Yes, it was his hubris

In the Wall Street Journal, columnist Holman Jenkins writes about Ron Johnson’s term as JC Penney chief:

Every human effort is flawed. Failure is not proof of incompetence. So don’t buy the narrative that Mr. Johnson was done in by his hubris and cluelessness about retail. At Sears starting in 1989, a new leader introduced a new strategy of dramatically reduced promotions and manipulative “discounts.” Instead, Sears would feature “everyday low prices,” in-store boutiques and jazzier merchandise. Yes, the same formula. And Mike Bozic lasted the same 17 months that Mr. Johnson did.

I agree that failure is not proof of incompetence. But failure isn’t the reason Johnson has been charged with hubris. It’s not clear to me from Jenkins’ column why we shouldn’t buy the hubris narrative.

Johnson’s hubris was that he made network-wide changes to the business without evidence those changes would help. He never considered that he could be wrong. Some folks like it when someone swings for the fences, but shareholders should be leery when someone comes in with a shoot from the hip attitude. It’s the rare occasion that ends well.

If Johnson’s strategy would have worked across the entire network, it would have  worked on a smaller scale, first. He could have made the changes in a market, at much less cost and risk to business. Not testing his ideas first, when he has the ability to do that, is hubris…or stupidity, or a little of both.

More Signals vs. Causes: Business Edition

In the Wall Street Journal, Rachel Emma Silverman reports on efforts by large company managers to learn from startups.

A couple of the observations made me think of the signals vs. causes thread.

Mr. Osifchin also took note of startup-company quirks, such as the large bell that staffers rang to gather colleagues and magnums of Champagne feathered with Post-it Notes encouraging workers to meet deadlines so that the bottles could be opened.

More likely, the large bells and Champagne celebrations reflect milestone celebrations for folks that are heavily invested and stand to benefit a great deal from the company’s true success.

That success probably represents something larger than the standard large company 10 – 20% bonus that is predicated on factors other than your team’s success — like if the rest of the company delivers, or someone limits your payout to get more for their buddies.

In other words, they don’t work better because of the bells and champagne. They work better because of the incentives. The bells and champagne just help them blow off the steam that comes with that kind of effort.

Here’s another one:

After comparing notes, the executives found that senior managers at the startups spent a significant amount of time in product meetings, says Brad Smith, Intuit’s CEO. That observation led the company to decide its executives should spend more time in the product-development trenches, says spokeswoman Cassie Divine.

More likely, senior managers at startups are the original founders of the product and they have a good idea of what they want it to become.

Senior managers at large companies achieved their status with bully bureaucrat skills, not delivering what the customer wants. Put these guys in the trenches and they’ll feel the need to dominate the discussion and show all the underlings why they’re the big-shots.

What is your company focused on? Startups fail. Big businesses fail. Big businesses were once startups that got a hold of a valuable enough value proposition to sustain itself.

But, if you want to learn something from successful startups, learn this. They respond and evolve to what customers want, not what a steering committee full of empty suits who are far removed from their customer base wants. They have to survive.

The senior leaders of startups are closer to their customers. They probably started off solving a problem they were experiencing and discovered others experienced the same problem and were willing to pay for a fix.

Leaders of steering committees will say they are focused on what customers want. They don’t recognize what they really mean is they are focused on the stylized, segmented, homogenized interpretation of what the steering committee members want the customer to want.

Want to replicate a startup? Remove as many obstacles to getting a true read on the customers’ response as possible.

Then, get the startup people out of corporate and give them some rope. If they succeed, the rewards should be rich. If they fail, they shouldn’t get a paycheck. They should lose something.

From the story, I’ll give credit to GE for doing more than mistaking signals for causes:

General Electric Co.’s “GE Garages,” created in partnership with four tech startups, are roaming workshops that allow GE’s own workers and visitors to tinker and noodle together on new products. GE also began a companywide venture-capital initiative earlier this year, making the firm an investor and partner in some 60 startups.

Ahead of my time :)

My business school professor: What is the number one goal of a firm?

I raise my hand.

My business school professor: Seth?

Me: To please the customer.

My business school professor: Wrong! To maximize shareholder value. You could please customers by giving your product away for free, but that wouldn’t please your shareholders.

Me: With all due respect, it wouldn’t please your customers for very long if you go out of business by giving away your product for free — especially if they value your product, now would it? 

My business school professor: [This-discussion-is-over glare] [Proceed to explain why maximizing shareholder value is the key goal of a firm].

I never bought the ‘maximize shareholder value’ credo, or at least the moronic behavior it led to. I do believe it is the manager’s job to maximize shareholder value, but I never believed that was the goal. Rather, it is a result of pleasing customers.

I’ve seen too many short-sighted decisions come from the ‘maximize shareholder value’ mantra because the customer was left out of the equation.


