“Sometimes going backwards is the best type of progress you can make”.

Going backwards may not be something you would normally associate with making progress but after reflecting on a case study on Starbucks I read this week, I realised that it can sometimes be the best type.

A Lesson from Starbucks

On the back of rising expansion in the early 2000’s, Starbucks, one of America’s prominent local coffee houses ventured into the retail music space launching it’s own record label “Hear Music”. With the backing of such a successful brand and artists like Paul McCartney and Ray Charles how could you go wrong? 

A lot apparently. Fast forward just a few years and Starbucks had closed over 900 stores and cut in excess of 18,000 jobs with stock price and profits falling dramatically. Despite a lot going on, the company was in trouble.   

Understandably the decline wasn’t solely as a result of launching a record label but the fruit of a bigger problem. In the midst of their rapid expansion the company had shifted focus away from what had made it so successful in the first place, building great local coffee houses. In a memo to staff by newly appointed CEO Howard D. Schulz he described it as “the watering down of the Starbucks experience, and, what some might call the commoditisation of our brand

Change was needed. In 2008 Starbucks closed over 7,000 national stores for 3 hours to invest in training for their barista’s launching a campaign focused on ensuring customers had a great cup of coffee. They wanted to regain what was described as the “soul of the past”. Hear Music was closed and the company’s focus became all about “reigniting the emotional attachment with customers”. 

Reflecting on this case study it reinforced to me how easy it is to have all the appearances of movement and expansion, but not actually be making progress. The decision by Schulz to close the record label and stores along with the decision to refocus their time, resources and energy into what made Starbucks so successful in the first place had all the appearances of going backwards to those looking from the outside. For Starbucks, going backwards was actually taking them in the direction of where they needed to be. They were making progress.

Moving but not Progressing

A few weeks ago I was on my way to a meeting with a client when I turned the wrong direction onto the freeway….during peak hour traffic. Wanting to head West I was stuck heading East in a flow of cars moving further and further away from the place I needed to be. I was moving, but I wasn’t making progress.

In that moment it would be crazy to think that if I just kept going in the direction of my movement that I would be making progress. What I needed was an exit where I could turn around, change direction and get back on course. Nobody would look at the decision to go backwards as a failure. It was necessary if I was going to arrive where I needed to be.

In helping individuals and teams make progress I have found that we need to adopt the same thinking. Real progress must move us closer to a desired outcome or destination.

Progress doesn’t always need to be grand or monumental, but it does mean that we are closer to our goal today than we were yesterday. 

Movement is helpful and needed, but it doesn’t equal progress by itself. Movement in the right direction, is the formula for progress. 

Movement + Right Direction = Progress

So what is the right direction? That depends. The right direction is the direction that will ultimately take you closer toward your desired outcome. Sometimes the right direction is a slight correction where we have gone off course, sometimes it is a side step and at times the right direction means making a complete 180 turn.  

Leaders don’t just ask what their teams are doing. They ask where their teams are going

Are the activities our team are undertaking moving them closer to where we are going? Where are we now, compared with where we were last week, quarter, month or year in relation to the outcomes that we defined? If the work we are doing is not resulting in progress, then it might be time to change direction.