In 1963, the Beatles invaded America, Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, and women in large part were striving to be thin. The enterprising Jean Nidetch saw and seized upon the great opportunity, and in 1963 Weight Watchers was born.
Since that time, we’ve seen tremendous evolution – from music to civil rights, to – frankly – feminism (because even today women still represent the majority of the Weight Watchers customer base). But by 2015 Weight Watchers was struggling to maintain and grow its enrollment. And as an enterprise, it didn’t understand why.
Its leadership ultimately made the strategic choice to partner with Oprah whose great affection for bread served as fodder for a new campaign that catalyzed a bump in its business.
Now to be clear – this is not the story of the downfall of an empire; Weight Watchers, after all, continues to persevere. It is, however, the story of an empire that stumbled unexpectedly – and had to respond quickly, reactively, defensively, rather than from a place of power.
So what happened? What did they miss?
What they missed was that women –like music and civil rights – had evolved. By 2015, many women had decided they wanted to eat better food, not less. They wanted to be stronger, not smaller. And they wanted to thrive rather than reduce.
This shift in thinking represented neither a sudden overnight change, nor a deep secret being kept by an underground society of liberal women. At any moment, a quick perusal of the headlines of women’s magazines would have provided the much needed insight.
So now the question is why did they miss it?
And what can leaders of other enterprises learn from this corporate slip on an errant banana peel?
Frankly there are countless ways in which this tale might be interpreted. In my own estimation, there are three essential lessons to be learned.
Lesson 1: Have the humility to strive for more
Humility is the antidote to hubris.
Without it, we presume ourselves to be omniscient, and in the process leave ourselves susceptible to being passed by.
In 1963 Weight Watchers was ground-breaking – it was a product of its time. But times – they are a-changing. And so, therefore, must any business model. Enduring companies offer products that meet the needs and demands of the modern consumer.
Customer insights from 1963 won’t drive product evolution in 2017. New insights must always been consumed and infused. And the first step to granting those insights entry is extending the invitation, in the form of humility.
As Jim Collins famously taught us, “Good is the enemy of great.” Weight Watchers was still good. So why search for something new?
Lesson 2: Investigate with a mind wide open
Humility is the key in the ignition. Investigation is the fuel that powers us.
With humility we acknowledge the need for insight and validation. But it’s an investigative mindset that fuels our exploration of the world around us, compelling us to pay attention to marketplace competition, to ask the important questions, and to be influenced by the responses we receive.
A slender frame for which the highest fashions are traditionally designed had always been the desired state for most women. But when the winds of change began blowing, it was the lack of investigation, of curiosity, that inhibited the insight to influence the business. And as a result, a disconnect began growing between Weight Watchers and its ideal customer base.
Lesson 3: Map out a series of micro-changes, and launch with intention
Micro-change is the new black. And it follows a thoughtful investigation.
With humility and insights in tow, the last lesson here is to plan ahead.
Some companies prefer the big-bet-and-lots-of-prayer strategy to reinventing themselves. Personally, I’m an advocate of the micro-change; the smallest increment of innovation we can imagine, tested planfully and thoughtfully over time, in the hopes of small wins, which accumulate and lead ultimately to big change with less pain and whiplash.
Weight Watchers didn’t have its eye on the ball – and by the time it realized it was losing ground, it needed a Hail Mary. The gesture had to be big and fast.
But when we’re armed with the insight that allows us to make predictions, we’re in a position to craft a plan that won’t necessarily make or break us in one fell swoop. Identifying small opportunities for change – and giving ourselves the grace to be wrong – is the way to go in 2017.
In summary, it’s important to note that the intent of this piece is not to shame Weight Watchers. After all, hindsight is 20/20. However, as long as mistakes are going to be made, then lessons should be learned. My hope is at this piece’s conclusion, you dear reader feel you’ve learned three.