘Go Set a Watchman’. Despite the initial fanfare, it proved that Lee’s editor was right. The book is not very good.

Reviews said that the characters were not fully formed and the book had a muddled message. The new book sold well at first, based on the reputation of Lee and the classic status of Mockingbird. But, soon after its release many bookstores offered refunds to disappointed fans. Go Set a Watchman will not be studied in many classrooms.

So, why are we talking about this? Well, we think in our industry we often give things one main chance of success – e.g. a big innovation launch, or a meeting with the Board, or a strategy session with a retailer. A small group of people are squirreled away working hard to create the perfect document, event or launch. You feel you have one shot at something so you invest a lot in getting things right up front.

But, what if the launch doesn’t go as well as planned? Or the Board don’t like the presentation? Or the retailer doesn’t like your proposal? Something that could be great might get cut off at source. It’s like the editor saying the first draft of Mockingbird wasn’t good enough, so we’ll stop things there.

Much better to get inputs earlier. Test, iterate, refine and learn as you go. Get things right over time, not necessarily first time.

So, how can you do this?

Strategy Documents. There is often a pretty standard process to develop category or channel strategies. Get a lot of data inputs. Get available people in a room for a couple of days. Write the outputs up. Make them look pretty. Present to a senior audience. Hope they give it the thumbs up. This is fine if everyone loves it. It’s not so fine if they disagree with many of the things you are saying and want to do.

Developing strategy should be iterative. You should be looking to get inputs from people up front – understand what they think, what they believe the issues are. Then show work in progress and get builds. Be prepared to take some hits along the way – but much better to take those hits on work-in-progress than on the final output. And it will get you to better final outputs, which has to be the goal.

By the way, this is exactly what comedians do. Michael McIntyre doesn’t rock up to the O2 and hope all his gags work. He does WIP shows in small venues, figures out the jokes that don’t work and refines. By the time he gets to the O2 he is absolutely polished.

Innovation. A lot of work goes into NPD projects. Yet often all this work, and the success of the project itself, comes down to a small launch window. This window can make or break a project. But should it? What if there were more soft launches? What if there were more launches in a lead channel? What if more launches were trialled in a few stores? You could see how it is going. You could see what things you want to tweak before roll out.

Even if you do a standard launch, how quickly do you see data on performance? Do you do any quick research to see how the product is landing? Are enough shoppers aware of it? What do they think about it? What is stopping them from buying it? Getting answers to these types of things quickly can help you to spot potential issues and then take quick corrective action.

Manufacturer & Retailer Collaboration. Many manufacturers have high quality meeting facilities, state of the art kit, virtual reality capability etc. Nothing against this – it is all great stuff. But manufacturers can sometimes get too focused on the wow factor. They work away on the all singing, all dancing solution that everyone internally loves. But, then they show it to retailers and get a dose of reality when the retailer says “this is great, but we can’t implement any of it”.

Much better for a manufacturer to tell a retailer they are working on something (e.g. a category strategy, a ‘perfect store’ execution). Get inputs up front. Show draft thinking and get builds along the way. Then share outputs and co-create an implementation plan.

It is rare that you get anything absolutely right first time. You usually need to iterate. Build and refine things along the way. To get to the best, you need to be prepared for people to see things that are below their best.

Ernest Hemingway said “the first draft of anything is shit”. You should see the state of these blogs when we first sketch them out.

On a separate note, our monthly article in The Grocer goes out in tomorrow’s edition .  There is a link to it on our website…learning:

Have a great weekend and speak to you next week.