In 2010, on a trip to Beijing, China, Mike Duke did what 100 million other people around the world do each week: he stepped into a Walmart to go shopping. But Duke wasn’t just a typical customer, he was also the company’s CEO. Walking through the store’s isles looking at products, Duke noticed something interesting about the bananas. The bananas Walmart sold in in Beijing weren’t from Beijing — they weren’t even from China at all; they were all imported. Duke turned to his teammate Doug McMillon, the leader of Walmart’s international division; “Bananas grow in China. Why don’t we sell local bananas?”

Within 24 hours, the Beijing Walmart was selling some of the cheapest bananas in the country, stocking locally-grown bananas that looked and tasted the same, but cost 20% less for Walmart and its customers. In a week, under Duke’s leadership, all 49 stores in Walmart’s Northern China Region carried local bananas, followed quickly by the rest of its 300 stores across the country. “It turned into a great conversation about opening price-point items: 10-packs of chopsticks, soccer balls, basketballs,” McMillon later commented in an interview. “We started looking around the store differently because of [Duke’s] attention to detail.”

But while Duke’s attention to detail helped Walmart capture shopper attention and international growth, it didn’t last long. In 2014, Duke stepped aside as CEO, admitting that his focus overseas caused him to overlook an even more important frontier: the internet. A year later, without selling a single banana, Amazon surged past Walmart in market capitalization to become the more valuable company for the first time. Walmart was on its heels, now fighting from behind to catch up in e-commerce.

Hopefully the lesson here is easy to spot. Successful people — particularly successful leaders — and winning companies are the one who find the right balance between the big picture and the details. Between short-term reality and long-term opportunity.

Focus too much on the price of bananas, and you miss the world-shaping trends (i.e., the internet, blockchain, economic populism and identity anxiety). In work, micro-management, inefficient perfectionism, or ‘boiling the ocean’ on projects sap speed, focus, and culture, putting more emphasis on ‘counting the bananas’ than big outcomes. In our personal lives, it’s just as easy to fixate on short-term social media news, what’s happening this weekend, or a particularly stark personal interaction, and lose sight of your broader arc and orientation through life.

But overlooking the details and over-indexing on ‘big thinking’ often leads to equally dangerous places. You miss early warning signs a brewing problem or relationship is in trouble. Goals don’t translate to things getting done. Gut decisions are made without considering the full information or consequences. Outcomes are too much window-dressing, not enough architecture.

The details are the magic and craft that make stories and experiences come alive, but unless you’re Nabokov plot usually trumps the fine print. Balance carefully.

In my next essay I’ll share some approaches and frameworks I’ve found helpful for striking a better balance between short-term and long-term thinking.

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One thought on “The Price of Bananas in China

  1. Solid points all. I practice and teach that the traditional separation between strategy and tactics has collapsed. From all aspects – time, team, context & process. Thinking is the new doing.

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