Posts tagged: site redesign

“Obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings”

We’ve all heard the cliché “hindsight is 20/20” a thousand times. And it’s pretty much true. It’s a lot easier to figure out the path to a particular event when you know the final outcome. But if “what happened” is something bad, determining the reason after the fact doesn’t change the negative event.

How can we do a better job finding those problems in advance of our next new strategy implementation, site redesign, store remodel or other big effort?

It’s worth digging a little deeper to better understand why our hindsight is so perceptive. One of the most famous cases of 20/20 hindsight comes from the investigation into the attacks on Pearl Harbor (although, we could also argue the investigation into 9/11 and the more recent Fort Hood shootings have many similarities). In her book Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, noted military intelligence historian Roberta Wohlstetter wrote “it is much easier after the event to sort the relevant from the irrelevant signals. After the event, of course, a signal is always crystal clear; we can now see what disaster it was signaling since the disaster has occurred. But before the event it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings.”

Of course, Pearl Harbor was an unexpected disaster that seemingly came out of nowhere. While we have those occasionally in business, more often than not our “disasters” come from strategies, redesigns or promotions that did not perform as expected. And those expectations can also lead to our blindness.

Whenever we’re implementing some new and exciting strategy, we tend to be very optimistic about the results. We’re convinced these new strategies are going to provide positive returns or we wouldn’t be implementing them. That optimism can lead to the same sort of crystal clear signal Wohlstetter referenced, but in the opposite direction; i.e. we tend to only see how everything we’re doing will lead to greatness and can easily overlook variables that have potential to lead to negative outcomes.

So, what do we do about it?

It seems some of the most common solutions today involve pulling together a committee to review what went wrong and putting together processes to prevent those specific problems in the future. These new processes don’t prevent all potential problems in the future, but with any luck they’ll prevent us from repeating the same mistakes.

But all of that happens after the fact.

There’s got to be a better way. My problem with the “committee and new process” approach is there’s a tendency to introduce lots of new and –all too often — needless bureaucracy. Inefficiencies ensue without greatly decreasing the probability of problem-free future efforts.

A technique I’ve found effective invokes much of the clarity of hindsight by drawing on the power of imagination.

During the ROI process for the strategy or project, we’ve already imagined the positive outcome. So before we wrap up planning, let’s also imagine a couple horrific scenarios. For example, imagine that four or five months after a site redesign, sales are down 50% and customer satisfaction has tanked. What happened? Now let’s assemble the same type of committee we would in that scenario and pour over the plan to find the causes of our imagined disaster.

Some might say this technique is really just standard contingency planning, but I find some pretty big differences. Contingency planning tends to look at the current plan to identify execution risks. It doesn’t often uncover key strategic or design problems.

The Scenario Imagination technique provides us with a different sort of lens that taps into our hindsight abilities to separate the signal from the noise.

We certainly won’t find every potential problem, but every problem we mitigate increases our probability of success and reduces our risk. And if we can reduce a lot of risk without strangling ourselves in bureaucracy, we’ll likely lower costs, increase efficiencies, and increase profits. I like the sound of that.

What do you think? Have you run into these types of issues? Do you think this technique would work for you? Do you have any techniques you would like to share?

Photo credit: me’nthedogs

The Hidden Cost of Change

Imagine a scenario where you and your business competitors all join in a pact to share your largest revenue sources, pool most of your marketing efforts and limit your respective payrolls to the exact same amount. You all sell the same product. Would you expect each of your companies to perform about equally well?

According to this article, the NFL expected such an arrangement to produce parity — but it doesn’t seem to be panning out. A few teams stand out as being consistently great over time and a few others (including my beloved Cleveland Browns) have been consistently terrible.

Are these success and failure stories the result of random luck, or are there some business lessons to be learned?

I’m not sure there’s enough data to completely rule out streaks of good and bad luck, but some of the analysts quoted in the article offered some reasoning that at least got me thinking about business lessons.

Former Colts coach Tony Dungy went to the playoffs in each of his seven seasons in Indianapolis and won the Super Bowl after the 2006 season. The key to winning, he says, is “having everyone on the same page and going in the same direction. The more stability you can get, that’s how you’re going to win.”

“I think one of the biggest reasons why teams aren’t getting better is instability,” says former Bills coach and general manager Marv Levy, who coached the team to four consecutive AFC titles from 1990 to 1993. “It’s always, ‘Let’s change, let’s change. This constant ‘We have to shake it up’ is causing some of this (disparity).”

Both quotes struck me as pretty meaningful in the business world. In my experience, big changes are disruptive and expensive — both in real terms and in opportunity costs.

For the record, I am definitely not anti-change. In fact, I love change and the eternal optimist in me is prone to almost always seeing the greener grass on the other side. But it’s helpful for me to remember that change does have its hidden costs to be considered.

Real costs
Large scale changes, be they new strategic plans, remodels, site redesigns or something similar, have real costs in their preparation and capital expenses. Since those are more obvious, I’ll move on to…

Opportunity costs
Implementing new change is hard work that takes a lot of time and effort. Diverting attention from current efforts creates opportunity costs and can cause a business to fall behind and lose market share during the buildup. Also, in my experience, big changes like store remodels and site redesigns tend to cause temporary step-backs in business and customer satisfaction (which can have longer term effects) due to the “where’s my stuff” syndrome.

