Category Archives: Strategy

Project Management: Are we Solving the Right Problems?


Wrong way

I have met many project managers who approach their roles with dedication, thoughtfulness, and considerable diligence.  The body of knowledge in the PM field is growing, aided by the efforts of such groups as the Project Management Institute.  Rigorous certification programs are offered around the world, and many motivated people have pursued learning the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK).

Yet, in spite of all this effort, the evidence shows that we are not getting better at managing projects in our organizations.

Depending on the study you look at, between 37% and 68% of projects (in the IT field) are judged to be “failures” in that they did not meet expected outcomes (70% or lower completion of objectives), ran seriously over budget (by 160% or more), or blew past their timeline goals by a wide margin (180% or more).   The data for ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) and BI (Business Intelligence) projects is even worse.

So, what are we missing?

As you read through the analytical studies, a theme begins to emerge.  One researcher ascribes the shortcomings to our inability to analyze the business problems we choose to solve.   The IAG Consulting study referenced below explains the consequence in this way:  “Companies with poor business analysis capability will have three times as many project failures as successes.”

The PM solutions report referenced below asserts that the leading causes of project failures have to do with:

  • Resources: Lack of resources, resource conflicts, turnover of key resources, poor planning.
  • Schedules: Too tight, unrealistic, overly optimistic.
  • Planning: Based on insufficient data, missing items, insufficient details, poor estimates.
  • Risks: Unidentified or assumed, not managed.

But like the IAG people  they concluded that the NUMBER ONE cause of project failures is related to:

Requirements: Unclear, lack of agreement, lack of priority, contradictory, ambiguous, imprecise.

What makes matters worse is that even if the project is technically successful, too often it was just not worth the effort.   Who cares if we meet the requirements and meet our timeline and budget if the outcome did not materially impact our business?   Now if I reflect on my own personal experiences, I can recall numerous projects where we actually delivered on what our documented requirements were only to have the client (whether internal or external) say “well. . . thank you but this isn’t what I was imagining”, or “could you change it to do this or that instead”?   Who among us hasn’t been to that movie?   In fact I can recall a meeting with one of my past clients where we were discussing the question of requirements definition and the Senior VP of IT stood up and said to his people “if at the end the client is not happy, you just show them the requirements list!”   Yikes!  Really?  Let’s rub their face in it?  How did we degenerate into that kind of defensive action where the requirements list becomes little more than a “CYA” tool?

What was interesting to me about this example was that the executive I am describing was highly intelligent and worked for a well-regarded and quite sophisticated company.   But he was operating in a political climate where other operating executives were criticizing his team for their lack of responsiveness and effectiveness.  We are all a product of our organizational culture.

When you spoke to the project managers in that company, they, of course would describe how difficult it was to get clients to sit down and focus in a meaningful discussion about what they needed.

Why is this so hard?

I believe this is because we often ask the wrong questions.   When you sit down and ask someone what they want, they often can’t tell you.  If you show them some type of prototype, they can typically tell you what they like or dislike, but not everyone has a good imagination.   We are limited in our ability to articulate requirements because of our limited life experiences and our knowledge of what might be possible technologically.   It is hard for me to imagine something I have never seen or experienced.  This is why focus groups have gone out of fashion, as market researchers across the planet look for better ways to understand their customers.  The game is more about understanding what customers think and feel, instead of relying solely on what they say.

A BETTER line of questioning has nothing to do with requirements, but with what PROBLEMS I am trying to cope with as I conduct my job?  Let your customer service people express:

“I don’t have the information to answer customer phone questions about delivery status”; or “I feel if I had access to information about our products and pricing, I think I could sell the caller on different products or services.  Sometimes they order the wrong things”; or “we are way too slow in responding to requests for emergency service”.   Then, let your inventive technical people try to imagine how they might help with those things.  Once they have some ideas, they can share them with their client to test the viability.   Speak to them within the context of THEIR world, not yours.

creative problem solving frameworkThe Creative Problem Solving Process is one way I know to do a better job with the challenge of problem definition.  It uses an 8-step sequence of actions.   The orange section (steps 1-3) is all about understanding the problem(s) more deeply, and then choosing the most relevant ones to solve.   The yellow section (steps 5 and 6) is about generating solution ideas and choosing the best ones.  The green section (steps 6-8) is about execution planning. 

