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The discipline of not being all things to all people

Kevin Maney
Kevin Maney is the author of Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On, and Others Don't. Previously a technology columnist and senior technology reporter at USA Today, he lives in Centreville, Va.

One of the most moving example of leadership that I found while researching my book Trade-Off: Why Some Things Catch On and Others Don't turned up in a small-town agency that helps people with disabilities find jobs.

That agency, in Washington, N.C., is run by Daniel Stevens, and the agency's job is not easy. "Appeals to the heart don't work," Stevens told me. "One thing you don't ask is what kind of employee a manager is looking for. They'll describe an ideal employee." The agency often can't supply an ideal employee. So how could the agency be more effective in finding jobs for its clients?

Stevens worked through his dilemma by thinking about the trade-offs between fidelity (the quality of an experience) and convenience (the ease of getting it) -- the very trade-offs that were at the heart of my research into the way some of the smartest CEOs and entrepreneurs think about their strategies.

A lot of CEOs manage by understanding that customers are willing to give up convenience for great fidelity, or ditch fidelity for great convenience. Products or services that offer just so-so fidelity and so-so convenience fall into a no-man's-land of customer apathy that I call the "fidelity belly." That's where music CDs and newspapers find themselves today. The most successful products and services tend to be either high in fidelity or high in convenience -- one or the other, but not both.

As Stevens figured out, the "ideal" employee is a high-fidelity employee. But high fidelity employees are hard -- i.e. inconvenient -- to find.

On the other hand, the "real" employee is someone who is ready and available right now. Even if he or she doesn't have every skill an employer might ideally want, the convenience of having a "good-enough" prospect ready to jump into a critical vacancy is often a convenience managers appreciate. "If the dishwasher just quit, that's when a manager feels like he needs to hire a dishwasher right away," Steven said.

Stevens' agency was trying to sell a product (disabled job-seekers) that customers (business managers) saw as of lesser quality, yet the agency's approach didn't focus on the big plus they did offer: ready-to-work employees. As a result, employers didn't see Stevens's clients as high convenience either. Stevens' agency fell into the fidelity belly.

Stevens had the courage to admit that his agency needed to change, and he pushed his office to try a different approach -- by focusing on convenience. If his agency could become the employment agency of convenience -- i.e. we quickly supply good-enough employees to your door, ready to work -- it should have more success than when it fell into the gray middle area of so-so convenience and so-so fidelity.

"We implemented this [focus on convenience] one year ago with just a few offices," Stevens told me in late 2008. "When compared with their numbers from last year, these offices are having increased success."

Looking through the lens the fidelity-convenience trade-off, we see managers and leaders in a new way. Even if they don't consciously map out those trade-offs, good leaders seem to innately know they need to manage them and be disciplined about driving toward either high fidelity or high convenience.

Let me give you another example, one that's the polar opposite of Stevens and his agency.

Perhaps no one in business understands fidelity better than casino owner Steve Wynn. Growing up, his father ran a string of bingo parlors in the Northeast. He took over the family operation and leveraged it to buy a small stake in the Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in the 1960s. He eventually bought controlling interest of The Golden Nugget, renovating it from a shabby casino into a resort. In the 1980s, he spent $630 million building the Mirage on Las Vegas' strip, and its size and luxuriousness topped anything in the city at the time. Wynn next constructed Treasure Island on The Strip and then the $1.6 billion Bellagio. In the 2000s, he topped them all by building the Wynn for $2.7 billion.

At each step, Wynn built a hotel and casino that topped his competitors not by just a little, but by a huge margin -- and put him in the highest-fidelity position. Each time, other developers followed by matching or going just beyond Wynn's standard. And each time, Wynn responded with a project that leapt far beyond competing properties and reclaimed the high-fidelity position. Of course, each response was a costly, risky bet. He kept reaching out to do something no one had done before. But that's the key to super-fidelity, and the approach seems to be part of Wynn's very fiber.

