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The D Series: Tools to succeed at innovation

It’s never okay to be ‘just okay’ at your job

 

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Originally published on May 2, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/its-never-okay-to-be-just-okay-at-your-job/article29807629/

If you are one of those people who gets out of bed every morning to make a difference, your commitment to entrepreneurship is alive and well. And if your energy is rooted in audacity, you’re ahead of the game. Some may consider audacity to be a negative concept associated with attitude or edge, but it’s your willingness to challenge assumptions and conventions that will catalyze innovation and business success. As entrepreneurs, if we don’t have the audacity to believe in ourselves and our ideas, who will do it for us?

Two of the biggest barriers that we face in bringing new ideas to the world are the naysayers who assert: “That’ll never work, because…,” and the faint-hearted friends who say: “You have a family to feed, your dreams will have to wait.”

But recently I heard a new declaration and it will stay with me for a long time.

First, you might remember that in a previous column, I encouraged entrepreneurs to attack their sluggish markets by attending more industry events, dinners and trade shows – to get out of the office to find new ideas and fresh prospects. I even set a personal goal of attending 50-per-cent more events this year.

Well, sitting at a recent event, I heard the story of a former entrepreneur who quit to become a manager at a large company.

Why did he make such a drastic change? His answer, “Why bother being an entrepreneur when you can work in ‘the middle’ of a big company where it’s okay to be JUST OKAY?”

Wow! I finally understood the meaning of the “frozen middle.” It’s a term often used to describe the thickest part of an organization, the forbidding wasteland where ideas go to die. Great new notions may trickle down from the top of the organization, or begin at the bottom and percolate up, but in urban business mythology, they all die in the frozen middle.

Never having worked for a multinational, I assumed the frozen middle was no more real than the Land of Oz. I mean, who would ever want a huge part of their organization to be “just OKAY”? Back when I owned a manufacturing firm, we received a large order from a major retailer. A few friends warned me, “They are going to be very demanding, and your company is going to have to be exceptional to work with them.” I shrugged my shoulders and replied, “I don’t want to own a company that is anything less than exceptional. So I see this as an opportunity to ensure that we are nothing less.”

To be clear, the frozen middle is not the fault of the middle managers, it is systemic. To quote a 2005 article from the Harvard Business Review, “the problem is the inability of the company’s middle-management team to carry it out.” Ironically, the article is entitled “Middle Management Excellence.” In it, author and consultant Jonathan Byrnes argues that the most important thing a CEO can do to maximize company performance is to build the capabilities of the middle-management team.

Great middle managers are on their way to leadership positions. They take the longer view by embracing proactivity and innovation, because they know that both the future of their company and their own future prospects depend on it. But they are hindered by archaic processes and institutional roadblocks.

For large companies that know in their hearts that their vast middle needs a defrost, it’s time for an industrial-grade heater. To create and maintain market leadership today requires a red-hot culture shift: openness to new ideas, incentives to perform and a culture of innovation that drives ideas to market. Make innovation a part of your performance reviews. Let everyone know that new ideas are the heart of your corporate culture. If middle managers see how important innovation is to the company’s leadership, they will begin to understand that the status quo is no longer worth defending. If you want intrapreneurs heating up your bottom line, you have to recognize and reward audacious behaviour.

There’s great news in this for fellow entrepreneurs. Bigger firms’ inability to pivot and develop new products and opportunities provide us the open door to break through and disturb the status quo.

Bottom line: You never know which innovation will prove to be a winner – but the act of innovation is always right. Entrepreneur or corporate behemoth, it’s never okay to be “just okay.”

Building a customer-centric brand for community retail

When I started Spyder Works almost 25 years ago, I was in the making promises business.  The firm created design, marketing strategy, advertising and promotion in support of clients’ brands.  Back then, I considered my job well done if I could attract legions of new customers into their stores.  After all, that’s what the ‘making promises’ business is all about in retail.  Attracting well-qualified traffic. The idea was that compelling advertising and promotions along with great store design and signage would delight our clients’ customers and build their brands.

As my relationship with retailers grew, I had the opportunity to travel from community to community and store to store.  What I quickly realized was that some stores have an important social role beyond just places to shop.  These stores are also like informal community centres where you run into friends and acquaintances, where you can chat and catch up, where you can make plans and stay in touch.

During my travels, and particularly during store visits across Canada, I saw first hand how powerful a sense of belonging can be.  Building and nurturing inclusive communities is one of the things we do best in Canada, which is really a vast connected landscape of tight-knit neighbourhoods.  Main street communities in Canada have many faces and are as diverse and unique as their urban counterparts. When main street communities succeed, the nation succeeds.

Community stores not only offer a welcome sense of belonging, they are also good for  business. 

After all, the longer people linger in a store, the greater the chance that they will buy more.  A welcoming store also increases the probability that your customers will return and develop a loyalty to your store and a stronger relationship with your brand.

I realized that all of the branding work you do, no matter how clever, won’t keep a customer coming back if the experience in-store doesn’t reflect the customer’s expectations on all levels of experience.  To properly serve our retail clients, Spyder Works also needed to be in the ‘promise keeping’ business.