The main (and often surprising) insight is that the first three steps (1-3) consume as much as 50-60% of the time in the process! The discovery part of this section does not come from an interrogation of clients to solicit a list of requirements, but from the art of empathetic observation.    Here we are trying to go beneath the layer of superficial knowledge to gain a deeper insight into client emotions, biases, and motivations.

Too often we reject this notion because we allow ourselves to be trapped in a paradigm where we need to take immediate action, producing solutions – so that we are efficient.  I’m all for efficiency, but efficiently solving the wrong problem is not helping anyone.

Sometimes it pays to slow down.  Slower, often can be faster . . . and better.

Other Resources

Poor requirements definition is the number one reason for poor outcomes. (you can tell this article was written by a person with traditional PM training.) Why 37% of Projects Fail?

And another — which reinforces the issue that we aren’t solving the right problems (and are generally poor at defining requirements) Study: 68 percent of IT projects fail

And this one — argues that we haven’t improved at all in the last decade (in spite of the energy put into better PM skills) 62 percent of IT projects fail. Why?

Source Data from IAG Consulting, their Business Analysis Benchmark

Source Data from PM Solutions Study

A reasonable primer on “Why Do Projects Fail?: Learning How to Avoid Project Failure”

More details on the idea that sometimes slow is fast. Slowing Down to Move Fast, by Len Brzozowski

Innovation management vs. project management thinking, Design thinking: A new approach to fight complexity and failure

More on market and client intelligence gathering. Driving Innovative Strategy Through Empathetic Observation, by Len Brzozowski

 

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Running the Gauntlet for Innovation


B787

If you Google the phrase “Boeing Stock Price and the 787”, you will find 1.7 million references.  Now I would have to say that I did not review every one, but all of the references on the first three pages were negative and critical of the company, its leaders, or the product.  Several bordered on being “alarmist”.

 

As reported in the article by Brad Stone and Susanna Ray, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s carbon-fiber body and new electrical system give it a reduced weight, which allows it to burn 20 percent less fuel than the 767 midsize airplanes it’s meant to replace. The interior cabin features cathedral-like archways to reduce the sense of claustrophobia and enlarged windows that dim at the touch of a button. Because of the new, stronger composite materials, the cabin can also be maintained at higher pressure and humidity, so travelers feel fresher at landing.   A remarkable piece of technology.  But this apparently isn’t what we like to read about. 

 

B787 InteriorAfter a battery caught fire after landing in Boston, and another one triggered a fault on a plane bound for Tokyo, the FAA grounded the entire fleet, casing Boeing and their customers some serious heartache.

 

The behavior by regulators, reactions by Wall Street analysts, and reporting by the world press just makes it that much easier to see how today’s CEO’s should act with more reserve, be less tolerant of risk, and more inclined to narrower visions.   There are considerable forces that seem to conspire to punish those who push the envelope.

 

I was thinking about Boeing this week after making a stop at Sarasota International Airport where the organization Freedom Flight landed three beautiful WWII bombers and fighters so that people like me could walk through them.  Events like this also brought out a number of veterans, many former pilots during that war, who were there with their hats on – pictures in hand – proud to tell their stories to the people they met.

 

I had the extreme pleasure to be standing in line with one of these veterans.  When he was 18 years old he was stationed in the Pacific as a part of the ground crew responsible for patching up the bombers after they returned from a mission – shot up, broken and limping.   He told me how excited they were in 1942 to receive the first of the new B29 Super fortresses from Boeing.  They were bigger, carried heavier bomb loads, were more heavily armed and flew farther than the B24’s, and B17’s they  were built to replace.

 

On one Sunday, he recalled vividly, we were all awakened at 0300 hours (that’s early) because of a crisis.    On one of the early missions, the hydraulic lines were found to be freezing so that the bombers could not retract their bomb-bay doors.  If you were ever a bomber pilot, you know how serious a problem this could be.   It turns out that Boeing had not anticipated that our pilots would fly these planes routinely at such high altitudes (which I imagine we all would do to avoid enemy anti-aircraft fire).   In the days when the cabins were not insulated or pressurized, the temperatures could drop below freezing pretty fast.

 

B17The maintenance crews worked around the clock to convert the hydraulic actuators to electrical ones far more impervious to the cold.  In this case, while the oversight by the aircraft engineers was serious, the attention of everyone was on “how to fix it” and move on.  That was the environment.

 

I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that was not the only engineering SNAFU to have happened on the various new versions of planes that were introduced during the Second World War.   Each one was introduced as an improvement on the ones that came before.   We always sought to learn from our prior air combat experiences and bombing runs so that we could innovate and improve on prior models.  In this way we steadily came to fly higher, faster, farther, and safer than ever before.