Starbucks stalled in the mid-2000s because its leaders didn't stay disciplined about keeping Starbucks a high-fidelity brand. Wal-Mart stumbled in the same time period when its CEO forgot Wal-Mart was all about convenience and tried to do upscale clothing lines advertised in Vogue. Good leaders, like Stevens and Wynn, understand the fidelity-convenience trade-offs and have the courage to act on them.

By Kevin Maney

 |  October 23, 2009; 12:29 PM ET |  Category:  Decision-making Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Great reminder to focus on strengths and that the most important part of prioritization is actually _de-prioritization_.

Reminds me of the restaurant owner's sign:

Good Food,
Low Prices,
Fast Service...

Choose any 2!


Posted by: almcfarland | October 29, 2009 8:28 AM

The word "fidelity" is in no way synonymous with "quality." What possible reason do you have to coin a new meaning for the word?

Posted by: butcherbaker | October 24, 2009 12:41 AM

fr blasmaic:

>Actaully Wal-Mart is inching upscale as it can. ...

wally world needs to "inch upscale", as it sure couldn't go further down. They still pay their workers pittance except for the higher-ups, refuse to allow workers to UNIONIZE, and deny them decent health care benefits. The "ceo" of wally world signed a petition against Marriage Equality, so my wife and I refuse to shop there.

Posted by: Alex511 | October 23, 2009 8:02 PM

Actaully Wal-Mart is inching upscale as it can. Usually it takes an new entry below the bottom rung to allow a brand to move upward. In Wal-Mart's case, the brand that's entering is called Dollar General. Dollar General is owned by KKR, which is improving the store's earnings through better inventory management.

Of course, if there's no space in the market for a brand to move up, then it has to stay put and there's no room for a new entrant. So it is a bit of a chicken and egg thing too.

Posted by: blasmaic | October 23, 2009 6:52 PM

The "real" employee, i.e., ready to work, may actually be the "ideal" employee. When someone who is pounding the pavement looking for work walks in and says he or she is ready, willing, and able to do the job, that's the ideal person for the job (assuming the person has job-related experience and qualifications.) As the old saying goes, "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

Unfortunately, there are too many "gate-keepers" who don't understand this. They want to go by the book, they say they have to interview a dozen more, wait til next week, etc. In the old days of "personnel," before "human resources" tried to turn hiring into a science, personnel managers (or better yet, the relevant department manager) could hire a person on the spot when they felt in their gut that the person was right for the job.

Posted by: Boomerang1 | October 23, 2009 5:50 PM

I understood that 'fidelity' means quality in this article. I agree with a more general point, that it can be suicidal to change your market positioning if you have a strong brand. Also that there are a lot of neither-fish-nor-fowl business combinations that don't quite add up.

However I'm not sure that quality and convenience (to the customer) even tend to conflict. Consider the area of customer service, for instance. Good customer service is convenient for the customer.

Posted by: elizh1 | October 23, 2009 5:00 PM

The commenters cited two examples where convenience and fidelity come together. I disagree, even though we are on our 4th iPod and have a Costco membership.

Costco is not convenient. There are a limited number of stores--compare the number of Costco's in NoVa (3) with the number of Safeways, for example. There is generally a limited range of products. You have to buy large quantities at a time. This can be problematic if you don't have much living space (or a small fridge). Costco maintains fidelity to its mission. Low cost, large quantity, and generally high quality products. Also high regard for its employees.

With regards to the iPod, it's all about fidelity. A simple design and more expensive than competing products. I argue that the lack of convenience comes in two forms: the iPod has generally cost more than competing products and often has fewer features. Other products have come and gone that offer features that many demand. A radio. User replaceable batteries. Yes, I know Apple has gradually added features to the iPod, but competitors have been faster to do this.

