Paint Your Own Blue Stripe

I had an interesting chat the other day with a newly appointed vice president of content at a retailer. She had been given the mandate of creating a completely new content strategy and team for the company.

She said to me, “I’m not really sure I know what to do next. I’ve spent so much time at conferences and workshops and reading successful case studies thinking, ‘Yes, I can do that too’. But now that I’m here, I’m not sure where to look for the map to do it.”

How we see ourselves through the success of others is an interesting phenomenon.

I find when people ask themselves “Can we do what they did?” they usually land on one of three answers to that question.

First is the dismissive “Well, I can do that” response. My favorite example is the common reaction to that Mark Rothko painting of the giant blue stripe that sold for $46 million in 2015. People look at it and say, “A blue stripe on a yellow canvas? I could do that!

But here’s the thing. You didn’t. That artist did and got paid for it. And that’s the lesson. When you find yourself dismissing those kinds of successes, stop and ask “Well, why didn’t we do that?”

The second answer to “Can we do what they did?” is what I call the “role model.” This is one of the more common responses in our professional lives. We look for the case study, the template, the proven path, and say, “If you just show me the map of how somebody else did it – I’ll be just as successful. Yes, I can do that.”

But the result so rarely ends up the same as that template or that great case study. The map isn’t quite right for what we need. Isn’t it often the case that when we finish, we look back and see how little we actually used of the original model?

And that leads to the third – and my favorite – of the “Can we do that?” answers. It’s all in how you look for the essence of what we want to use for guidance. Start with this: “What new existing thing has the same essence – but isn’t exactly the same – as what I want to do?”

Instead of looking to duplicate the form of those that came before us, look to the essence of the innovation as our role model. Sometimes it makes sense to look outside ourselves, our industry, and closely aligned models and find the essence of those successes.

This can inspire creativity and prompt you to think of the innovative new thing you can do. The key is this: You will only find the new in the new.

So, instead of looking to what we know, let’s turn to things we don’t understand, haven’t paid attention to, or don’t even know exist.

That’s what I advised the new VP of content to do. Her challenge was in introducing new people, creating new workflows, and new outputs to support a new strategy. I introduced her to a mentor of mine who had done exactly that when he built an internal product design team for a financial services company. Such a different experience – and yet – a much better guide for her to discover the “new” that she really needed.

When we understand the essence, we can paint our own version of the blue stripe – and turn it a success that prompts someone else to ask, “Can I do that?”

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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