I started working in retail with Tesco.com back in 2001 and noticed immediately that different leaders would approach the same situation with completely different approaches.
At one end of the scale were leaders who had worked in stores alongside the front-line teams who served customers. This group tended to have a practical mindset and their instinct was to come up with a plan and take action.
At the other end of the scale were leaders with professional backgrounds, such as strategy consulting, where success came from solving problems by thinking. This group tended to have a conceptual mindset and their instinct was to seek to understand what was happening through logic and analysis.
I’ve learned that both perspectives are needed to be successful. It’s like a bird of prey that must soar high above the ground to assess the best opportunity for its next meal and then follow through with a successful physical attack on the ground.
The risk for retailers is when one mindset dominates. A well-known example is the US online retailer Webvan which was founded in 1996. Webvan aimed to revolutionise grocery shopping with a direct to customer model. It had the backing of some of the smartest investors in Silicon Valley and George Shaheen, the then CEO of Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), had quit his role to lead it. Gary Sargeant, Head of Tesco.com from 1997-1999, told me how he visited one of Webvan’s warehouses at a time when its valuation was around $5 billion. He knew immediately the business wasn’t going to work. Beneath the grand strategic vision the warehouse design did not make work simple for the teams who did the work: for example most of the mainly female employees were standing on crates to operate the conveyors. Webvan went bust just a few months later.
A company that seems to be getting the balance right is Uber. Much of the buzz about Uber focuses on how its model makes life better for customers. But talk to an Uber Driver and you also hear how Uber works to make things simpler for them so they can focus on better serving their customers.
Over the years I've seen many times the value of integrating the two perspectives. Think hardest about making things simple for the people who do the work when creating strategy, not when implementing it.