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.

Sir Ernest Shackleton and The Endurance

In 1914 the following ad ran in the London newspapers: “Men wanted for Hazardous Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.”

Imagine the type of person Ernest Shackleton was in search of? And we think we have recruiting problems. Who would want to do this type of work? But many did, in fact, thousands applied for one of the most treacherous expeditions ever attempted. On December 5, 1914 The Endurance set sail from South Georgia for a 634 day expedition of Antarctica.

The journey of the Endurance is the well known story of Earnest Shackleton and his 27 man crew. It goes a bit like this:

12/5(Day 1) The excited team of experienced seamen left the whaling station in rugged South Georgia

1/19 (Day 45) The first disaster struck. The Weddell Sea froze and closed around them like a vise.

• Two attempts to free The Endurance failed moving only 150 yards in two days.

2/24(Day 84) The crew resigned themselves to spending the winter on board; there they stayed until mid-July.

7/20 (Day 232) Ice pressure tightened, pumps failed, water poured into the ship, timbers began to crack. They were undeterred.

10/27(Day 332) Masts tumbled and the ice ripped through the timbers. It was time to leave the safety of the ship and camp on the frozen ice.

  • They attempted to march across hundreds of miles of frozen ice.
  • They endured the grueling task of pulling hundred pound sleds and life boats.
  • After two days they had gone less than two miles.

10/30(Day 335) They made camp on the ice floe for 49 days.

12/18 (Day 384) They made one more attempt to drag the boats to open water.

  • Another unsuccessful attempt
  • Food was low, eating local seals to survive and there they remained until spring.

4/ 9 (Day 491) Finally, the ice cracked beneath them and opened the sea to travel.

  • They spent the next five days in freezing water as it tumbled over them it and froze to their clothes.
  • They were weak, sick and craving fresh water and food. Imagine the coldest moment of your life, if you can and the day you were the most hungry and so sick with diarrhea you could barely move and imagine that you now must build shelter.

4/15(Day 497) They camped on Elephant Island on the first solid ground in 497 days.

  • Snow was a mixture of frozen penguin guano which melted producing a foul smelling yellow mud
  • There was little food and outlook was bleak. What would they we do now?

4/23(Day 506) Shackleton sent a rescue team to find help leaving them hopelessly abandoned on the island.

5/10(Day 523) 16 days later over treacherous waters, the small band of exhausted sailors landed on the wrong side of South Georgia.

8/30 (Day 634) It took three attempts to rescue the crew.

Final Journal entry reads: Rescued! August 30, 1916 All well! At last! All ahead Full.

In the same time period another crew, The Karluk launched a similar expedition to the North and all perished. What made the difference? Many have speculated about both tales and the conclusion is usually the same…leadership and team work.

As we approach our challenging goals, one can only conclude that our task is miniscule compared to Shackleton and his crew, but none the less important.

Each member of his crew took ownership of every task assigned them, no matter how unimportant it seemed against the gargantuan hope of making it home. Each team member saw their role as critical.

One of the greatest lessons from the expedition of The Endurance is to never lose sight of the ultimate goal but focus your energy on the short term objectives.

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?