How do you build a brand around the culture of ‘promise keeping’?

Businesses have to take it upon themselves to foster a sense of close-knit belonging in any environment whether it’s in a big city or a small town.  They need to evoke the sentiment of old-fashioned “Main Street” culture.  Retailers, marketers and agencies have the same goal when it comes to connecting with consumers, simply, to build a passionate community of customers that engage regularly with a brand.

The success of your customer relationships depends largely on how well you are able to engage your community.

Community stakeholders’ participation can help you shape your business to ensure you are responding to local preferences.  In community retail, the members in your community are not looking for just a cheque to support local causes, events or sponsorship – the community is looking for your participation, engagement and involvement.  How committed are you to where your customers live and work?  Ideally, you should be involved with your community from an early stage engagement; this will help you to form lasting relationships with community members to ensure a sense of belonging in a neighbourhood that everyone can be proud of.

In contrast, in all retail, where your front line people are face-to-face brand ambassadors, employee turnover can leave your brand perilously exposed.   Without a solid foundation, your brand is at risk of not keeping the promise that it communicates to everyone.  That’s why, at Spyder Works, we feel that it’s important to look at branding from both sides of the coin, outward and inward facing.  This insight has lead us to design learning programs and workshops to extend your brand to the in-store experience, embracing your corporate values and your mission with the people responsible for keeping your brand promise with your customers… your front line team members.

Retailers need to complete the branding circle to survive in the economy of relationship building. 

At Spyder Works with our retail clients, we have created ambitious brand strategies that more accurately capture the essence of brand by embracing community and engaging customers.  In this hyper connected world we are supporting our clients on the front lines of their stores, we can boldly claim that we’re no longer a half-branding company.

The secret to building a customer-centric brand for community retail is like maintaining a long lasting relationship with your close friends. Keep your relationship transparent and genuine.  Show up, stay in the moment, stay in touch, encourage and support them as they grow with you.

Isn’t it time to start thinking outside the cliche?

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Originally published on April 9, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/isnt-it-time-to-start-thinking-outside-the-cliche/article29537629/

Every time I hear somebody use the phrase, “Let’s think outside the box,” my frustration boils over. Such statements remind me why so many businesses today struggle and even fail.

People who believe they need to think outside the box have all missed a fundamental reality: It’s been a while since there was any “box” in business. There may be a status quo, but nobody goes there any more. It’s been replaced by continuous change.

The need for continuing innovation and course corrections should be glaringly obvious to all leaders and managers. I mean, really: Did somebody miss the fact that we can all communicate directly with our customers now in real time? Or that our wristwatches are now digital business and life assistants that speak to us and guide us through the day?

If we have to create a metaphor to replace “the box,” it might be a virtual-reality video game. These digital diversions are fast and all-absorbing. They engage all of your faculties, and get more difficult with every level.

We need to learn, understand and process the fast-changing business environments just as we navigate the next level of a game. We must constantly adjust, react to new threats, and take advantage of emerging opportunities. One slip and it could be “game over.”

How do you keep pace with continuous changes in the marketplace? For me, the one guaranteed success strategy is staying focused on your customers. In a World of Warcraft context, your customer is your game score. Delighting (or failing) your customer is how you win or lose.

With today’s immersive digital games, you slip easily into digital avatars or personae that bring you into new worlds of fantasy, combat or sport. Refocusing on your customer involves a similar transition: creating new models of customer behaviour that enable you to better understand their feelings and experiences, and thus engage them in stronger and deeper relationships.

Customer success today requires continuous commitment to developing and refining customer personae (models of your most important customer types) and customer journey maps (models of your customers’ experience as they move from initial contact to purchase to continuing relationship). These two approaches help you develop deeper knowledge of who your customers are, how and why they buy, and what challenges you face in keeping them as customers.

If you hope to take your business to the next level (as in the video game context), you first need to improve your knowledge of your customer. Be more curious. Ask more questions.

Customer personae bring each of your identified target groups to life in a personal and meaningful way. Developing customer personae means creating authentic, insightful descriptions of each target group that include:

  • Relevant details about their key needs;
  • Understanding of their unmet needs, or where your next opportunities lie;
  • Identification of “hot button” issues that can make or break sales opportunities and continuing relationships.

At my firm, once we have a clear understanding of who our clients are and what motivates them to purchase, we create a customer journey map for each identified target group. This means understanding all of the steps they go through in deciding to purchase our products and services:

  • Identification of need
  • Sourcing of solution provider
  • Modelling the customer’s decision-making process
  • Uncovering “tipping-point” factors
  • Driving purchase decisions
  • Assessing post-purchase satisfaction

So important are these customer-recognition insights that we post them on our office walls. They remind us why we are creating solutions in the first place. They articulate the decisions that our customers make and the steps that they have to follow to purchase and be happy with that purchase.

Once we understand that customers are always looking for something better, we can leave behind the “outside the box” cliché and start thinking inside our customers’ lives and aspirations.