November 20, 2007

Fast Forwarding

A decade ago, I spent considerable time reading about what the folks at the Santa Fe Institute were doing.

These folks take advanced mathematics to a whole new level (compared to mere mortals like you or I).

I became acquainted with a pair of individuals at the Santa Fe Institute who were working on retail simulations. They developed a computer model that illustrated how customers walked through a store, with the trip culminating in a purchase, or the customer leaving the store. The simulation depicted dozens or even hundreds of simulated shoppers walking a simulated store.

Within the simulation, you could see what happened if the line at the checkout was too long, or if merchandise was sold-out in a department, or if the store was too crowded.

I asked these individuals to visit us at Eddie Bauer. I invited a team of peers and leaders to the presentation. The simulation developers shared the tool with the folks I invited to the meeting, using verbal language associated with the simulation software tool.

Eddie Bauer employees stared at the tool. One person said something like "How would you apply this tool to our business?" The meeting ended. There were no questions. I thanked the folks from the Santa Fe Institute for their time.

We never mentioned the meeting, or software tool, again.

When we watch television on our DVR, we skip commercials. We seldom skip all the parts between the beginning of a show, and the end of a show. What happens in-between is important to the conclusion of the show.

Similarly in business, we cannot fast forward our co-workers from where they are to where we want for them to be. Our job gets even harder when we have to fast forward ten employees, or a thousand employees, or fifty thousand employees. Sometimes we expedite the process, we "trump" individuals by having a leader point the organization in a certain direction. But at a grass roots level, fast forwarding is hard work.

Do you have examples of concepts you tried to evangelize in your business, only to find that the business wasn't ready to embrace your ideas? What did you do when you ran into obstacles?


  1. Hi Kevin --

    Neat to know you attempted a project with SFI back at EB. Sad it fell so flat.
    I had the amazing opportunity to intern at SFI between college and rad school. Amazing place, great ideas, several Nobel economists floating in and out. Worked with Stu Kaufman (no relation). Great time, great place.
    Anyway, as per your post, I saw many companies try projects with with SFI, and most came to naught. Citibank comes to mind in particular. After watching these projects, and watching sponsored research grants while @ MIT, my sense is that biz-academic collaborations are often "inefficient", most fail. AND THAT IS OK. The upside of a success is so large that smart firms (with sufficient spare funds) will try these projects, accepting the high fail rate, because such collaborations offer the chance of radical new ideas. The corporation just needs to know that academic collaborations aren't consulting gigs, with defined scope / cost / deliverables. It is somewhat of a lottery ticket, part philanthropy, part "blue-sky" dream funds.
    So, not suprised an established successful mainstream company like EB shied away from SFI.
    PS Beyond the science, being at SFI meant living in Santa Fe -- the hiking! The food! What great memories.

  2. Agree --- a project has to be constructed on a whole different level of expectations than when working with a typical consultant.

    Those were brilliant folks!!

  3. A great topic, and I think one of the key things to remember in this sort of exercise is the concept of "first down" and its Woody Hayes corollary about three yards and a cloud of dust.

    For those not attuned to football generally, the ground game more specifically and Big Ten heritage still more specifically, I think the lesson here is NOT to go for the end zone every time in trying to advance a point of view within the organization. Can you get one or two colleagues a little bit farther along the path? First down! Eventually, with much patience, you'll get in the red zone and there the skills you've developed in the march down the field can finally put points on the board.