I had never read Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The book came out in 1989, shot onto bestseller lists and has since sold around 40 million copies. Sometime in the ‘90s, Covey visited USA Today, where I worked, for a roundtable talk. I figured I got the thesis of the book from him and didn’t need to pick it up.
Well, I finally read it. And I found out that when you get into the details, his book contains a powerful contribution to category design thinking.
I guess that shouldn’t have surprised me. Category design isn’t just about business – it’s about human nature. In our book Play Bigger, we often refer back to brain science and cognitive psychology as keys to category design. We came to understand, for instance, that people tend to first think in terms of categories as solutions to problems, and then specific products. If it’s too hot in your home, you first think, “I need an air conditioner” – a category that solves the problem. Only then do you think about which air conditioner you should get. And that’s a reason why companies should think about category first – because it’s how their customers think.
Covey’s book is all about human nature, and how we can be better humans and have a positive impact. In one chapter, he shows us a graphic that looks like this:
Here’s how Covey explains it:
We frequently use the diagram, which illustrates that what you see determines what you do, and what you do determines what you get. We’ve discovered that when people, teams, and organizations solely work on the do – the behaviors – they never get the results they seek. To get great results, you must first work on the see – the paradigms. New behaviors don’t stick unless you see differently.
Most companies spend most of their time on Do. When they were startups, the founders most likely started with See – they could See some kind of new opportunity, and they developed a company that could attack it. But once a company gets going, it often stops the See phase and gets busy on Do. Building a product, teeing up marketing campaigns, arranging financing, hiring people, setting up an office – that’s all Do. So they Do and Do and Do and hope they Get customers and revenue and financial rewards.
But some years into a company’s life, the context around the company changes. There might be new technologies or societal shifts or an economic disruption. Yet the company keeps its head down Doing more and more…but probably finds it’s not Getting more. Everybody’s busy Doing. They don’t have time to spend on Seeing. They miss the way the changing context opens up an opportunity the founders couldn’t have seen when the company started.
Again, as Covey said, “What you see determines what you do, and what you do determines what you get.”
Take away Seeing and focus on Doing…and it impacts what you Get.
In many cases, this marks the moment when a company pings us. Maybe the business is three or four years old – or, in some instances, 20 or 60 years old. It’s done pretty well going after what it first was Seeing. But all of its Doing isn’t generating the same kind of Getting anymore. It can’t stop Doing, of course, or the company would collapse. But the leadership team understands it needs to pause long enough to See again.
That’s exactly what the category design process does. It is all about Seeing. It forces the leadership team to look anew at the context around the company and its customers. What’s changing and why? What new problems do the changes create…or do the changes create a new way to solve an old problem? If you can See an unsolved or newly-solvable problem, you can glimpse a market category waiting to be created.
Once you See it, you can then identify it, give it shape, give it a name and define the rules for solving that problem. And after you do all of that, you have a way to communicate what you’ve seen to your employees, investors, partners, customers and the public – so they can See it, too.
The company's Seeing becomes fresh and effective. So when the company moves to Doing, it will do the right things to take advantage of what it is Seeing. In turn, that Doing will impact what the company is Getting. It stands to Get more customers, more revenue, more financial rewards.
If the category design ethos becomes burned into the brains of the leadership team, it will know that it needs to keep Seeing, and will know how to See effectively, constantly renewing what the company is Doing and powering what it is Getting.
Covey died in 2012. I wasn’t writing about category design until we started working on Play Bigger in 2014. It’s too bad. I’d love to sit down and have a long conversation with him about how his “Seven Habits” can be applied to category design. I bet this concept of See-Do-Get would be only a start.