THE BLOG
02/23/2016 12:13 pm ET Updated Feb 23, 2017

What If Macys Created a New 'Miracle on 34th Street'?

We face so many problems these days. Education. Health Care. Food and water quality. Infrastructure. Money in politics. Global climate change. And more. But there's one problem I believe rises above them all. And that is...

We are still trying to solve ALL of our problems using the same kind of thinking that created them! Have you heard the expression, "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result"? Well, our society is stuck in an "insane" kind of problem-solving loop. Problems appear, and we use the same old thinking to solve them. They may look like they're gone, but they come back. And then we do it again. And they come back again. And we do it again. And they come back again. Pretty insane, right? I mean, our problems never really go away!

I could give you examples of people who have gotten out of this trap... out of this mental do-loop of ineffective problem solving (think: pioneering inventor-types). But because I also believe, "Give a man a fish, he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, he will feed himself the rest of his life." I am going to briefly explain this new thinking -- it's called Systems Thinking -- to you instead. And then I will demonstrate its use by solving a problem currently plaguing an industry I love very much: the retail shopping industry. This is the industry my mother worked in after my parents got divorced when I was a kid. And, in a way, it saved both her and my life.

I hope this demonstration makes you want to learn more. The world desperately needs a critical mass of those who are problem solvers (hint: all of us!) to adopt this new thinking. Because when that critical mass is reached, society as a whole will take a giant leap forward... to a much happier, healthier, and safer world. Sounds crazy? Well, trust me. That's different that sounding insane! Okay! Let's go!

Systems Thinking is very different from the traditional problem solving approach we learn in school. That traditional approach is called "analysis", and -- because we are all taught it from day one -- society as a whole uses it without question. We break our problems up into their component parts... look for the broken part... and then think fixing that broken part will make everything fine... only to have things stop working all over again.

We are taught problems are like a car that won't run and that fixing some broken part is all we need to do. We don't realize that the potholes in the roads (or our bad driving skills... or a medical condition like sleep apnea) will just cause something to break again. And that's because it's not always the car's fault. The car is interacting with its environment and with the person who is driving it. Sure, parts of a car can wear out. But a car does not exist separate from the rest of reality. It is part of an "environment-car-driver system." A properly maintained car driven on properly maintained roads by a properly trained and healthy driver will not break (unless it is hit by another less well maintained "car-driver system," of course).

Systems Thinking teaches that the thing that's broken isn't the only thing we need to look at. We must also explore the larger system in which the thing that's broken exists. That's because when something doesn't work it's often a flaw in the design of the larger system that is producing the problem... time and time again. If we don't change the design parameters of entire system, the problem will just reoccur; because problems are produced by improperly designed systems. Looking at the design of the larger system so as to uncover the flaws in its design is called Root Cause Analysis. And redesigning the system is what we do next. We figure out what new, foundational design principles will let the system in question function in a way that never produces those problems again! Imagine that: a problem-free system! Well, at least free of the problem that was troubling us. Sometimes a newly redesigned system creates new problems. But at least they're new. Better to do something new than constantly do the same thing over and over, right?

Okay. Enough theory for now. It's time to show this theory in action. Let's apply Systems Thinking to the retail shopping industry.

To most people (especially in these difficult economic times), shopping is defined as "finding what you want and paying the lowest price for it you can." That's the shopping "car" most of us "drive". And the people who manage the stores where we shop focus on servicing that shopping equation. (For the wealthy, the equation may substitute "exclusive" for "best price.")

But what if those store managers saw their customers as having a larger, more interrelated "life equation"? What if instead of being "shoppers" they were seen as "people"? What other needs that those "people" have might those store owners seek to satisfy? Shifting from "shoppers" to "people" is the start of using Systems Thinking. So is seeing the store as more than a provider of goods or services at the lowest price (or providing the most exclusive goods or services.)

This "whole person" approach already exists for individual shopping experiences (like buying coffee from Starbucks, where the atmosphere is as large a part of why people go there as the coffee). But is that approach in use for a major department store? Or are those stores locked into an ultimately unwinnable fight with online retailers like Amazon over who can give customers the product they want at the lowest cost and fastest delivery time? (Amazon is projected to topple Macy's as the USA's number one apparel retailer by 2017) "To me, they're all trying to me-too Amazon," noted Nikki Baird, an analyst at RSR Research. "The younger [the shopper,] the more advantage Amazon seems to have." Same day delivery is now becoming a battleground too.

