I’m In

The fast lane to starting something new often feels much more like the slow lane.

What would you do if you recently moved into a new area only to find, to your surprise and disappointment, no youth hockey league for your children?  Here’s what you probably wouldn’t do: start a youth 
hockey league.  Not yet anyway…doing so would be exhausting, frustrating, and expensive.

Hockey – particularly ice hockey – is a sport that requires a lot of commitment, both in terms of money and time.  The equipment can be expensive, and so is the ice time.  Rinks generally aren’t around the corner like most baseball fields, and games and practices are often held at very odd hours.  Even just getting suited up takes a bit of time…certainly not as simple as putting on a pair of cleats and a glove.  Oh, and of course, you’ve got that whole learning to skate thing.  Suffice it to say, the hurdles for kids to really pursue the game – and experience the sensation of sharp blades cutting through the ice, the satisfaction of a well executed passing sequence, and the thrill of watching the back of the net flex in submission to the puck – are high.

So, instead of starting a league straight away, you might start simply by playing hockey with your children in the street, on the driveway, or in a local park.  As others saw you together, interest among some would be stirred.  You might also bring up hockey in conversation with other parents at your kids’ soccer games.  Your kids could talk to their friends and classmates about hockey…maybe invite some over to watch some games on TV.  Perhaps, before long hopefully, enough interest would surface for some to pick up a stick and join you on the driveway.  Soon, somebody will pick up some goalie equipment…maybe somebody else another net.  After a while, there might be enough kids for some informal games at the park.  From there…

Here’s the point: most people don’t make significant changes all at once.  When you start something new, you are asking people to change behavior.  And the more substantial the shift you seek, the harder it will be for people to adopt that new behavior.  So, to increase the likelihood of success, you need to make it easy for people to experience a taste of the change.  I call this lowering the barriers to trial.  If you do that, and provided people find the change – whether a product, a service, or an idea – worthwhile, you will be well on your way to successfully realizing your mission.

Lately, I’m getting to see these ideas in action in my neck of the woods – Bergen County, NJ – with regard to (surprise, surprise) youth hockey.  Now, Bergen County is not devoid of hockey as you might expect from having read above.  However, having played a bit of hockey as a kid, I am well acquainted with the commitment it requires.  So, when my young son told me he wanted to play ice hockey, I turned to two organizations that are doing a great job collectively at keeping the doors open for kids: Doug Brown Hockey Development Program and Pre-Game Pro Shop in Westwood, NJ.  Here’s what they are doing:

Doug Brown, mastering a fine balance of encouragement and drive, teaches weekly sessions to kids (and adults actually) in which the first half hour focuses on skill development and the second half hour is game play.  In this way, the kids can give hockey a try – finding out their interest and aptitude – without committing to a team and the associated expense and scheduling demands.  Of course, even with Doug’s great program, full ice hockey equipment is required for all players.  This is where Pre-Game Pro Shop comes in.  They buy and sell lightly used (and new) hockey equipment, specializing in youth.  So, rather than spending several hundred dollars before your child ever steps on the ice, Pre-Game cuts the investment by half to two-thirds.  Of course, because kids grow through equipment so quickly, Pre-Game saves parents a lot of money every year their children play.

So, here are some things to consider if you want to expose people to some sort of change…perhaps a product, a service, an idea.  What can you do to help them experience it in a small, low-investment way?  How can you give them just a taste?  The bigger the bite you require, the fewer people will try.

Most people don’t make changes based on imagination; they make them based on experience.


Lift Off

At a conference recently, my hotel room afforded me a panoramic view of the runways at DFW airport.  One evening, in between functions, I watched the activity on those runways for about ten minutes, marveling at how effortlessly the immense machines appeared to climb through the sky and how gracefully they returned to ground.

What really struck me as I watched plane after plane engage in something akin to a gigantic waltz, is just how routine this dance has become.  Everyday, all day, at airports all over the world, it’s played out again and again.  A bit more than 100 years ago, what I was witnessing was barely conceivable.  Now, it’s totally normal.  Standing there, I imagined the glee Orville and Wilbur Wright would feel if they were in my shoes.

How is it that something so incredible can become commonplace?  The answer I find is quite simple in theory and enormously challenging in execution: it starts with one. The Wright brothers didn’t set out to fly a thousand planes in and out of many locations on that first-flight day in 1901.  They started with one.  Before that, even, they didn’t start by building a plane at all.  Fueled by the dream of the plane, they built a series of gliders over three years just to test and perfect their theories about wing control.  What they knew was the importance of integrity in the details.  If their dream was to become a scalable reality, the invention had to work reliably in all critical areas.  Get the prototype right and it can be replicated again and again.  This is something that engineers – and apparently bicycle shop owners – understand at their core.

Standing in that hotel room, my mind jumped inside the plane and scanned the thousands and thousands of parts housed inside the sleek shell.  Each was engineered to play an important role, and each must work…time after time.  The fact that all of those parts – big and small, individually and collectively – work so reliably is the reason the dance can go on.

