Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Shuffling Ideas Into New Combinations

Something with which I am often credited in my former profession of community marketing needs clarification.

I was only among the first DMO executives to deploy technology across all office applications when we did that in Anchorage in the mid-1980s.

From there, when we started the DMO in Durham in 1989, we just stumbled into being the first to make technology a core strategy - a form of differentiation - that let us leapfrog far more established competitors.

Stumbled is the word I use when asked how and why, because back then we didn’t know we were the first to do so.

I’ve tried to unearth influences but as Brown University Taubman Center fellow Marc Dunkelman wrote yesterday in the Harvard Business Review,

“As most corporate executives know, good ideas don’t strike like bolts of lightning.  Quite the opposite: They are unearthed when existing concepts are shuffled and combined in new ways.”

What we had done back then began to make sense to me in retrospect, a few years later, when I read a 1997 article written by someone who nearly thirty years earlier happened to be a classmate of mine at BYU.

In 1970, I sat behind Clay Christensen in an Introduction to Economic Principles and Problems class.

He was in his first year and I was in my second, after a more than two year hiatus, but it became his major while I was the one to go on to make a career in visitor-centric economic and cultural development.

By the way, if anyone is wondering because I wrote about grades earlier this week, I got a B both semesters for that course.

While I am name dropping, Mitt Romney was also in that class, who I had come to know in a group called Cougar Club, as was Kim Clark, who I had known playing church ball while growing up in the Pacific Northwest before he went on to start for a rival high school.

I was the over-achiever of the four (smile,) meaning I was always in over my head, while they were each destined for greatness, Romney in private equity and politics and Clark first as head of Harvard Business School and now BYU-Idaho where my nephew attends.

Now sitting behind Clay was a bit of a challenge because he is 6’8.”  In fact, his son Matt came to Duke, which is based in Durham where I live, five or six years into our community marketing start-up here, and played on the 2001 national championship basketball team (#41.)

Matt may not have started much but the way he was treated by Coach K and his assistant coaches back then played a significant role in why Jabari Parker attended and played at Duke last year before becoming the NBA’s overall #2 draft pick a few months ago by the Milwaukee Bucks.

Matt is now CEO of Rose Park Advisors in Boston, a firm that invests in disruptive innovation (named after the Salt Lake neighborhood where his grandparents lived and his father grew up.)

I remember how bright his father was, but he seemed very quiet in that economics class.  Now I know it wasn’t because he was in his first year.

You know how some of us ask questions to get answers, but there are always a few who ask them just to show off and then continue the practice later in life to get free publicity?

Well Clay was different.  I know now that instead of listening to the answers he was listening to the questions asked and analyzing what made some questions so great.

It an idea that dates back to management guru Peter Drucker.

I didn’t know Clay that well back then but I often drew attention because of another friend who was even taller, the late Krešimir Ćosić who had enrolled that year at BYU after playing for KK Zadar in his hometown along the Adriatic Sea in what is now Croatia.

We struck up a friendship while cooling down one day from a run around the Smith Center track.

Ćosić revolutionized college basketball at the time because, at 6’11” he was a “big” who could also shoot from outside and play three different positions when needed.  This was very unique at the time.

He was also the first foreign player here to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

But it was his unbridled enthusiasm, even when opposing players did well that made him truly unique.  He had already won an Olympic medal when he enrolled at BYU that year.  Kreso never met a stranger but at barely 6 feet I may have been among his shortest friends.

So what does this walk down memory lane have to do with unwrapping the influences that led me to stumble on making technology a core strategy for DMOs?

I read many articles he authored in Harvard Business Review including one in 1997 when he coined the term disruptive innovation but it wasn’t until I read Clay Christensen’s paper and subsequent book The Innovator’s Dilemma that I began to understand how I may have stumbled on that strategy so early in DMO circles at least.

When I was completing the Anchorage DMO start up in the 1980s and jumpstarting one from scratch in Durham in the 1990s, as most still do today, most DMOs tried to perform by merely emulating others.

Dr. Christensen would explain that this occurs in any business where there is no technological core.  The same is true of front-line DMO beneficiaries such as hotels, retail stores, performing arts centers etc.

For any eye-rollers who made it this far and think this is only about ancient history, the guy has been named the #1 management thinker in the world for two years.

It is why so many of these stakeholders objected when Durham’s DMO jumped out in front with a website in 1995, thanks to Vicki Isley who got her start in community marketing in Durham before heading marketing for Tampa, Washington DC and now Bermuda, after a stint as an executive with Destination Marketing Association International.

It is why even today, many visitor related businesses try to pull their DMO back into the dark ages of traditional advertising even when those community marketing organizations are generating exponentially better results from things like search optimization, responsive design and Google Ad Words.

At the foundation of what we did in Anchorage and then Durham was create a culture of innovation and continuing and never-ending improvement and that led naturally to making technology a core strategy in community marketing.

There was nothing genius about it and definitely no lightning bolt.  We just kept reshuffling the deck into new ways of thinking.  I can see all of that looking back now from retirement.

But, believe me, it wasn’t nearly that clear when we were shuffling those existing ideas into new ones in an attempt to leapfrog more established competitors.

My advice to anyone stuck in the emulation mode or struggling to keep from being pulled back into the dark ages by stakeholders, is to keep shuffling and be open to new combinations.

Oh, and pay attention to the people sitting next to you in class (smile.)

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