I was supposed to fly to Baltimore this morning to do in-home research throughout the week. With the impending “perfect storm of the century” bearing down on the East Coast, that has obviously been cancelled. I’ve been watching this storm approach since late last week trying to figure out if/how it would affect my business plans. By mid-day yesterday (Sunday) I cancelled the trip. The funny thing is, I got an email from the recruiting firm in Baltimore (that we use to help us line up consumers for the research) late afternoon stating that “we are fully planning to conduct business as usual both within our office and outside of our office”. It went on to say that if we did encounter any issues (like a delayed flight in) to please advise them, and they would help us navigate through any complications.
Unexpected delays? Really??? It turns out my flights had already been cancelled (24 hours in advance – I’ve never had that happen before). The Eastern Seaboard has shut down almost all public transportation. Baltimore alone had 7 Severe Weather Warnings as of this morning, predicting massive power outages, severe flooding, devastating winds, etc. But it’s good to know that my contact there was welcoming us in and letting us know they’d help us if we ran into any inconveniences.
Optimism is one thing. But burying your head in the sand is quite another. I’ve never personally met the guy that sent me the email, I’m sure he’s a great person. But how can anyone be so oblivious? Yet having said that… I see this in business all the time. People are warned about incoming storms, they see it on the horizon, but they remain convinced that it won’t impact them Be it economic, or personnel related most corporate crises were obvious in coming, when looking backward.
Running a business is really not that much different than planning for a storm. We need to be constantly watching the horizon, listening to the news and being aware of our surroundings. When we hear of an impending storm, we need not panic, but we should put contingency plans into place. We need to set aside ample reserves in the good times to get us through rough stretches. And we need to invest in the future to make us more resilient for future storms.
I pray that our contacts in Baltimore all weather this storm safely. But my guess is it won’t be business as usual, and they’ll probably have to deal with some unexpected delays. As for me and my business, I’m going to take this as a good reminder and lesson.
When we think of innovation, it typically brings a given personality to our minds. Steve Jobs, as an example was an iconic innovator that brought many great products to life. But a recent study by Forbes, show in fact that there are five different personality types required for successful innovation. Their examples lead me to think of the work I used to do in forming high-performance work teams. It is crucial to have diverse personalities involved to ensure that all perspectives are covered and the goals are met. With innovation, there’s no difference. For every dreamer, you need a realist. For every big-picture visionary, you need a number-cruncher. No one personality working in isolation, can bring successful innovation to the market. I encourage you to read their article on this study “The Five Personalities of Innovators: Which One are You?”. Is your organization well staffed to cover each of these areas? If not, is this something you need to adjust in order to improve your percentage of successful launches? I think this is well worth considering.
It’s commonly believed that the most innovative companies are those that have the best original ideas. I don’t believe that. If there was some way to formally test this, I would. I imagine it would look something like this. Choose ten well-established companies and give each of them an idea that would change their industry. Put no strings on this idea, no obligations no risk of lawsuit (okay we’re suspending believability at this point, but stay with me). Literally give each of them the holy grail of new ideas. What do you think would happen?
My guess is this:
- Four of the companies would table the idea, labeling it as a long-term objective that they could pursue once their near term (hopelessly incremental) ideas have been implemented. The idea would never surface again
- Three of the companies would indefinitely bat the idea around because they can’t decide which department should champion the idea
- Two would reject the idea outright because they would not have the current distribution network to get the product to market
- The final company would pursue the idea, but abandon it once they hit the first internal obstacle during the development process
Hmmm, have I really become so jaded as to think that no company can bring an innovative new company to market? No. But I do believe that less than 10% of corporations would really give the idea it’s due. It’s not the competition that’s making life tough, it’s the inability to move forward in a bold way, even when a game-changing opportunity presents itself. Take a close, honest look at your organization. Could you bring this idea to market? What barriers exist that would cause you to overlook the opportunity? Who is the idea killer on your staff?
Before you begin your next innovation project, I’d suggest asking yourself these questions and addressing them in a proactive manner. It will increase the return on your innovation investment exponentially!
