Remembering the Greeks from My Bangkok Apartment:
Last year, as I packed the contents of my quaint Bangkok apartment into giant Tupperware boxes, (preparing to move a whopping two streets further from the city center) I found myself thinking back to a beautiful college lecture about the Ancient Greek notion of Quality. I remembered looking out of those tall classroom windows and onto the choppy waters of Florida’s Gulf. I remembered watching Osprey hunt for Zebra Fish just off shore, and I remembered thinking then, that what Plato had to say about discovering Quality (two and a half millennia ago) was every bit as relevant in the 21st century as it was in 400 B.C., Athens.
Every now and again, when I kick off my shoes and step onto the off-white rug that migrated along with the Tupperware, I’m still reminded of the important role that Quality plays in our daily decision-making processes. If you’re a business owner or manager, you probably spend a good bit of time thinking about Quality. In this article, we'll consider how the Greeks sought to realize Quality, and at how this method can be used today, to help strengthen businesses.
Discovering Athenian Quality in Today's Business
It's a long way from Plato's Athens to today's online startup. So, what's the connection, and how do we bridge the gap? The idea is simple: the "formula" that Plato and Socrates used 2000 years ago to uncover patterns of Quality and Goodness can be used as a powerful tool for improving business performance in today's marketplace. Using this formula allows the modern business to identify its strengths, build on them, and ultimately, to become more competitive.
In this article, we’ll look at a prevalent definition of Quality, and at a method for discovering and applying it to our own contexts – our very own "excellence formula". With a shared understanding of Quality, we'll look at "beautiful product packaging" as a sort of case study, and end by turning it over to you.
A Quick Apologia:
Quality is an expansive term, with hundreds of complementary and competing definitions; any definition is predisposed to being both limited, and subject to debate. This article looks at one definition of Quality – as an underlying pattern – and at how this understanding can be used instrumentally. While our definition draws on the Platonic tradition, using it as a tool for identifying preferences and improve the performance of a business is certainly a few steps outside of this tradition.
A common way of interpreting Platonic Quality is as an "underlying pattern" or "ordering principle". This pattern shows up to human beings through particular objects and experiences in the world around us. An analogy often used to explain this idea is the pattern of “Math” (with a capital M).
When we think of Math, we tend to picture specific numbers and symbols, such as 3, √9, and 42. Like all other numbers, these are tangible expressions of a pattern. We can consider how they'll interact if we add, subtract, multiply or divide them – how the particulars will behave in respect to the pattern. This pattern is easily recognized with reference to particular numbers, but nearly impossible to isolate from specific numeric expressions. Try for a moment to picture Math, without thinking of any particular numbers, symbols, or algorithms. Difficult, isn’t it? Some argue it’s not possible at all.
Quality functions in a very similar way.
When we think of qualities, (without a capital Q) we’re used to thinking of particular experiences of Quality – a good cup of coffee, a bad smelling sewer pipe, an outstanding company, or a beautiful logo. In the cases of both Number and Quality, we experience the underlying patterns, but only as they show up to our senses – through particular experiences.
From Particulars to Patterns – The Excellence Formula
Plato sought to better understand the pattern of Quality by looking at particular expressions of it, and then by grouping similarities. From disparate experiences, he collected class concepts in the pursuit of Goodness and Beauty.
This process of reasoning – of moving from particulars to general concepts and patterns, and subsequently looping knowledge of patterns back into particulars – is fundamental to a wide range of applied and natural sciences. It can play an equally important role in the business world; it allows us to make inferences about preferences and behavior (among other things), and to subsequently refine our firms based on newfound input. Understanding patterns of excellence allows us to apply knowledge of “what works best”, into our unique set of circumstances and particular projects.
Excellence is Always in Process
As we come to identify patterns of excellence, we can incorporate our “findings” into further nurturing excellence in our businesses, management styles, or anything we’d like to perfect. The goal of this process is NOT to reach some kind of “final understanding”, but instead, to become experts in analyzing, refining, and creating responsive solutions.
If you’re a veteran business owner or manager, you already know that nothing is static. New technologies sprout up at a more-than-constant pace, competition figures out new methods for stepping ahead, and customers themselves change preferences and purchasing behaviors. This indelible formula reminds us how to open our critical eyes, and keep them open.
