watermelonImagine that you own a business that produces a product loved by the consumer; a product easy to produce and relatively easy to sell. Your market is wide open and your product should be in great demand …except for one small detail, its shape simply doesn’t work for your major retailer who has sadly canceled all orders. What do you do?

Several years ago, the Japanese people who loved the taste of watermelon found the shelves bare of the tasty fruit. Japanese retailers had cut off the supply because of available space. Apparently the large round delicacy took up way too much space in a country where space is at a minimum; orders were canceled and growers lost their rich market. What to do?

For years, Detroit’s automobile industry continued to focus on larger more luxurious products with streamlined, beautiful cars. Then along came the Volkswagen. The Beetle was anything but beautiful or streamlined; it was the exact opposite. “Think Small”, was their message; a message born from thinking differently.

While the American watermelon growers scratched their heads perplexed by the seemingly unsolvable challenge; they did not simply say, the market has changed, we are not competitive or place blame on the available space in Japan. What did they do?

The solution to the problem of round watermelons wasn’t nearly as difficult to solve for those who didn’t assume the problem was impossible to begin with and simply asked how it could be done. It turns out that all you need to do is place them into a square box when they are growing and the watermelon will take on the shape of the box.

Did the Volkswagen people ask different questions? Perhaps. Had the watermelon growers assumed that square watermelons were impossible before even thinking about the question, they would have never found the solution.

Here is a quote from the recent published story on square watermelons. “If you begin with the notion that something is impossible, then it obviously will be for you. If, on the other hand, you decide to see if something is possible or not, you will find out through trial and error.”

If you are exasperated hearing, “We’ve tried that before” or “That won’t work here in our company”. If the responses to problems in the sales department are explained away with “statements such as, “The market has changed” or “We aren’t competitive anymore”, perhaps a discussion about square watermelons will generate fresh thinking and innovative ideas.

Embracing Resistance

The German poet Heinrich Heine once noted that a person “only profits from praise” when he “values criticism.” The ability to value criticism plays an enormous role in embracing resistance. In most industries, you face resistance daily, even hourly. That finely honed skill enables you to create opportunity when confronted with skepticism, irritation, complaints and negativity.

Nothing in nature grows without resistance. The tiny rabbit faces resistance as well as the majestic elephant

If you have not had the opportunity to read a little book called “The Starbucks Experience”, may I suggest it for your next easy read. There is a fascinating chapter entitled Embracing Resistance from which I have extracted some interesting facts. Starbucks only purchases around 4% of the coffee sold world wide; yet they typically draw greater public scrutiny than the far larger buyers like supermarkets. They are front page when fair-trade markets are mentioned; they are often noted in news articles for monitoring websites which receive about 5000 visitors a day…which they deny. The leadership has taken a relaxed approach choosing to listen rather than react. Successful leaders choose to not hide from challenges but rather take the resistance as another reason to adjust.

So where is your greatest resistance coming from? How can you listen and adjust?

So, has Starbucks faced this type of resistance? Their first attempt in Beijing was met with a “corporate America rolling its tanks into town” mentality. Two months into the contract and after significant expense, the local officials considered revoking the business license. The leadership did not panic, rather listened to the criticism and adjusted. Since the usual 80% to go/20% to stay was reversed in the Chinese culture; they needed to change how they did business. The Beijing Starbucks would become a “destination restaurant” as opposed to a beverage provider. In our own American city of Pittsburgh, the Starbucks in Squirrel Hill a highly populated Jewish community, met with customer resistance. They quickly changed how they delivered their products adding kosher coffee, replacing red and green decorations with blue and silver and changing Christmas music to meet the needs of a specialized community.

Resistance? Have you looked at it and changed how you do business every day. Have you listened and changed how you deliver your service?