Every day, when the alarm goes off in the morning, all of us in the retail industry have a similar challenge awaiting us. Whether you are a retailer steering through vast change in the marketplace or a solution provider trying to deliver the right solution at the right time for your customer, the challenge boils down to two questions. First, what actions do I take to manage the immediate realities of today—protecting my core business and winning my next customer? Second, what do I do about the future and keeping up with inevitable change in my business? Then more questions creep up: Can I do both? And, if so, how and how much?
Recently I ran across some simple yet compelling insight. (I am not sure it’s advice, but I will use it that way.) In a Fast Company article about Facebook’s success, the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Mike Schroepfer said, “I have one hand in the day-to-day and one in the future…because it’s important that our core business continues to do well. Because that is what allows us to aggressively invest in longer-term things.”
The CTO of Facebook talking about today and not about tomorrow? This is the company described by most business analysts as innovative, forward-thinking, and fully entrenched in all things cutting edge. My guess would have been that Facebook has all its hands and feet constantly in the future. How else could they have accomplished what they have? But as it turns out, they have the same challenge the rest of us do and approach it by paying equal attention to the now and the tomorrow.
This brings me to our industry—retail. In this era of rapid change, the promise of a sizzling new technology can be alluring. I am sure we have all experienced a time or two when we jumped onto something new and exciting only to look back and see things we were doing well suddenly falter. For example, spend a lot of time planning an advanced new inventory system, and then shrink spikes because everyone took their eyes off it. Or focus completely on the day-to-day, only to wake up suddenly to the fact that the competition is now light years ahead technologically. Solution providers can fall into this trap too: Spend an enormous amount of time talking about the next great thing, forgetting that their customers have problems that need to be solved today. Or get complacent producing the same stuff year after year, only to find out that their products now solve only yesterday’s problems.
Retailers and technology creators must maintain a similar balance to what Facebook’s CTO described—one hand in the day-to-day and one in the future. The big takeaway, I believe, is that a steady hand on the business of today is a prerequisite for a successful tomorrow. Being a visionary company with a lot of big-thinker power actually means we protect the success of today at all costs and build from that point of strength, not leave it for dead. To me, what Schroepfer is really saying is this: Always protect and finish what you start if it is working well. And never allow yourself or your business to chase tomorrow without a solid respect for what made you successful.
I feel that Facebook believes it possible to chase the future too fast, or out of order, if we put both hands on that pursuit. To some this idea might sound old fashioned and unexciting. But since it’s coming from Facebook, the company that in many ways has defined the future, it might actually be quite forward-thinking.