Milking The Purple Cow

25 October 2006 Chris Ellins

How can you ensure that your business improvement initiative is successful? Chris Ellins, MD of Total Flow, reveals all, with the help of Seth Godin's book - Purple Cow.

Are you guilty of being very good and but not very remarkable? If you were to start with a blank sheet of paper and were unafraid of failure, what would be the most audacious thing you would try? What things are just not done in your industry?

These are the questions brought to mind by Seth Godin's book - Purple Cow. On opening the cover, I was engrossed by a hypothesis, that, if correct, rendered 99% of all business improvement irrelevant.

Once you've seen one cow, you've seen them all. A purple cow, on the other hand, is something memorable, something that you cannot fail to notice. Godin considers this to be the marketing tool of the future.


Godin's hypothesis is simple: most business leaders are inadvertently snuffing the life force from their business. Rather than encouraging their employees to banish their fear, clear their minds and propose audacious, rule-breaking strategies, many are consumed by insecurity, fear of failure and inertia.

The majority content themselves with competing for the centre ground, making significant efforts to stay close to the market leader or mimicking the successful behaviour of competitors, in essence, playing it safe.

Godin's view is that, far from being safe, this behaviour is downright risky. He argues that being very good is actually very bad and that unless you are noticed, talked about and sampled, you can kiss goodbye to any real prospect of long-term prosperity. He might have a point.

In Godin's world, the future lies at the limits. Being the most expensive, contentious, exclusive or principled is the only way to attract so-called 'sneezers'. Without them, Godin believes you are either dead or dying.


"Most business leaders are inadvertently extinguishing the life force from their business."

Sneezers are an unusual breed. They are usually among the first to adopt; they have a profound sense of otaku - an instinct for what is relevant and significant to their community - and have a compulsion to spread the word to those as fanatical as themselves.

Recognised as the voice of the people, their opinion is highly valued by those who have developed a resistance to the bland products and marketing offered by far too many corporations.


A couple of things struck me while reading this book. In my world of lean thinking and lean enterprise, the motivation of many companies to improve comes from a perceived or real pressure to reduce costs.

More often than not cost, reduction starts with learning to see waste and sensitising the organisation to recognise and differentiate value-adding from non-value-adding activity, and is followed by a series of shop-floor interventions intended to enable transformational process to flow at a rate sufficient to meet market demand.

What is wrong with that?, you might ask. Not much if the product or service being offered is in tune with the needs of its market, and plenty if the product or service is no longer valued or if theconsumer finds the sacrifices required to realise that value unacceptable.

If the first instinct of the lean community is to look inward, not only are market opportunities being missed but there a large proportion of what is being 'improved' should probably not exist at all.


The trick, if you believe Godin, is to turn lean thinking on its head. Rather than limit its application to reducing or eliminating waste, it should be used as a means to create wealth.

The lean traditionalists' view on this might be to argue that that is what all-lean enterprise programmes do anyway. By eliminating waste, products can be offered at such a low market price that all competition is dismissed. Perhaps this is true, but in the real world few have executed this strategy successfully.

"Being the most expensive, contentious, exclusive or principled is the only way to attract sneezers."

Far more tantalising is the almost limitless potential to grow a business by being faster, more differentiated, more flexible, more responsive, more tailored to the needs of your target markets.

Such an approach might not only bring together the historically disparate communities of marketing, sales and operations, but also help eliminate much of the resistance to change that most large improvement programmes seem to attract.

Launching a business-wide process to create ground-breaking propositions seems to me a much more inspiring message than one promising to prove that 90% of what gets done adds little or no value.


This approach takes a bit of courage and is not without risk. But is it any more risky than perpetuating the status quo or blindly pursuing a strategy of continuous improvement? Is there any real value in leading a programme of activity which, despite its sound and fury, signifies nothing?

Why not turn business improvement on its head? Next time you kick off an improvement initiative, stop and think – unshackled by fear, what remarkable proposition could your teams create? How remarkable could your organisation be?

Don't let insecurity, fear or inertia get in the way – find your purple cow.