People tell me that I come up with lots of creative answers to challenges, but that's not completely accurate. What I most often do is take knowledge from one area of my life and apply it somewhere else. I have a lot of hobbies where this skill comes in handy. Sometimes I take techniques from auto body work and apply them to sheet rock finishing and woodworking. I've even been known to use a technique for repairing fiberglass on boats to recreate a broken plastic part for something I'm repairing.
This approach can also come in handy in our business lives.
Over the years, we all accumulate a wealth of knowledge in so many areas, but we don't always stop to think about how to apply that knowledge in new ways to solve new problems.
How many times do we actually have the answers to problems we face, if only we would think to combine all that hard-earned knowledge and apply it in a different way?
Recently, I had dinner with a retired friend – a brilliant man – who had enjoyed a long and storied career as a retail executive. I was using the dinner as an opportunity to learn from his deep experience in apparel buying and planning processes. As we were discussing the challenges associated with seasonal products that are often acquired with a single buy, he described the stress those challenges place on retail executives.
"They have to trust their business – and often their careers -- to the instincts of the buyers, analysts and planners, hoping they will get it right in one shot…often months ahead of time," he said.
I brought up that assortment planning tools could help by managing parameters such as size curves for various styles, geographies, and attributes. "Buying patterns definitely can be predicted, to an extent, using those capabilities and others, such as matching this year's product to similar products from last year," he replied.
"But there is still a lot of instinct involved, and there's rarely a chance for a full customer feedback cycle within the life of the product."
At that point, as I was mentally deleting "Retail Buyer" and "Retail Planner" from the list of careers I'd like to try in my next life, my friend brought up some really interesting ideas for reducing that risk. One idea involved the use of several different systems in innovative ways:
"We know that eCommerce gives us the quickest feedback on customer behavior," he said, "so what if we use business analytics software to find a group of online customers whose buying behavior closely mirrors the behavior of the in-store customers? We could use that information and leverage CRM to create a special customer segment of those customers. Then, as soon as the products are available for on-line sale, we could use our eCommerce system to run A/B testing of those products with the new customer segment. In that way, we could get much quicker feedback on which products are likely to take off – hopefully in time for an additional buy."
He conceded that while the rise of fast fashion is forcing many traditional seasonal buying patterns to shift, the need for better insight is universal.
From that point, my friend went on to ponder other permutations that could yield more rapid customer feedback, even going so far as to envision a future where items such as shoes could be rendered through 3-D printing and exposed to indicative customer segments for feedback -- well in advance of actual product availability.
This was a fascinating discussion for me, not just because of the interesting ideas, but because it was such a great example of leveraging capabilities from different areas of business and technology, and combining them in new ways to solve a problem. I work with our eCommerce system on a daily basis. I've studied Analytics; I've studied CRM; along the way I've even learned a little about Merchandising and Planning systems. But I never thought about using them cooperatively in that particular way to solve that particular problem.
We know the capabilities of our individual systems, but perhaps the real magic is in the infinite ways we can combine those capabilities to create new solutions.
How often does it happen that we are frustrated while trying to solve a problem, yet we already have the knowledge to solve it? We just haven't expanded our search for answers to consider all the information, nor have we considered how we might combine it in new and different ways. I suspect it's the case more than we realize.
It's a lesson for us all that the next time we face a difficult problem, we should consider that maybe – just maybe – we already have the answer.