When customers are only seen as "shoppers," price and delivery speed are Amazon's strengths. What new strategic advantage might Macy's gain if it saw customers as "people"?

For that answer, look at the larger system of the society in which customers live. What do you see?

You see conflict -- sometimes very violent conflict. You see people who have decided that their differences with "others" -- be they political, religious, racial or ethnic, gender, or sexual orientation -- are increasingly reasons to declare war on those "others". And you also see a planet under siege by a humanity that is only now (with large pockets of resistance still) coming to terms with the need to partner with -- rather than abuse -- Mother Nature. There is a way that Macy's can use this larger reality -- seen using Systems Thinking -- to its advantage.

You think me insane to suggest this? Remember. Insanity is doing the same thing and expecting something new to happen. I'm not insane. But I AM crazy. Crazy in the way Apple promoted its products in 1997, with its Think Different campaign:

A very powerful business strategy was championed starting in 2005 when the book Blue Ocean Strategy was published. That strategy was innovation-led "discontinuous change" in the products or services companies offer. Blue Ocean Strategy swept the business world (multiple millions published in over 30 languages). And a revised edition was published last year. Positioning your company so it offers customers something they never thought possible -- but which they would then run to after learning it was now available -- became hot for the obvious reason that having uncontested market space makes you the instant market leader!

Why do I think Macy's should adopt this "discontinuous change"-based strategy? Why do I think Macy's should start saying to its customers "Shop here for a better world"? Because Macy's already says that to its employees! People who work for Macy's already work in at least the beginning of that "better world"!

The Macy's Social Responsibility report (which you can read about here and download here) details the extraordinary measures Macy's is taking to create a more equitable, safe and environmentally sustainable workforce environment and product supply chain. It also details how these "better world" efforts extend to at least some of the products Macy's offers its customers.

This essay is not the place to detail how Macy's could expand these efforts to create a similarly comprehensive assistance and support effort for its customers. My aim is simply to show that such a breakthrough agenda could result from Macy's using Systems Thinking to see its customers as people rather than just shoppers... and using Systems Thinking to see the leap in marketing and reputation value that would result if what it already does internally were expanded outward.

Macy's is uniquely positioned to act on such a strategic vision too. The theme of its annual Thanksgiving Day Parade could be made to reflect this new strategy.

And it is where the story of the motion picture "Miracle on 34th Street" took place. Why does that matter? Well, in that story, the character of Kris Kringle (the store's Santa Claus) is the catalyst for the transformation of how Macy's treats its customers. Following Mr. Kringle's lead, Macy's employees help customers find the products they want even if Macy's doesn't carry them! The extraordinary amount of good will this kind of service creates more than offsets the sales lost when people buy certain items elsewhere!

This is "reputation management" taken to the highest level. And while it only happened in a motion picture, a real world version is absolutely possible. Macy's could leap forward in the retail shopping industry by showing its customers how to join its employees in creating a sustainable future... One in which not only are products produced in ways that treat Mother Nature with respect but one in which people -- no matter what their differences - work together in a spirit of cooperation towards the goal of a more harmonious world... one in which everyone has the opportunity to (borrowing from Star Trek, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year) "live long and prosper."

Welcome to the breakthrough problem solving world of Systems Thinking. Welcome to a future where people flock to stores like Macy's because they can get something they'll never get from an online store: face-to-face educational experiences regarding how to make the world someday work for everyone. This is what we know millennials already want where they work.

And a hint of that result regarding Millennial shoppers can even be found in the Myth #3 Social Networks section here...

"The goal should be to create positive buzz, to be talked about by a presence on social media isn't enough -- the aspiration should be to become the topic of conversation for all the right reasons."

But honestly, I can only imagine how truly delighted ALL shoppers will be -- and how great the impact on the future of brick and mortar retail shopping -- when that shopping experience becomes part of making the world work better too!