Change: No Pain, No Gain

Andrea Simon is a corporate anthropologist -- a type of social scientist, studying people's beliefs, values and behavior. After a long career working in the financial and health care sectors, Simon opened a consultancy helping small businesses reinvent themselves.

She's developed six basic points that she offers to entrepreneurs who need a jumpstart to get their revenues flowing again. Many of her calls for help come after a company has experienced about three years of no growth.

While small firms are often lauded for their nimbleness compared to much larger, more bureaucratic entities, Simon has learned small firms often have difficulty adapting to new situations because their cultures are "strong and pervasive."

"We try to help small business owners -- who are often the CEO or president of the company -- by pulling them out of their comfort zone. Entrepreneurs are great at pulling out of the gate, but then they move out and get stuck," said Simon, who works out of New York City as Simon and Associates Management Consultants. She's also currently writing a book on entrepreneurship and gives "CEO talks" to help top management stay fresh.

It's common practice for an executive to say "I'm all for change," but in reality nothing changes because "it's really hard for the brain to let those things go" that are routine, she said.

Simon has discovered that customers, employees and executives often believe they conduct business in a certain manner, but in reality "very often people don't realize what they're doing." For example, she's seen that many focus groups tell a business one thing, but when that business uses a camera or some other technology to watch the group using their product or service, the focus group is not doing what they said they do.

You are not what you do.

She worked with a battery design maker in the Northeast. The firm (which Simon prefers not to name) generated about $25 million in revenue, but sales were flat for three years. It also got about 90 percent of its growth coming from a handful of clients. "We felt and learned that customers were expecting the company to deliver things that the company could deliver but hadn't thought about it," she said.

The battery manufacturers initially had a hard time. Simon asked them to realize "you are not what you do." She said they came to realize that they didn't just make batteries; they were a "power solutions provider." That line of thinking opened up a new world to them. They now provide more eco-friendly and high-tech batteries and other ways of providing energy. In Simon's experience, before a small business starts thinking outside the box, "what you say you are becomes a limitation." One firm defined itself as a marketer of medical textbooks, but it came to realize it provided medical students with resources.

Change is literally pain, but staying the same is worse.

Research shows that the brain hates the pain of change, says Simon. And how do you enjoy the pain of change? Practice. Simon says taking someone out of their comfort zone makes a person feel incompetent, but it can also open up new worlds of thinking. I asked Simon if someone like myself -- a journalist who spends most of my time with people and words -- should do more math problems. No, she said, instead I should practice speeches or presentations. It goes along the lines of being a media professional and communicator. "It's kind of like I dropped you in Greece and you had to make your way around," she said, meaning I could do it but I may well feel incompetent for a while.

I have a track record of setting challenges for myself by making myself feel incompetent through sports. I learned to ski a few years ago at the prompting of my husband, whose been skiing since he was a tot. My first time skiing down an icy slope I left the mountain black and blue from all my tumbles. We still "debate" over whether it was a double black diamond or "just a black diamond" he accidentally took me down my second time skiing. Amazingly, I can ski now and I love it. I recently took up soccer and am absolutely awful. I'll keep you posted.

She notes that "change agents" in a company are often marginalized for the reason that "most people come to work to make a living - not for change." That's why change often has to come from the top down. When a CEO at a firm starts to get excited about change is when change can really happen.

Explore - Get out of the office and into the field.

"The more ideas you have, the more likely you'll have a good one," says Simon. She takes executives to spend a day in the life of a customer and tells them not to immediately return to the office. "Begin to visualize entirely new ways to solve problems." Eventually the goal is to become consciously competent at the new way of thinking. You may play Hamlet really well, so get out and try Macbeth, she says. "You can't sit in your office and imagine what people want," you need to get out there and see it for yourself.

Find a colleague to go with.

Find a colleague or even a coach to bounce ideas off of -- "there is no need to change alone." She recommends going on "thought walks" and visiting other companies to see how they do things. Two people may bring back different perspectives and ideas about what they saw.

A picture is worth a thousands words.

Brain science is showing that the old adage is true -- it's necessary to visualize change. She tells clients to get a picture of what they want to become. Rehearse it and use theater if necessary.

Forget the surveys.

Customers can't tell you what they need or want or what solutions would be better than what they currently use. "You're going to have to discover it for them and then with them," she said. Simon cited Henry Ford as saying: "If I asked people how to improve their transportation, they would have told me to make their horses go faster."

She praised companies like Yellowtail, an Australian wine company. It successfully targeted the beer and hard liquor drinker in its marketing with a $9 bottle of wine and opened up a new market for the company. "They demonstrated that you don't have to get stuck in the same market segment," she said.

She also lauded bike company Trek for successfully marketing to non-bikers and for Nintendo's Wii that honed in on nongamers and is now marketing to girls. "They went after a market that no one else in their field was paying attention to," she said.

By Sharon McLoone |  February 4, 2009; 4:05 PM ET Tools and Tips
Previous: Big Businesses Reach Out to Small Firms | Next: Landrieu: Small Business to Benefit from Economic Plan


Please email us to report offensive comments.

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company