I was pleased to see this article from Steve Denning on, The Dumbest Idea in the World: Maximizing Shareholder Value. Here’s a key snippet from the article:

Although Jack Welch was seen during his tenure as CEO of GE as the heroic exemplar of maximizing shareholder value, he came to be one of its strongest critics. On March 12, 2009, he gave an interview with Francesco Guerrera of the Financial Times and said, “On the face of it, shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world. Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy… your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products. Managers and investors should not set share price increases as their overarching goal. … Short-term profits should be allied with an increase in the long-term value of a company.”

I remember one example of this short-sighted focus on shareholder value when I as an engineer for a utility company.  One of our big industrial customers — infected by the shareholder value mantra — approached us seeking to buy the electrical facilities at their plant. We delivered power to them at the low voltage they needed to run their equipment. We also had special switchgear at their site — that we owned — to provide the volume and reliability they needed. We charged them extra for this enhanced service.

They computed the simple math of the cash outlay to buy the equipment from us, the fees that would save them and the cost they thought it would take to maintain the equipment. I saw their analysis. On paper it looked like a good investment, one that would add to their shareholder value by reducing costs and increasing profits.

But, their experience was different. They quickly learned that the higher fees they use to pay us included something they didn’t have — expertise and opportunity cost. They realized that trying to figure out how to maintain electrical switchgear took time away producing the products they made for their customers.

They first hired us back to maintain the equipment and then eventually sold the equipment back to us and ‘got out of the business of maintaining electrical switchgear’ so they could again focus on delivering value for their customers.

In their initial analysis, they forgot to include their customers.


Idea for Hostess Union Workers

Buy your employer.

That way you can run it however you like and pay yourselves what you like. You’d have nobody to negotiate with but yourselves.

Also:  I’d be willing to bet $20 that we will be able to buy freshly made Twinkies a year from now. Any takers? I don’t see an Intrade market on this.

Also #2: I’m surprised we’ve made it this far without any calls for government to step in and bail Hostess out to save 18,500 jobs.

Are auto workers are more deserving of being bailed out than cupcake workers? Are we more willing to see what really happens in bankruptcy this time?

Personal Preference Bias

I’ve read and heard a fair amount from critics of JC Penney’s disastrous everyday-low-price strategy. But, much of it is too simple.

Critics speak of JC Penney’s customers as if they are all the same. I’ve read things like maybe they liked sales prices or JCP has to attract a new customer base to replace the old one.

While JCP sales were down considerably, they were still doing 75% of the volume they did the previous year. That is a huge decline for a retailer, but the sales didn’t go to zero and that says something. Three-fourths of customers didn’t mind the change.

In my experience with consumers and retailing, it is not uncommon for about 25% of sales volumes to come from promotions and coupon offers such as the sales JCP use to run. A fair part of that percentage are folks in whatever product category that are bargain hunters. Another chunk are from folks who are not typical bargain hunters — they may shop on value — but they may just come across a deal too good to pass up. I was recently perusing Kohl’s and saw a griddle for half the price I’ve seen elsewhere. I’m not a typical bargain hunter, but I popped on it.

There’s no reason JCP can’t satisfy value shoppers and bargain hunters alike. Other retailers have figured out how.

Even low-price leaders Walmart has “Rolbacks” in the aisle. Target has a dollar section near the front. Old Navy has clearance racks hidden in the back. Banana Republic has its mall based-locations, carrying higher priced, in-season fashion. But, they too have limited clearance sale space in the back. They also have separate Factory Stores where you don’t get the latest, but you get good stuff at sales prices.

Management at these companies recognize that not everybody is the same and they try to find ways to satisfy varying consumer preferences in creative ways that don’t detract from the experience of others. That’s typical retailing.

In my opinion, that’s the key insight that escapes JCP CEO Ron Johnson — everyone is different.

Johnson was in charge of retailing at Apple. Certainly, many folks rave about the Apple store experience. But most of these ravers have very similar preferences when it comes to electronics — they love Apple!

So, Johnson didn’t have very tall task in delivering a retail experience that satisfied a relatively narrow consumer segment. He made a store for Apple devotees.

Ask yourself this. Does Apple need a store? Not really. Apple products would sell with or without their stores.

Johnson is remaking JCP to satisfy a segment of consumer that is smaller and more narrow — a group that he likely sees himself in — than the group that JCP was satisfying before he arrived, which is not usually a successful strategy.

I call this personal preference bias. Successful managers usually find ways to overcome their own personal preferences and give more weight to the varying preferences of their customers.

It’s an easy mistake to make. Ron Johnson probably thinks he learned from his former boss, Steve Jobs, that designing things to meet your personal preference is good. And, there might be something to that when you are trying to innovate from ground zero.

Steve Jobs wasn’t even Steve Jobs

I’ve been noodling on a post for a while about the effects Steve Jobs has on the business world. He’s seen as a hero and other leaders want to also be heroes. They love hearing about this guy who was so difficult, meticulous and sort-of command-and-control. It makes them think they can do it too.

But, they usually turn out to be envious goats who take the batta-batta-batta-“iPad”-swing, miss, then get fired.

The leaders of Intuit don’t want to be Steve Jobs. This is from an excellent piece in Forbes about innovation at that company.

