Zappos and the SNAFU Syndrome

First published September 23, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Who can say no to MediaPost Publisher Ken Fadner? Certainly not me. And so, next Monday, I’ll be joining all you OMMA-ites (OMMAhanians?) in New York City for the big show. Ken wanted me to set the stage by spending a little more time talking about a subject I raised a few columns back, entitled “SNAFU: the New Normal.” In that column, I mentioned that a lot of companies going through huge transitions ask if there are any examples of other companies that have done it right. I said then the simple answer is no. We’re all figuring this stuff out as we go. But today, I wanted to share a further thought from one of the people that asked that question:

Enough Zappos Already!

“Tell me, are any companies doing this right. And don’t give me examples like Amazon or Zappos. I’m sick of hearing about these dotcom poster children. We’re not them. We can’t do the same things!”

Coincidentally, I’ve just finished reading Tony Hsieh’s book, “Delivering Happiness,” where he gives his perspective of what worked and what didn’t at Zappos.  One passage, in particular, shows that Zappos is not immune to the SNAFU Syndrome:

“It may seem sometimes like we don’t know what we’re doing. And it’s true: we don’t. That’s a bit scary, but you can take comfort in knowing that nobody else knows how to do what we’re doing either. If they did, they’d be the Web’s most popular shoe store. Sure, people have done parts of what we do before, but what we’ve learned over the years at Zapoos is that the devil is in the details. And that’s where we’re breaking new ground.”

It’s More than Foosball

Here’s the thing: Survival in the SNAFU storm is not about pizza lunches, foosball tables or wacky staff parties. It’s not about gourmet cafeterias, Segways or even culture handbooks. Hsieh didn’t do anything with Zappos that hadn’t been documented long before the dot-com era. He (like me) is a big fan of Jim Collins (“Good to Great”) and  Dave Logan  (“Tribal Leadership”). The foundations laid out in both those books have been field-tested across many different types of companies, from hospitals to hotels, grocery stores to banks, manufacturers to consulting firms. In fact, in both books there is a notable lack of high-flying dot-coms, as that wasn’t the flavor du jour when these books were researched.

These books look at the very foundations of organizational effectiveness and found that it wasn’t about cultural perks; it was about believing in something. Success comes from the feeling that you’re part of a bigger whole. It was about rising above profit statements and shareholder reports by creating a mission that makes people want to come to work in the morning.

Zappos isn’t about selling shoes. In the big scheme of what’s truly important, footwear doesn’t factor very highly. Zappos is about spontaneously creating smiles through exceptional experiences.  And that, my friends, is something any company can aspire to.

North Star

Here’s why these organizational foundations are so important in the new world. It’s very easy to lose your bearings in a sea of SNAFU. As I said, there are no maps or blueprints to follow. Strategies and five-year plans can get torn to shreds in a matter of seconds. When that happens, you’re going to need something to set your bearings by. Inspiring mission statements and real, living, breathing core values will always be there. They rise above strategy. They’re a North Star that’s always in sight.

If you do this right, everyone knows why they come to work in the morning. And, when the world goes to hell on you, it will give you a bearing point against which you can correct your course and head in the right direction.

Want to give yourself a chance to survive the SNAFU Syndrome? You don’t have to be Zappos or Amazon (and even they don’t have any guarantees). You just have to make up your mind to do it. Start by reading these two books.

If you’re not inspired, consider a new career. If you don’t now, you’ll probably be forced to later.

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