Where do you see this same story?  The semiconductor, perhaps?  Franchise businesses?  The human body?  I think it’s just about everywhere people take for granted the very thing at which another toiled.  Hmm…as I think about it, that seems – at least at some level – like a pretty good definition of success.  And a couple things stand out to me as crucial to reaching that point: a dream worth chasing, and a commitment to make sure the most critical details work.

What are you building?  What will your dance look like?


Don’t Try Too Hard

“Meet people where they’re at.”  “Don’t work too hard to persuade people.”  These are words that have come up over and over for me lately.

I really hate the hard sell.  Maybe that’s why these words have resonated so loudly.  I’m part of a generation that wants to be invited toward participation, no coerced.  And our coercion radar is strong.

The way I see it, if you have to try hard to convince me, then one of three things is true: whatever you’re selling isn’t really good enough to stand on its own merits, you’re doing a poor job communicating the benefits, or I’m just not ready to buy.  If it’s the latter, all of your effort is actually making it less likely that I’ll buy from you when I am ready.



Hugo had no choice but to call the local large-chain auto parts retailer.  Enough unsatisfying experiences made them his last resort for anything auto related.  This time, though, his clutch cable was broken – near his home, thankfully – and it was too late to travel by bus to another supplier.

So, he called the store, placed the order for a clutch cable…pick up tomorrow at 11am.  Great!  Easy.  The guy on the phone was helpful, efficient, friendly…unlike what he had experienced before.  Seeds of changing his mind about the company were planted.

The next day, shortly after 11am, Hugo went in to the store ready to pick up his cable.   The guy on the phone call wasn’t working that day.  “No, we don’t have a pick up under your name and we haven’t received a delivery today,” another employee told him.  “Come back at 2pm.  We should be receiving a delivery by then.”  Hmm…OK.  Inconvenient…frustrating…but OK.

As 2pm rolled around, Hugo went in to the store again.  To his dismay, he received the same story…matter of fact…unapologetic…“Come back at 5pm.  We should be receiving a delivery by then.”  By now, Hugo – among the top five most patient people I know – is getting very frustrated.  OK, though…it’s still the quickest option for getting the clutch cable.

What do you think happened at 5pm?  Yup…very much the same story.  This time, though, as Hugo let them have it a little bit about poor service and how they should have told him 5pm in the first place, the manager walked by. Overhearing some of the conversation, he said, “There is a package in the back, but I don’t think it’s a clutch cable.”  Hugo replied, “Would you please go check and see?”  Sure enough, it was a clutch cable.  It turns out, nobody Hugo spoke with that day thought that the box sitting there in the back could have contained a clutch cable, so they just kept telling him that they hadn’t received it.

The story doesn’t end here, though.  Before handing over the cable, the manager asked Hugo for his receipt.  Hugo replied by saying that he didn’t have a receipt because it was a phone order.  “I can’t give you the cable if you don’t have a receipt.  It could be for somebody else, “ the manager said.   After some conversation to convince the manager that it was unlikely that somebody else ordered a clutch cable for pick up that day, much less a clutch cable for a ’94 Nissan Sentra, Hugo finally got his cable.

In the course of conversation, the manager explained that orders are not supposed to be placed without being paid for first.  So, the guy on the phone didn’t really do his job properly.  Hugo explained that the guy on the phone performed a great service for him, saving him an unnecessary trip into the store.  The employee should be commended, not reprimanded…that the problem was with the policies and the service he received from the other employees.

I often say that the pinnacle of marketing is when customers become advocates.  In fact, Advocacy is the last stage in the natural consumer progression through what I describe as a relational brand building approach: Awareness-Trial-Relevance-Affinity-Loyalty-Advocacy.  All policies should work around building Advocacy among consumers.  Instead, this chain allowed customer policies to be driven by inventory control concerns.  As a result of the experience, the chain fell even further outside of Hugo’s consideration set for auto parts retailers than it was before.  After all, the only person who gave him good service wasn’t doing his job.


Hit the Books

Paul de Vries was the class “dummy” for most of elementary school – partly, as he describes, because of severe myopia and dyslexia.  By the time he was in 6th grade, he was three years behind in every area of knowledge and skill development.  Despite his struggles, he was promoted to the next grade level each year, falling further and further behind.

In 6th grade, something changed.  Paul’s teacher, Ms. Ethel Smith, took a very special interest in him.  She dramatically helped and encouraged him during the second half of the school year and well into summer vacation.  During that summer, she helped Paul overcome many of his difficulties with reading.  In looking back with great appreciation and admiration, Paul finds something else she did.  He states, “she started majorly messing with my mind to extract the attitude of failure.”

Under Ms. Smith, some incredible things happened: Paul gained knowledge and skill, and he began to believe in himself and the value of education.  Said differently, he built capacity and became inspired.

Paul became an honor student and, eventually, was the salutatorian of his high school graduation of 300 students.  He graduated as the top math student, the top science student, and the top orator.  He scored 1490 on the SAT (back when the scale was 1600).  After high school, Paul went on to college and eventually earned a Masters and PhD from University of Virginia.  He became a tenured professor and associate dean of Wheaton College.  Now, he heads NY Divinity School and is working toward eliminating educational gaps among low-income, inner-city, and minority youth.

What can members of your family, community, or organization do with some inspiration and added capacity?  What about you?