We all know that it is important to sell our products or services based on the benefits they provide, not on the features they contain. But why is that so hard to do? We just had an internal meeting this morning on some of the services our company offers. One of the key phases of our process is Ideation, a time that we spend with our clients digesting what’s been learned from their consumer and generating ideas for new products and services that can meet their (newly discovered) unmet needs. We’re always trying to make this process more valuable to the client, so after each project we brainstorm ways (internally) to improve for the next time.
One area that we became aware of in this discussion is that we have been very focused on showing our clients all the work that we’ve done. It’s not uncommon for us to agree (contractually) to study fifteen people, but actually interview more. Since we’ve gone above and beyond what was expected, we’ve always been determined to make that known… After all, giving the client more than what they expected is a great thing, right? As we discussed this, we came to the realization that highlighting the amount of work that we did can actually dilute the message we’re trying to promote. It’s not that doing extra work is wrong, but the focus has to remain on highlighting the benefit of our learning to our client. Looking at websites of other professional service firms shows me that we’re not alone. Everyone wants to share their process and convince you how hard they will work on your behalf.
Isn’t that really the struggle for all companies? Putting the consumer benefits on a product package does not give ample credit to the marketing and engineering folks that spent countless hours developing specific features. Our pride gets in the way. ”If we don’t tell them what we’ve done, how will they ever know?” Of course the consumer sees this at retail, gets quickly overwhelmed and wonders, “Why do I need this”? To be really successful, we need to put our pride aside, and focus our products on the benefits that are valued and provided. If we do this well, the features (and effort) we provide will not go unnoticed.
We held our first Indiana Innovation Awards ceremony the other night, where we recognized ten different winners from around the state. The diversity of the winners was impressive. We recognized big companies such as Whirlpool Corporation and Delta Faucet, family companies like Jackson Systems, start up companies like Courseload and My Farms and even an Indianapolis based non-profit; People for Urban Progress. These organizations all serve different customers across diverse markets. Their budgets and organizations vary dramatically. Yet each winning team seemed to have one key element in common. They’re all rebels.
If you stop and think about it, it makes perfect sense. A person that is wired to be content with the status quo will probably never be an innovator. It takes a person willing to swim upstream, to take some political risks, to venture into unexplored territory. As each team’s story was unveiled it became clear that they were led by rebels. Many of the teams told us that their project was nearly killed at some point, due to management pressure, lack of funding, or seemingly unsurpassable roadblocks. Yet their perseverance saw them through to eventual success.
Isn’t it odd that in our culture we try to “correct” this trait out of people? Starting in elementary school the child that views life differently is “encouraged” to conform. I will never forget my early days of my corporate career. I hired in out of college ready to set the world on fire. For the first six months, I was basically told to sit down and shut up and learn to do my job the way my predecessor (and his before him) had always done it. One of my earliest reviews actually stated that I did not work well with others and that I struggled to comply with established company procedures. In my conversations with others, it seems this is not an unusual orientation to a new organization. Sometimes I’m amazed that enough people stick it out to provide us with any innovation at all.
So with this blog, I give a virtual toast. ”Here’s to the oddballs, the mis-fits, and the rebels that can’t be satisfied with the way things are. May you always see life as an opportunity and your job responsibility as that of a change-agent. It is people like you that make this country great and that ultimately drive our economy. Cheers!”
The winners have been announced for the upcoming Indiana Innovation Awards. In preparation for the upcoming ceremony on Sept. 26, we have been traveling to the offices of the winning companies to capture video that will be shown during the evening. The winners range from non-profits to huge corporations to pure start up enterprises. One fact fascinates me on this. Regardless of the size of the company, the winning innovation came out of a small group of people that had a dedicated project leader. Delta Faucet won with their highly successful touch faucet and Whirlpool Corporation won with a highly innovative new Side by Side Refrigerator. Both of these mega-companies have literally hundreds of employees at their disposal. However, when we went to do the interviews, it was a handful of people that came forward to be interviewed. While the approval process and downstream portion of the projects involved a multitude of support functions, the core of each product came from a small entrepreneurial team. In this regard, the culture and style of these groups was amazingly like their counterparts in the smaller companies (that may only have 4-5 employees). Both companies alluded to the fact that for portions of their projects they needed to “fly under the radar” to keep the project moving smoothly and efficiently. In some instances they had to “re-interpret” corporate policies and processes to be effective. Bottom line, it took an individual willing to take some risks and stick their neck out for something they believe in. They spoke of being innovative in spite of the large company wrapped around them.