For Plato and his teacher, this practice was fundamental to determining how to live well – to discovering what was Good, and how to live in light of it. While this article stops a bit short of “how to live well”, it’s interesting to note how this process can be mapped onto different facets of life and work. While the inputs (or particulars) change, the process and it’s “goal” remain constant. Use particulars to discover patterns of excellence, use patterns of excellence to refine particulars, and use these refined particulars to further understand patterns as they evolve. At root, we develop and improve by using sensory experience to better understand "excellence", and then learning how to live (or operate our companies) in light of that understanding.
By refining our understanding of patterns, we gain an understanding of what excellence means for the whole - in this case, the company. By identifying the excellence of a whole, we become more effective at ensuring that its component parts work together to service a flourishing whole.
Out of the Abstract: Kittens Riding Dinosaurs?
All this talk of particulars, and patterns, and refining, and excellence is jolly well and good, but theory is only smoke and mirrors if it doesn’t work in the concrete world around us. Let’s end with a concrete example of a company that used this formula to identify some characteristics of excellence in their own niche, and used this knowledge to scale success.
Last April, we were approached by a company that buys and sells generic products on line – let’s call them PQR. They came to us with a clear understanding of their client base – 20-some-year-olds looking for well-priced generic goods in the New York area – and they wanted new ways of distinguishing themselves from major online retailers.
They had established a decent client-base by using coupons, but wanted to secure repeat business in order to drive profit. They were convinced that doing so meant earning their client’s appreciation, and that this meant a bit more than having the best prices. They were right.
By digging into email logs, customer surveys, and all other opinionated data at their disposal, they teased out a pattern that defined excellence in their particular niche. Ultimately, this has helped them retain clients, expand sales, and scale profit margins. When they first reached out to us, they were looking for new ways of applying knowledge of this pattern.
“Okay”, we asked. “What’s the pattern?” Their response was super simple: “A human company with sense of humor.”
For PQR, refining and defining excellence – and earning repeat business in a highly competitive market – meant reminding their clients that they’re dealing with real people that live and breath, and yes, perhaps show some wit from time to time. PQR used their 3s and 9s and 42s to discover that a sense of humor (and a customer experience that feels a bit better than buying random things from robots) was a trait that their clients valued highly. They recognized a pattern that connects their clients, and are using it to identify new particular ways of showing their clients just how excellent PQR is.
When PQR got in touch with us, they were looking for pretty ways of printing kittens ridding dinosaurs onto their order forms and packing slips.
What Ordering Excellence Might Feel Like:
Picture this: You’re 24, you live in Williamsburg Brooklyn, and you’ve just ordered something on line. It’s supposed to reach you within two weeks, and a quick three days after you hit enter, the mailman rings and gives you an immaculate package, with a pretty picture of kittens ridding dinosaurs, artfully faded in next to the barcode. If you’re anything like me, your first thought is probably: “I love kittens and dinosaurs”!
You go upstairs, unwrap your new coffee mug, or pencil sharpener, or karaoke machine, place it on the counter, and smile off to the next room to show the dinosaurs to your roommate. If the price and product are what you expected, I’m willing to bet that you’ll order your next one-size-fits-all product from the oh-so-lovable PQR.
Because these guys are awesome. Someone in that company has taken the time to graft kittens onto dinosaurs, put them onto your otherwise indescript product’s package, and send it across the world to your front doorstep. The package’s face is one of the first things you experience of this company, and the awesome image immediately tells you there are real human beings working there.
Discovering Quality in the Contemporary:
So, maybe your clients have no interest in kittens on dinosaurs. While I find that hard to believe, it’s not the point. What this example shows is that the process of discovering patterns of excellence in your market allows you to identify new ways of showing your clients that you’re exactly who they want to be dealing with.
Excellence will mean something different in each particular case, but the process of collecting particulars into a comprehensive understanding of Quality provides benefit to anyone engaged in the process. Developing knowledge of the underlying patterns allows you to play with component parts in order to form a more excellent whole.
By the way, if you think that kittens riding dinosaurs (or any other kind of packaging graphics) might support your company's overall flourishing, be sure to check out Moogento. They'll get you set up with package beautification, lickedysplit.
Attribution (with a big spoonful of gratitude):
Image 1 (Title): Used and modified with permission: Links: https://www.flickr.com/photos/glynlowe/16120891924/in/photostream/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/giopuo/345913721
Image 2: Used and modified with permission: Link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/marfis75/4084432934
Image 3: Used and modified with permission: Dino link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/orinrobertjohn/4310208305 Bar code link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/valeriebb/2683653952