In fact, I would argue that Apple and Costco are shining examples of companies for which fidelity to its vision above all else.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | October 23, 2009 2:34 PM

A: Good, Fast, Cheap

B: Fidelity, Convenience, Fidelity-Belly

The only real difference is in A, you pick two of the three, and in B you pick one.

Posted by: bpkell1 | October 23, 2009 1:21 PM

So I guess Target and Costco should be considered losers because they are both convenient and quality?

I like the story about the employment agency. But that fix is more about perception in the market place. This article is somewhat flimsy, no offense.

Posted by: tony_in_Durham_NC | October 23, 2009 1:17 PM

What us Apple iPod then, according to this article - remember, it cannot be both, or no one would be asking for it! A high quality product OR a high convenience product?

Conclusion: no need to waste time or money on the book not-so-transparently promoted in this article.

Posted by: teplicky101 | October 23, 2009 12:39 PM

The extremes of comments on this piece are fascinating. I would agree that what he is really talking about here is quantity vs quality and supply vs demand. I would also say that too much of marketing - for anything - is devoted to new terms, labels, colors, and packaging rather than substance. But that is being done precisely because there isn't a substantial difference between the goods and services in question. In the case of this particular article, however, I think his terminology can help people rethink (re-frame?) the way they approach their business. Sometimes you just need a new perspective on an old problem.

Posted by: natcolley | October 23, 2009 11:58 AM

My God, this is as moronic as "On Faith". The Post loese millions, but provides a megaphone for shallow thinkers like this.

Posted by: thebuckguy | October 23, 2009 11:03 AM

The use of the 'fidelity' and 'convenience' concepts are hard to keep track of as the article progresses. If the topic is about what catches on and what doesn't, I don't think your philosophy will.

Posted by: mongol | October 23, 2009 10:56 AM

"The discipline of not being all things to all people". Good article. I like reading stories and posts regarding leadership, those qualities perceived, those imagined and those performed. It is interesting to note when you speak of leadership you mention it in the same light as fidelity.

That is pretty interesting when you think about it. I am faithful to my wife (hopefully one day). I am faithful to my children. However, I am always faithful to my God. There are certain things you don't bargain on ever.

If fidelity, leaderships and daily living is to be intertwined that means we stick with a certain 'brand' of life, people and belief's and that is a good pattern, to a fault. When we fail to recognize there are some people who want to be part of a magical moment or a place in time, do we have a responsibility intrinsically to help them find that place?

I like guys who can fashion something out of nothing. I look at guys like Soupy Sales and Red Skelton (RIP friends) who could create a great moment of laughter by using their skills to tickle our fancy. I look at great composers of music and film who can create a place in time for each of us.

We see the stars on screen, not realizing and recognizing it was the magic of the Spielberg's, Howards, Coppola's and so many others. We listen to the great symphonies and marvel at the instrumental's playing within the orchestra. The conductors like John Williams and so many others may not play the instrument, but they are key to bringing all the pieces together so the finished product becomes a living experience and makes it real.

I don't consider myself a leader of any sorts, I like the consulting part of it where I do not need a spotlight, stage or screen. I am happy watching others gain the accolades knowing I might have contributed even in a small way to their success. Anyway great column, and have a great weekend.

Posted by: jakesfriend1 | October 23, 2009 9:48 AM

I don't understand the way you're using the word "fidelity". Its root is "fides", which means faith. So fidelity is faithfulness, or accuracy and truthfulness in representing something. You seem to be using it to mean "quality," which is not a synonym of "fidelity."

Posted by: crazycatlady | October 23, 2009 9:40 AM

it is apparent that the hardest decision our so called leaders have to make is to put America first...
and that is sad...

Posted by: DwightCollins | October 23, 2009 8:23 AM

This is an excellent article! This confirms what the Bible says about being either cold or hot NOT luke warm. Granted, the Bible is speaking of the different types of Christians but it applies just as well in every other aspect of life.

Posted by: SteelWheel25 | October 23, 2009 7:39 AM

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