The Year of the Horse

This article first appeared in the Correctional News March/April 2014 edition. See it here.

It’s the Chinese year of the horse and that means a lot of hard work, and a lot of reward. Even in this early part of the year we can already see the work of past years paying off. The floodgates have opened and behind them come the headwaters to what will burgeon as a roaring river. We have AB 900 money and construction documents being released with wild abandon, building conversions to healthcare facilities playing catch-up to meet the demands of a massive problem, reentry facilities and programs booming, and a rush of SEC security upgrades for ageing facilities all over the country.

The rush is on, people.

But before you bring a raft to this river party, consider something more sustainable, like a tanker. Rushes are great but they eventually settle into a tranquil calm. Preparation for the calm is just as important for preparation for the rush.

Many firms, whether architects, consultants, general contractors, engineers, DECs, SECs, or vendors will be rushing to consume the work that’s been released. If the beginning of this year is any indication, we will all have a hard time keeping up. Though, yes, it’s a good problem to have, forgetting to prepare for the calm will bring about a drought if we lose sight of a few business truths.

In his marketing classic, Marketing Myopia, Theodore Levitt challenges several myths of growth. The first is the population myth: the idea that affluent population growth (in our case, a growing availability of useable funds) ensures profits because more free cash equals a larger consumer base. Logically, this makes sense because more available riches equal more profits. However, its associated assumption that this larger consumer base will stay with the company for an infinite amount of time is not true. It’s not true because of a simple, utterly human fact: an automatic market means an automated response. Without an automatic market, companies are forced to think creatively on how to expand their reach. With an expanding market, the opposite occurs. As Levitt explains, “If thinking is an intellectual response to a problem, then the absence of a problem leads to the absence of thinking.”

Deeper into this line of thought we discover that companies too narrowly define what it is they do. When we don’t grasp the ultimate need we fulfill for our customers, we miss markets or opportunities within our current markets that are screaming for our services. A classic example of this is the railroad system and its steady growth decline. As it began to decline, there was no lack of people or product that needed to get from one place to another. Though cars and planes entered the picture, they could not meet the full need of the market for moving people and things.

The reason lies in the industry’s perception of themselves – they did not identify themselves as transporters. They stopped short of the broad picture and considered themselves railroad companies. The sophisticated train system in Europe is proof enough of the major financial, cultural, and environmental loss the U.S. system missed for defining their ultimate service too narrowly.

We recently realized that we had fallen victim to this same pattern of thinking after engaging a marketing firm to help us with a re-messaging project. We used to say that we “did security for jails.” This was faulty for several reasons: one, no one knows what that means and the non-industry person invariably thought we provided security officers; two, “security” didn’t explain any of the service offerings we had built like BIM modeling, design/build services, or the other markets we served, and others; and three, “security for jails” doesn’t say anything about the higher need we serve.

Our marketing firm led us to Zion. They showed us that we don’t design and install security technology. We provide the priceless feelings of safety and liberation. Their pitch unfolded like a Coca-Cola commercial. When you feel safe you are free to be yourself, to interact with those you may have shied away from, to move unencumbered through the world. They told us to envision rival neighborhoods interacting as neighbors because of the sense of security they felt because of our systems. They told us to feel the relief of parents when they see a security system installed in their child’s school. Freedom from fear lets us live at our fullest potential, and that is precisely is what our product is: freedom and safety. And we’re going to save the world doing it.

When you feel safe you are free to be yourself, to interact with those you may have shied away from, to move unencumbered through the world. 

Not just us – you too. That’s not just the Sierra message, that’s each of our messages. Each participant in this industry is working toward the same goal of keeping our colleagues and communities safe and free from fear.

To do this, we need to be the leaders of our own market. Levitt also exposes the myth that our products and services have no substitutes. We all know the cliché that “no one person or company is indispensable,” but we’re guilty as an industry of believing other clichés like, “corrections is a recession-proof industry,” and “as long as there’s evil in the world, we’ll have a job.” With the number of dissipating firms in the last few years, the market has proven that the forces that be are stronger than what we’ve given them credit for.

When we believe that there are no substitutes for our products and services, we create a doorway for competitors from other industries to enter. Yes, firms in corrections have high barriers to entry and yes, it’s an industry built on long-term relationships, but it’s not impossible to get a few jobs here and there before really becoming a threat to existing businesses. When we don’t perceive competition on our heels, we stop thinking. When we stop thinking we become a group of betas, unprepared for an attack by a new, faster, smarter entrant.

We’ve seen new entrants to the market contribute great products and ideas that are improving facility operations. While many are carefully gauging our industry for potential, let’s make sure we’re coming up with good ideas and planning for the future while we throttle to keep ahead of the work.