Think Like a Scientist, Act Like an Artist

People often talk about retail being both an art and a science, but what exactly do they mean by this? When I talk to the best retail Executives in North America - the ones who consistently outperform their competitors - I always find they think like scientists, but act like artists.

A scientist assumes everything is wrong. They are careful, detail-oriented, never jump to conclusions, check the gauges five times and then check them again. A scientist will lock the door to their house, get in their car, and then worry that they didn't lock the door and go back to check it. A scientist is basically paranoid! A scientist never believes the first answer they see, they don't jump to conclusions, they don't "know the answer" and then try to prove it; they always start with questions and slowly let the answers build.

An artist, on the other hand, sees the big picture. They see the integration - the fusing of data into one big picture and story. They are not frozen by ambiguity, complexity or the fog of war. They talk with conviction and emotion and are bold in their actions. In our boardroom, we have a picture painted by a Japanese Shodo Artist, and I guarantee that when you look at it all you will see is a circle and think "why the hell did Fusion spend $3K on a circle and put it on their wall?". When the artist first showed us the painting she talked for 10 minutes about that circle - how it is called an Enso, the meaning of circles, the link to Zen Buddhism, how the brush strokes turn outward to show action, how the brush strokes are strong and bold to show strength, the kind of brush she used and why, the kind of paper she chose and why and where the paper came from. This is how Artists think. And this, too, is how great retailers make decisions. They see how all the analysis comes together to form a story, something beautiful, something great, something that will transform their business.

All great retailers find the balance between the scientist and the artist, but most struggle to find the right mix. Many retailers are very certain in their thinking, jumping to conclusions because they are confident that they know why sales are down and what they need to do to lift them. However, when it comes time to take action, they just keep department budgets the same as always, invest in the same media, support the same categories, and run the same promotions they have always run. Maybe they'll do it a little better or a little faster this time, but ultimately they are making small, immaterial steps toward their goal, sticking to what they know and never pushing themselves to take a risk. They think boldly like artists but act timidly like scientists, but greatness comes when we do the reverse: think carefully like a scientist and then act boldly like an artist.

The secret to being a successful retailer and individual in general is to act like a scientist - careful with your thoughts, triangulating your data points, fusing your insights - and then not be afraid to jump and take a risk like an artist, embracing ambiguity and the unknown. The retailers doing this are the ones winning the war.