The small firms we talked with spoke of “doing what it took” to be successful. Be it all night white board sessions, or beer and pizza infused brainstorming efforts, they came up with ideas that were worthy of winning as well. They spoke longingly of big companies and the resources available to them. ”If only we had…” was not an uncommon mantra. In reality, it was once again a leader with a vision that led to their success.
Just an amusing observation. The big guys carve out groups to act like start ups. The start ups, long to be big guys. It seems to me that aptitude, determination and leadership were far more important to successful innovation than the size of the organization from which it came.
In the past few years, we have interviewed literally hundreds of consumers about a variety of products and services. Some of my favorite interviews take place with couples. I’m convinced you get the most “truthful” feedback when you interview two people (in relationship) as opposed to just one. It’s not that anyone is trying to be deceitful, but people don’t always see themselves (or their own behavior) in the truest of light. They portray themselves in an idealized manner, either consciously or not. When we do the same interview with a consumer and their partner, discrepancies will often be called into the light.
Just yesterday we were interviewing a couple about their past purchases of a new product and it’s ongoing usage. The outspoken husband was telling us in great detail about how he uses a given product. I noticed his wife making some subtle reactions, but remaining quiet. Before long, she couldn’t contain herself any longer, and jumped right into the conversation. ”That’s not at all what you do”, she said. Then she went on to give her perspective on his product usage. Naturally, this led to quite a debate between the two of them. When the discussion finally wound down, they both agreed that the actual behavior was somewhere between what either of them recalled on their own.
This illustrates two points. First, the best path to consumer understanding is real time, in-context observation. However, this is not always possible or practical. The second point is, people don’t always see themselves in a true light. Having another on hand to interact with can bring you closer to reality.
I had an odd thought in the shower this morning… I like playing board games. I’m not obsessed with them, but I still find them an appealing diversion from time to time. It hit me that being successful in the workplace is very similar to winning in a strategy board game.
Any given day is like a turn in the game. You have a fixed number of hours to invest, and you must choose wisely how you do so. I can envision a series of gauges, that measure where I stand at any given point. These gauges could represent items like “Manage current business”, “Invest in Future Business”, “Network with Others”, “Increase Knowledge”, “Focus on Employee Morale” etc. Each gauge could have a bright red line that indicates a dangerously low level, meaning that if your score in that area drops below a certain number, there will be dire consequences. On any given day, it’s impossible to invest an ample amount of time in each category, but over the course of multiple days (turns), it is critical that no area be ignored.
Like any good game, life throws unexpected twists at us. “Your project manager has appendicitis and will be out of the office for two weeks”, or “Your newest client just had their budget slashed, and is forced to cancel their current contract with you”. The impact these events have on you are directly affected by your scores e.g. “Because your networking score is high, the cancelled contract has minimal effect on your long term cash flow”, or “Your Future Business Investment score is too low, the cancelled contract will force you to lay off two employees”. Ignore other areas of your life, and you’ll also suffer consequences. “Due to your excessive number of hours spent at the office, your wife has expressed high frustration with your marriage. Take an unplanned four-day weekend to patch things up.” Inevitably, there will be those that play this game as if everyone is an opponent, and there will be those that take a team-based approach. Going it alone? That’s a high-risk/high rewards path. You might win, but watch your back. Playing as a team? Your progress might be a bit slower, but your odds of making it to the end are much greater.
We play this game every day. How many of us are watching to ensure we have some semblance of balance? How often do we strive to win in one area only to find that we’ve sacrificed in others? I think I’m going to build some gauges and put on my wall.
