innovation strategy

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 It’s been replaced by continuous change.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.

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Putting people into a room together doesn’t make them a team

Originally published on February 1, 2016 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-managing/putting-people-into-a-room-together-doesnt-make-them-a-team/article28439210/

Sometimes the simplest insights are the most telling. And the most important.

Some time back, while I was working with an engineering client, our conversation circled back to his firm’s past attempts to encourage collaboration and innovation. In one sentence, he crystallized the challenge many of my clients have encountered in their attempts to change their corporate culture: “Just because you put us into a room together doesn’t make us a team.”

In a previous innovation exercise, his firm had taken steps towards creating its first cross-functional team, a popular tool for accelerated innovation. This “task force” model draws people from different areas of the organization – sales, marketing, HR, admin, research and development, and so on – to generate insights from all points of view, from customer needs to new product ideas, production and distribution. Theoretically, these teams can move forward fast, because they don’t have to wait for feedback or permissions from other departments. But this firm’s initial results with a cross-functional team were less than stellar.

Why? Because without a leader and a conductor who can provide the big picture and co-ordinate all of the players, you’re asking your people to work outside of what they know and do every day. Understanding how everything fits together isn’t a part of their job descriptions.

In addition to technical know-how, teams need strong leadership, direction, objectives and accountability (at minimum) if they want to be successful. As my client noted, these skills aren’t often taught in schools. His staff needed additional training to ensure that they could translate their business skills or technical brilliance into a team dynamic where the whole could truly be greater than the sum of its parts.

At my firm, we call this process transitioning the cross-functional team into a Dynamic Working Group (DWG). The purpose of the DWG is to create an environment in which high-functioning individuals are taught collaborative skills to help them work together to deliver productive, measurable outcomes.

Based on my facilitation of working groups within client teams, I can share some of the insights I’ve gleaned about successful collaboration and how to get everyone pulling together.

1. Leadership for performance: People don’t respond well to an inflexible “boss.” They are more successful when their leader attracts commitment and energizes people by creating meaning in their work. When the leader’s focus is truly on partnering with their team members to drive performance, leveraging frequency and quality of conversation, employees are more likely to commit to the goals at hand.

2. Discovering everyone’s strengths: There are benefits in building diverse teams of individuals drawn from different backgrounds with a range of skills, experiences and perspectives. Collectively, they represent your company’s DNA. The leader’s challenge is to take the time to understand and tap into the individual strengths of each team member.

3. Objectives and accountability: Successful businesses set objectives that are company-wide. Without objectives, a company lacks purpose. But simply setting business objectives is not enough. They need to be achievable, inspiring, easy to visualize and people must be held accountable for achieving them. If objectives are not aligned to a common strategic direction, then everyone in the organization will be working at cross purposes – leading to conflict, project slowdowns and reduced commitment to achieving results.

4. Meaningful meetings: In many organizations, meetings are taking up an ever-increasing amount of time. When meetings are held without preparation, agendas and action items, or used as a stalling tactic for decision-making, they diminish productivity and morale. Given the high number of people who normally attend cross-functional team meetings, strong leadership and a sense of purpose are essential.

To drive innovation and meaningful change in your organization, you need confident, vigorous cross-functional teams. Sustained innovation success depends on having team leaders who understand the big picture, relate well to individuals from different backgrounds, and have the communication skills to galvanize and inspire.

First you bring people together in the same room, and then you bring them together on the same page.

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Why your company is failing to innovate

Originally published on December 4, 2015 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-growth/why-your-company-is-failing-to-innovate/article27510973/

An executive recently said to me: “Our company has become very innovative. We have hundreds of ideas that we have analyzed and know are right for our future. We just haven’t been able to bring them to market yet.”

Strike one, strike two and strike three. This executive doesn’t know any more about innovation than he knows about hitting a 100-mph fastball.

Innovation is not simply about having an idea. It’s about commercializing ideas: Bringing them to market in ways that benefit your company and your customers. Having an idea may be insightful or even creative, but it certainly doesn’t make you innovative.

It shouldn’t be this hard. What could be simpler than having an idea and acting on it?

But according to Forbes magazine, it’s just not that simple. In a February, 2015, article entitled “Why U.S. Firms Are Dying: Failure To Innovate,” Steve Denning writes: “A new survey from MindMatters conducted this month suggests that many American companies are still in an ‘innovation crisis.’ ”

In the survey Denning cites, “only 5 per cent of respondents report that workers in innovation programs feel highly motivated to innovate. More than three of four say their new ideas are poorly reviewed and analyzed. And less than a third of the firms surveyed say they regularly measure or report on innovation.”

In my work with large and small companies, across many industries and countries, there seems to be three common and significant barriers to success.

The first barrier is transparency

We are better at hiding our ideas than bringing them to market. We write them on sticky notes, scrawl them on loose pieces of paper, or input them into notes apps on our phones – and then forget all about them. To be an effective innovator, you need inclusive transparency. You need to solicit ideas from your team and post them in a visible place in your office, along with the criteria used to judge them, identification of the leader tasked with bringing each project to market and the progress of each project. With this approach, innovation is an open-and-shared process, with consistent measurement and reporting.

The second barrier is improper resource allocation

Mr. Denning’s articles also reports: “More than four of five respondents (81 per cent) say their firms do not have the resources needed to fully pursue the innovations and new ideas capable of keeping their companies ahead in the competitive global marketplace.” Don’t overpromise. If you have resources to achieve just two projects, choose the best two and commit to them. Too many companies bite off more than they can chew. Trying to do too much usually produces nothing – other than creating one more perceived failure in your organization.

The third barrier is the lack of an innovation culture

Innovation may depend upon the activation of market-ready ideas, but it is driven by organizational attitude. Successful corporations today need an innovation culture that inspires people to seek new possibilities and embrace change in their day-to-day work. As Mr. Denning notes: “The challenge is systemic: While more than half the respondents (55 per cent) say that their organizations treat intellectual property as a valuable resource, only one in seven (16 per cent) believed their employers regarded its development as a mission-critical function. The lack of recognition for contributions to innovation is also striking: Almost half (49 per cent) believe they won’t receive any benefit or recognition for developing successful ideas.”

Don’t expect your team to act on new ideas in their spare time. It sends the message that innovation is a hobby, not a commitment. To achieve breakthroughs, you need to carve time out of your team’s workweek to devote to new projects and directions. (Google famously gives its best engineers a day a week to work on innovation ideas of their own creation.)

Your employees’ innovation successes also need to be recognized, both publicly and at their next performance review. There is nothing better than a public thank you – except maybe a share of the profits – to make people feel appreciated. These moves also reconfirm the organization’s recognition that its own people are the source of future success.

Innovation isn’t an idea on the back of a napkin; it’s a framework of resources and rewards that focuses your entire team on ideation, experimentation and product-market fit. A shared innovation agenda gives your organization greater ability to grow revenue, control costs and engage entire teams. Innovation also improves the customer experience, through the continuous introduction of new and improved product offers and services.

When the innovation process is shared and understood, there’s no more expecting unprepared batters to hit fastballs. When it comes to innovation, it takes a team to hit the ball out of the park.

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