Talent costs
Big changes like strategic shifts due to leadership changes tend to have human costs. For example, I’ve found over the years that any “A” player can become a “C” player if put into the wrong situation. Replacing team members is expensive and can lead to some of the opportunity costs listed above.


Again, I’m an certainly not arguing against change. But in my experience too frequent wholesale changes can generate costs that outweigh the benefits, which is what the NFL coaches quoted above seem to be saying.

At a recent speaking engagement, someone asked me if it’s better to implement occasional site redesigns or take a more continuous improvement approach. I’ve found the continuous improvement approach to be more effective because it’s less disruptive to employees and customers alike. But that doesn’t mean revolutionary change isn’t necessary at times. After all, defending the status quo kills companies. We just have to be careful how often we revolt and make sure revolution is truly the smartest long term move.

But, hey, I’m still thinking through this issue. I would certainly benefit from your thoughts and perspectives. What do you think?

Are web analytics like 24-hour news networks?

We have immediate access to loads of data with our web sites, but just because we can access lots of data in real time doesn’t mean we should access our data in real time. In fact, accessing and reporting on the numbers too quickly can often lead to distractions, false conclusions, premature reactions and bad decisions.

I was attending the web-analytics-focused Semphonic X Change conference last week in San Francisco (which, by the way, was fantastic) where lots of discussion centered around both the glories and the issues associated with the mass amount of data we have available to us in the world of the web.

Before heading down for the conference breakfast Friday morning (September 11), I switched on CNN and saw — played out in all their glory on national TV — the types of issues that can occur with reporting too early on available data.

It seems CNN reporters “monitoring video” from a local TV station saw Coast Guard vessels in the Potomac River apparently trying to keep another vessel from passing. They then monitored the Coast Guard radio and heard someone say, “You’re approaching a Coast Guard security zone. … If you don’t stop your vessel, you will be fired upon. Stop your vessel immediately.” And, for my favorite part of the story, they made the decision to go on air when they heard someone say “bang, bang, bang, bang” and “we have expended 10 rounds.” They didn’t hear actual gun shots, mind you, they heard someone say “bang.” Could this be a case of someone wanting the data to say something it isn’t really saying?

In the end, it turned out the Coast Guard was simply executing a training exercise it runs four times a week! Yet, the results of CNN’s premature, erroneous and nationally broadcast report caused distractions to the Coast Guard leadership and White House leadership, caused the misappropriation of FBI agents who were sent to the waterfront unnecessarily, led to the grounding of planes at Washington National airport for 22 minutes, and resulted in reactionary demands from law enforcement agencies that they be alerted of such exercises in the future, even though the exercises run four times per week and those alerts will likely be quickly ignored because they will become so routine.

In the days when we only got news nightly, reporters would have chased down the information, discovered it was a non-issue and the report would have never aired. The 24-hour networks have such a need for speed of reporting that they’ve sacrificed accuracy and credibility.

Let’s not let such a rush negatively affect our businesses.

Later on that same day, I was attending a conference discussion on the role of web analytics in site redesigns. Several analysts in the room mentioned their frustrations when they were asked by executives for a report on how the new design was doing only a couple of hours after the launch of new site design. They wanted to be able to provide solid insight, but they knew they couldn’t provide anything reliable so soon.

Even though a lot of data is already available a couple of hours in, that data lacks the context necessary to start drawing conclusions.

For one, most site redesigns experience a dip in key metrics initially as regular customers adjust to a new look and feel. In the physical retail world, we used to call this the “Where’s my stuff?” phenomenon. But even if we set the initial dip aside, there are way too many variables involved in the short term of web activity to make any reliable assessments of the new design’s effectiveness. As with any short term measurement, the possibilities for random outliers to unnaturally sway the measurement to one direction or another is high. It takes some time and an accumulation of data to be sure we have a reliable story to tell.

And even with time, web data collection is not perfect. Deleted cookies, missed connections, etc. can all cause some problems in the overall completeness of the data. For that matter, I’ve rarely seen the perfect set of data in any retail environment. Given the imperfect nature of the data we’re using to make key strategic decisions, we need to give our analysts time to review it, debate it and come to reasoned conclusions before we react.

I realize the temptation is strong to get an “early read” on the progress of a new site design (or any strategic issue, really). I’ve certainly felt it myself on many occasions. However, since just about every manager and executive I know (including myself) has a strong bias for action, we have to be aware of the risks associated with these “early reads” and our own abilities or inabilities to make conclusions and immediately react. Early reads can lead to the bad decisions associated with the full accelerator/full brake syndrome I’ve referenced previously.

We can spend months or even years preparing for a massive new strategic effort and strangle it within days by overreacting to early data. Instead, I wonder if it’s a better to determine well in advance of the launch — when we’re thinking more rationally and the temptation to know something is low — when we’ll first analyze the success of our new venture. Why not make such reporting part of the project plan and publicly set expectations about when we’ll review the data and what type of adjustments we should plan to make based on what we learn?

In the end, let’s let our analysts strive for the credibility of the old nightly news rather than emulate the speed and rush to judgment that too often occurs in this era of 24-hours news. Our businesses and our strategies are too important and have taken too long to build to sacrifice them to a short-term need for speed.

What do you think? Have you seen this issue in action? How do you need with the balance between quick information and thoughtful analysis?

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell

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