Plenty of companies are a religion, where people take their cues from the top. Intuit is a science lab, where anything can be tested and proven incorrect. “When you have only one test, you don’t have entrepreneurs; you have politicians. When you have lots of ideas you have entrepreneurs,” says Cook.

He’s found a kindred spirit in Smith, who became CEO in 2008. “Genius and a thousand helpers are not going to solve the problems of today or tomorrow,” says Smith, 48… “There are very few Steve Jobses out there. We run small teams and lots of rapid experiments. No politics. No PowerPoints.”

I agree. I’ve seen innovation choked by politics in organizations that take their cues from the top. I’ve seen those same organizations languish and go through multiple leaders who all had the same general idea — their idea, whatever that was.

Other ideas could not get the resources even for a small test because those would take resources away from the leader’s idea. Too bad the hit rate for new ideas is so small. That’s the key insight that the leaders either don’t realize or think they can outsmart it. Or they don’t care because they’ll make a decent sum whether they produce or not.

But, I even think the Steve Jobs story as command-and-control genius is overplayed. No doubt the guy was hard-charging genius. But his greatest genius of all was opening his products to benefit from lots of small tests that would come through the iTunes and app communities.

If iPods and iPhones were just music boxes and phones, I would probably have neither. But, along with these devices, Jobs created a wide community to create stuff for them to make them more useful with minimal political drag on which apps and podcasts could be made available.

This resulted in lots of small bets placed by the thousands of developers and podcast creators and that resulted in tons of content and functions that more and more people found useful, even if it was just a handy way to kill time while standing in line at the grocery store or as a pacifier to keep me from saying truthful, but career-limiting, things in business meetings.

I bought my first iPod when I got tired of listening to the few podcasts that I followed on my computer and discovered that listening to those podcasts while exercising and traveling was something I valued. That was a start.

So, now I have both. And since then, I have found many other ways to make them useful — most of which are not produced by Apple. I have three music boxes: my library, Pandora and another app that lets me tune in radio stations. I play Words/Chess with Friends, but with Family. I ask Siri stupid questions and occasionally, it gives me a useful answer. I don’t get lost. And so on.

The key point: It was those many other things that made iPod, iPhones and iPads the success. I don’t believe any of Apple products would have been nearly the success if they only stored music and surfed the web. iPods probably would have been slightly more successful than the Nomad MP3 players if all they did was store and play music.

So, congrats Steve Jobs. You figured out how to make money off Wikipedia’s operation model and Wikipedia itself (another tool I often refer to through my Apple devices) (I wonder if there is a Wikipedia article on that?) and fool most folks into thinking it was all you.

Ron Johnson Termination Watch

How long will it be before the JC Penney board fires Ron Johnson?

I’d say it’s getting close.

First, without evidence to support his decision, last December he overhauled the company’s price strategy. Many people would agree that Johnson’s ‘everyday-low-prices’ change sounded reasonable, except for it would seem, customers.

In the first quarter of Penney’s new pricing strategy, sales tanked. As is typical with such leadership failures, rather than admitting a mistake and reversing course, Johnson entrenched himself with his strategy by saying it will take 3-years to see a difference. Good luck with that.

I’ve seen other leaders make the same claim. They usually weren’t around long enough to see if they were right.

As a true measure, if you believed Johnson made the right call, did you buy more stuff at Penney’s because of its new pricing strategy? Why or why not?

I have a characteristic that most CEOs don’t have. I can admit that I don’t know. Johnson’s strategy may have been a good one. But, if I were running the company, I wouldn’t make a wholesale change unless I had strong evidence that it would help.

JC Penney has enough stores that they could change the price strategy in a few and see if it helps or hurts profits. That’s called a randomized market test or field trial.

I believe shareholders pay managers to put their egos aside and use the resources they have to figure out how to make the best decisions for the company, decisions that please the customers and generate more revenue and earnings for shareholders.

Often, however, boards of directors are attracted to the cowboys who throw caution to the wind and make BOLD changes based on their gut instincts. It’s unfortunate that those board members rarely lose their jobs. So goes the woes of corporate governance.

Johnson now has a new idea. Seems right up his alley, coming from Apple. It’s tech related.That’s a typical move from a failed CEO. Move to your strength after you blow it on something else.

But, it’s a red herring. He hopes his cool new idea will take your mind off his previous rotten idea. He wants to use technology to get rid of cashiers. Kind of neat (unless you like your job as a cashier). But, will that cause you to want to spend more money there? I don’t see the case for it.

But, still, Johnson hasn’t learned the most important lesson. It doesn’t appear that he’s testing his change. The article says this will happen. There’s no talk about this change being explored in market testing. Maybe it’ll work, but we don’t know and if he rolls it out without testing it, he’s just creating more risk for shareholders.

Shareholders can’t afford cowboys.

I’m going to give away a valuable secret to success in retailing. It’s so painfully obvious, but also so elusive for so many ego-driven CEOs. Ready? Here it is. Sell what people want.

Often, cowboy CEOs don’t understand this secret. They try to remake the business into something that meets their own personal preferences not realizing that their preferences do not match that of their customers.