July 08, 2014

Getting The Message Right

Maybe the most frustrating project I ever worked on happened at Nordstrom in the mid-2000s.

I had two folks on my team who were responsible for analyzing where new stores should be located. They had built sophisticated models that estimated the retail sales potential of every zip code in the United States. The models were quite good.

Then Management decided to bring McKinsey in. A $750,000 project was designed to determine the markets best suited for Nordstrom expansion. From what I recall, three or four McKinsey thought leaders pushed my team around for a month, then left Nordstrom Management with a color map of the United States, illustrating the markets with the best potential. A table was produced, ranking the markets with the best sales potential, top-to-bottom.

Well, this left me absolutely furious!

I recall walking into the office of the Chief Marketing Officer (my boss) for my weekly touch-base meeting. I recall ranting about the company paying $750,000 for nonsense.

I especially recall saying that my team could just as easily have produced the maps and tables that McKinsey produced, since we actively measured retail sales potential at a zip code level ... all we had to do was roll-up the zip codes to a DMA/Market level.

And then, my boss said something so insightful that my mind exploded.

  • "Well then, Kevin, if you could have done what McKinsey did, then why the heck didn't you do it months ago, before we decided to bring McKinsey in?"
Within two years, that area of practice would be removed from my supervision.

What a lesson.

So often, the data we need to improve our business already exists. We just don't know how to communicate the message properly. In this example, Nordstrom had to spend $750,000 just because I failed as a communicator - and later, the company had to reorganize members of my team away from my leadership because I failed as a communicator.

I couldn't get the message right.

The message is so much greater than the data.

Now, learning how to communicate the message properly is largely a pursuit requiring trial and error. 

But that's where the energy needs to be spent.