There’s been a lot of thinking and writing done on market segmentation. Companies have spent small fortunes with consulting companies to help them identify the key segments that they want to target, so they can uniquely deal with each of them. I have seen this done to the point that each segment has a descriptive personality associated with it. The following are actual excerpts from one such study that I’ve come across:
People falling into the X segment would share the following traits:
- Is likely to bowl in a Saturday morning league
- Is likely to eat at the same three restaurants repeatedly
- Cares about the way they look and dress, but never want to stand out from the crowd
- Does not speak a second language
- Drives an American car, that was bought used
- Will cry at movies, but will not speak openly about it
- and many more…
Keep in mind, these characteristics reflect only one segment of the five that were identified for the company. Each of the other four had their own descriptors. While this paints a vivid picture of different consumer groups, I have to ask the question, “So What?“. When I see such reports, I always wonder why I don’t personally seem to fit into any single group, but rather share traits across many of them. Does that mean I’m not a consumer? Granted, not all segmentation studies are as graphic as the one I’ve cited above, but I do feel that most share many of the same absurdity as this one does.
The above study was done for a multi-billion dollar company that sells products under several different brand names. So to some degree it makes sense to understand the “personality” of each brand that you are offering. The problem is that many smaller companies want to emulate this process and do similar segmentation for their own customers. That is where this methodology ceases to make sense. The way I see it, it can and should be much simpler. For my own company, I take the following approach. As I consider the universe of potential customers that we could serve, I first recognize that there are those companies that have heard of us, and those that have not. For those unfamiliar with our services, my goal is to create an awareness that we exist. But as I consider this macro segment, I know that this group can be divided into two sub-segments, those that currently need the services we offer, and those that don’t. My goal is to approach these two sub-segments differently. For those that currently need our services, we utilize a “pull-marketing” approach. In essence, our goal is to provide this group first with an awareness that we exist, then entice them to contact us through a variety of ways. Making it simple to get ahold of us, and learn more information is critical to being successful here. For the group that is not currently in the market for our services, my goal is again to create awareness of our existence, but to also show how our services can benefit them when they find themselves in need. In this case I use a “push-marketing” approach, where we send information (via post, email, or social media) that hopefully catches their attention and helps them to remember us when the time comes.
For those prospects that have an awareness of us, we essentially follow a similar approach. Push/Pull. Educate those that don’t have a need yet, and entice those with a need to give us a call. For our purposes, that is effective segmentation. It’s not perfect, but it seems to be effective. Now, if I could only figure out which prospects are most likely to cry at a movie…
I woke up yesterday with back pain. While I’ve had a sore back before, this was different. I assumed I had “slept wrong” and that was the culprit. But as the day progressed I began to wonder if it was actually something else. I’ve watched my wife endure several bouts of kidney stones, and based on the pain she experienced, it was clear to me that this was not something that I wanted to emulate. So, I searched the internet to see if my condition is in fact kidney-stone based. I found the following image:
Granted, the body in this illustration is shaped differently than my own (thank goodness) and the marked pain is on the opposite side than I am experiencing. However, this (along with the accompanying text) was sufficient to convince me what I am in for. A quick call to my Dr. and I learned that there is nothing they can do to help me; I just have to drink lots of water and let it pass. They did write me a prescription for Vicadin (which probably makes me think this blog entry is much more clever than it really is), which was very helpful. They also asked me to “capture” the stone if at all possible, so they can see what caused it. That should be no problem, since the same web site that helped me to self diagnose, shows me how to capture the stone…
Once again, I can see where I will have to use some imagination to develop the tactics specific to my situation.
I woke up this morning feeling much better. I foolishly assumed that I must have passed the thing last night and I was over the hurdle. Guess what, mid-morning and the pain was completely back…
And that really does make me think of the current state of many businesses.
- There’s much pain to be endured at the moment, but there’s hope in sight.
- If we can survive the present the future holds great promise.
- There have been some false moments of hope, only to find that we still had a ways to go.
As my mother always used to say, “this too shall pass”. In the meantime, pass the Vicadin.