No “Trouble With the Curve”

Clint Eastwood points out in “Trouble With the Curve” that any talented player can hit a fastball, but the great ones are those who can handle the curves. Guess the same holds true in marketing. We were at the initial briefing for a new product launch positioning project. The category in which the brand would compete (sub-category, really) was dictated by the indication for which the client expected the product to be approved. As we were reviewing the background materials, one of the brand managers entered the room ashen faced. He had just learned the product had not been approved for the category indication. A total shocker given all preliminary discussions and indicators. In effect, they now had a product with proven claims, but not the indication needed to compete in the category. End of the line…right? Meeting adjourned forever. Well, not so fast.

While we were all taken aback for the moment, our team quickly shifted into “inductive analysis” mode (our natural state). We suggested that looking at this new information as a “given” rather than a death sentence might reveal some alternative opportunities. The ”aha” moment came when we recognized that the expected indication forced them to compete in the smaller sub-category. Now, unshackled from that indication, they were free to compete in the much larger major category…and with what promised to be some very strong, proven claims. The project continued on the new path and resulted in a bigger business proposition by far than the original concept.

The lesson learned in this case was that not getting what you expected…or wanted…is not an automatic “fail”. Handling that curve, and maybe even hitting it out of the park, is a talent and an art that is of great value and incredibly rewarding. But like many skills, handling the curve requires conscious effort. Perhaps, most importantly, is the ability to resist the very human tendency to stick with the plan and fight to achieve the goal…in some cases long after the possibility of achieving it has been severely compromised. Who can disagree that delivering an unexpected success is more important than delivering on the initial flawed or doomed promise.

“Curves” come in many forms. The unanticipated research result, the manufacturing or cost of goods glitch, the surprise competitive launch and on and on. But they all have one thing in common…they need to be recognized, acknowledged, evaluated and acted on (or not.)

We’ve had a lot of opportunities to face the curve ball and in developing that ability we have learned a lot about what it takes to react to, and leverage, the “unexpected.” Here are just a few for you to consider:

Don’t get locked in to one definition of success Every project has a goal and yardsticks for success…both along the way and at the end. It has to. And those goals are often well thought out and define what is seen as the best case scenario and drive activity. Most projects continue along that path to conclusion. But we’re not talking about “most cases” here. We’re talking about the curve. There is a big difference between “the” definition of success and “a” definition of success. Success can have many faces. Some of them not familiar or masked from easy identification. We’ve experienced how flexibility and a willingness to accept alternate outcomes can salvage a lot of hard work and sometimes can even point the way to even better results.

Don’t hang on too long Perhaps the most prevalent barrier to handling the unexpected is the tendency to minimize the signs of a curve. Hanging on to the original scenario despite indicators that it is no longer valid has been the greatest source of failure and lost opportunity we have seen. The next level of “too long” is to recognize and acknowledge the change, but force-fitting it into the existing scenario and downplaying the concern over its existence. The epitaph for many a failed project could be “it won’t make all that much difference”. When there’s an 800 pound gorilla in the room it’s best not to ignore it.

Build in “course correction“ checkpoints So on to proactive strategies for minimizing the chance that a curve will sneak up on your project or slip by. Most projects have checkpoints built in…whether regular team status meetings or management updates, or whatever. We suggest to clients that a “what has changed since last we met” item be added as a regular feature of the agenda. The question to be asked is, “Does this alter or undermine our ingoing or current assumptions enough to warrant changes in fundamental strategies or goals.” Put more simply, “Have we been thrown a curve?” Another approach is to have one member of the team assigned as the project’s “Cassandra” – someone who is assigned to take the negative view and challenge the project’s progress. Some projects are lucky(?) enough to have one there already. Others will have to designate one. Whatever the case, a thick skin is recommended.

So with this appreciation for the importance of dealing with unexpected change, for today’s Strategy Break here are a few questions to ask yourself related to handling “the curve”:
  • Are we putting more value on maintaining our initial objectives than maximizing this opportunity?
  • Are we sufficiently critical of our chances of success?
  • Are we ignoring the “800 pound gorilla” in the room?

Getting ready to face the curve can save a lot of anxiety and even set you up for greater success. And if you’re looking to bolster the team, we’re all suited up and ready for a turn at bat.

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