The risk of ‘catastrophic success’ in a hyper connected world

A Slate writer, Farhad Manjoo, recently created quite a challenge for a young American garment manufacturer, American Giant.  He wrote an article that waxed poetic about the quality and design of their product – so much so that the company was overwhelmed with orders. His readers flocked to the site and orders quickly spiked.  American Giant produces all of its apparel in the United States, creating a high quality, mid-range price line, and they are worth checking out, but expect to wait if you want a hoodie – current backorders are at least weeks if not longer. This is a case study on “catastrophic success” – where sudden demand outstrips supply so significantly it challenges the entire business model.

American’s in particular expect instant gratification – . We live in a world where a game in the app store can go from one of millions to The One overnight, and the biggest challenges to scale are servers and pipes. But the realities of manufacturing a real, tangible, physical object like a garment remain what they are – cotton must be processed, dyes must be applied and set, cloth created, pieces cut and sewn.  Reconciling production challenges with the reality of trends, spikes, and the speed with which things ‘go viral’ and then fade away is a challenge for any company looking to manage a pipeline.

Traditional business projections typically follow either a steady growth, a spike and level, or a cyclical chart. Sometimes they can plan for an anomaly – for example Roots, the Canadian manufacturer who designed clothing for the Olympics could get ahead of that spike because it was predictable. Viral hits are something new for manufacturers, especially those that don’t come from a planned campaign or something like a major sporting event. Companies want to balance investment in infrastructure with long range revenue projections, so building production capability to meet the possibility of a sudden viral hit is tough for a company that has long lead times for commodities like cotton.

American Giant seems to be taking it in stride, and according to Manjoo has restructured to address the sudden viral hit and a revised ongoing business plan. Check out this follow up article for insight regarding how it all played out. It is both a great success story and an interesting case study for any internet based manufacturing company that can’t move at the speed of the internet.

At the intersection of Creativity and Management

Somewhere in the world today there are ‘creative types’ chafing under the burden of management processes, who just want time and space to ‘do their thing’. Just down the virtual or real hallway from them is a ‘management type’ who is drowning in frustration with them because of a missed deadline, a failure to follow process, or a need to create a status report on progress that is not following the plan.

These archetypes populate many an article, TED Talk, or best seller on innovation – the thing so many companies say they want, and that so few companies truly foster. As I wrote about earlier this year, many companies say they want creativity, but they have really no interest in the messiness that it brings. They want the neat and tidy version of innovation, which rarely produces groundbreaking results. The yin and the yang of corporate life in the internet economy – freedom or bureaucracy, it is a dualism that cannot be resolved.

And yet, I think that creatives and management types are actually quite co-dependent. In today’s market, we need people who can comfortably move between the two, interpreting, guiding, and providing enough structure to validate budgets and enough freedom to encourage broad thinking. The best companies are seeing a convergence of technology, marketing, and management as they develop new products. This convergence creates a space where people who can conceptualize beautiful things, leverage new media to render their concepts, and by the way know their way around a project plan are the new rock stars – the triple threats as it were.

Take a look around you. Are you recruiting and retaining triple threats? Or are you starving them by forcing them to ‘choose a discipline’? People coming into the job market today aren’t likely to be satisfied with being one or the other. Roles need to be shaped and management processes rethought to create the space for these individuals to thrive. And yes, the creatives need to learn a few new skills themselves. That’s what convergence means – everyone moves.

If you have someone who is a triple threat, figure out how to grow them in all ways. If you are a triple threat, first congratulations, and second, don’t settle for being compartmentalized. You are the first of your kind, and you will have to fight to grow and to establish a place in the new economy.

Trusting people who think differently

I’ve had a lot of conversations over the last 48 hours about the idea of trust.  It is a difficult concept to unpack – you know it when you see it or feel it, but it is hard to explain. I often have clients who say “we just don’t trust each other”, or “the leadership team has trust issues”, but when it comes to explaining what that means, they struggle.  “Oh,” they say, “it isn’t that I don’t LIKE so and so….  and he/she is a nice enough person, but….” and they trail off.

We often have a natural trust for people which whom we have a shared affinity.  Republicans hear and trust Fox News to be ‘fair and balanced’, while Democrats look at the Huffington Post as a source of ‘truth and honest reporting’.  I think in the workplace, operations people often ‘trust’ other ops people, because they understand how they think and what they are trying to accomplish.  When the sales person enters the room, there can be a natural distrust of their motives because they think and act ‘differently’.  Trusting someone who is different from you is a much bigger step than trusting someone who is similar.

Unpacking this concept and learning how it influences us all in the workplace, in our relationships and in life is a difficult task, but it can shed light on how we all behave, and explain the choices we make.  Think about it for yourself – what happens when you extend your trust to someone who is quite different from you?  Do you feel a little queasy?  What happens in the interactions you have with that person?  Are they warm or cold? Are they generative or practical?  If they feel a little distant, you may not be really opening yourself up to trusting them.  Try it tomorrow – you might be surprised by what you discover.