business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Hope for the best, expect the worst
Some drink champagne, some die of thirst
No way of knowingwhich way it's going
Hope for the best, expect the worst!

- Mel Brooks, The Twelve Chairs (1970)

Hope for the best, expect the worst. It is such a cliché. Though somehow, not when turned into a lyric for a Mel Brooks movie.

I find myself humming that song as I think about some of the comments we get here at MNB about Amazon, arguing that our views of Amazon are overly optimistic.

I don’t think so, but let’s look at it a different way.

Essentially there are two likely outcomes as Amazon moves forward.

Amazon could be as good as the hype, which means Amazon will continue to drastically reshape retail, shopping and maybe more. (Health care? Banking?)

Or, it is all hype and essentially we are looking at a better funded version of Webvan, headed for a spectacular and inevitable collapse.

But here’s where “hope for the best, expect the worst” comes in.

You have to prepare for the first possibility, no matter what.

Even if Amazon doesn’t become everything that it seems to want to be, it’s obvious the company is changing the world of retail. It’s fear of Amazon that is driving so many moves by other retailers, pushing them quickly toward omni-channel operations and, in the process, changing shopper expectations.

And at the very least, preparing for a new level of competition will only make you and your company stronger for whatever comes next.

If I had to bet, I’d wager that Amazon’s impact is going to be fairly large for countless reasons, but it begins with how the company thinks. Because more than anything, that might be why Amazon’s future impact is likely to be so powerful.

There was a short exchange in part 2 of last week’s Innovation Conversation that should be required reading and re-reading. Tom Furphy, the originator of Amazon Fresh and now the CEO of Consumer Equity Partners, and his colleague Justin Leigh discussed part of the process that led to the checkout-free Amazon Go store.

As Furphy explained, the Amazon team on the project wrote a press release detailing its success before the project even began.

Leigh recalled an exchange at the Shoptalk conference about the project from two Amazon executives. As one said, “We had to build many, many algorithms that are far beyond what exist today. We had to take machine learning way past where it was.” At the time when the team wrote the press release and gained approval to start the project, the science didn’t exist to accomplish their goal. Which is to say, it literally could not be done when they began.
Think about that for a second. Certainly, Amazon isn’t the only company to use the management philosophy of writing a press release in advance of a project to propel a team to action. But that’s not what Amazon did in this case. The Go team actually wrote a press release about a future that was seemingly impossible at the time.

The group didn’t think about incremental improvements or by counting on rapid evolution. Rather, the group imagined a new future - when the front end would be unnecessary - and built toward that goal. They didn’t ask why something could or couldn’t be done. Instead, they verbalized the biggest challenge and then figured out how to do it.

A company that imagines a new future and then makes it happen can’t ever be taken lightly. And that in turn means we all need to find new ways of thinking and acting to imagine the impossible and then make it happen.

And if you don’t … well, you might begin to suffer from a kind of retail vertigo, making it appear as if the world is spinning and making you dizzy. Mel Brooks would call it “High Anxiety”…

High anxiety ... it's always the same;
High anxiety ... it's you that I blame.
It's very clear to me I've got to give in.
High anxiety: you win.

In the retail game, though, you can’t let any sort of anxiety win. You, too, have to imagine a new future, and work on making it happen.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available on Amazon by clicking here. And, his book "Business Rules!" is available from Amazon by clicking here.
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