 

One thing is true about innovation.  Whenever you try something that you never have before, things do not always work as planned.  Innovation has risk, and without the acceptance of some risk, no innovation is likely.   Yes, we made mistakes, but we learned from them, quickly.   We fixed the defects and built onward from there.

 

In today’s world where we report on your mistakes, globally, within minutes, it is no wonder that CEO’s and their Boards get skittish.  This was especially so in 2003 for Boeing when the Dreamliner project was born.  The company had just been eclipsed by Airbus as the largest airplane manufacturer on the planet. After the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, airlines were reluctant to make massive new investments in airplanes.  So perhaps while Boeings execs and their Board needed something big, they couldn’t stomach the risks associated with such a massive undertaking.  If they stumbled, so too would their stock price.

 

So, in addition to all the exciting new technologies introduced on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the company also conducted a bold experiment with regard to its business model.  Designing and introducing a new generation airliner is a big task, costing billions of dollars.   To reduce their own risk, Boeing decided to partner with key external suppliers who would be asked to take responsibility for large subsections of the plane which could be built by them and then shipped to Everett, Washington for final assembly.   The suppliers took on a share of the overall project risk and in return were entitled to a share of the net profits.   In total, Boeing outsourced about 70% of the components and systems comprising the Dreamliner – something never before attempted.

 

Coordinating the manufacture of the more than 6 million parts was no small task even if it is all happening in your own back yard.  Doing so on a global scale proved massively challenging.   Coordinating design and manufacturing in this way proved extremely complex and the project was fraught with cost overruns, technical problems, and delays.

 

To many this whole story is symptomatic of a larger problem – – how to create innovation in mature economies – as most Western ones are.  Venture capitalist Peter Thiel is one who has seen it coming.    In the Stone and Ray article, he is quoted as saying “There is so much incrementalism now. Even back in the ’90s there were companies like Amazon (AMZN) that were willing to do big things. That has gone out of fashion now.” Thiel points to SpaceX and the electric car company Tesla Motors (TSLA), both run by Elon Musk, as the rare examples of recent attempts to leap forward boldly. Yet Musk often gets portrayed as a quixotic dreamer. “I think this reflects the insanity of our country, that anything non-incremental is seen as insane,” Thiel says.

 

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

 

This situation at Boeing in 2013 all seems far removed (both physically and philosophically) from the bases in the Mariana Islands in 1943 where my veteran colleague spent his later teen age years fixing what needed to be fixed in order that we could do what needed to be done.   It didn’t matter who was to blame, only what needed to be done to fix it.  Too bad we are forgetting where we came from.

 

Leading into the headwind

 

Standing up against the kind of public pressure faced by Boeing can be a challenge, but research is now revealing that innovative companies are typically led by innovative CEO’s (see the reference article by Hal Gregersen).  These are people who have the courage to ignore the noise and act in a hands-on way that demonstrates to their organization that bold ideas are indeed welcomed and anticipated.

 

Innovative CEO’s are innovation researchers. They read, go to TED conferences, visit supplier and competitor companies and venture out into the front lines where customers and employees live.  They ask provocative questions, and are always making surprising observations.  They network with other creative thinkers who think it is fun to speculate about the future.  They encourage idea generators inside their own businesses.  They encourage experimentation and are genuinely excited to learn the outcomes.

 

Maybe Elon Musk is a California nut-job dreamer.  But without people like him, would we ever take steps forward?

 

Do you want to be an innovator CEO?

 

First, stop talking—start doing. Pick a problem that matters to you. Start asking better questions about it. Make surprising observations, build on the ideas of others, build prototypes and see if you can make them work.  Get your hands dirty in invention.

 

You just might surprise yourself by how far your organization can go.

 

Other Resources:

 

Stanford Study Finds Going Public Hurts Innovation,by  Bernhard Warner on January 17, 2013, Businessweek.com

 

Closing the Great Innovation Gap, by Hal Gregersen on June 06, 2012, Businessweek.com

 

Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and the Decline of Innovation, by Brad Stone and Susanna Ray on January 24, 2013, Businessweek.com

 

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Bodymetrics—Innovation in Strategy and Business


BodymetricsI love to find interesting examples of new businesses or business models that are unique or reflect a subtle understanding of emerging trends.  I have found a good one, I think, in the company Bodymetrics, a British firm that started from a university research project. 

More and more of us choose to buy our products (including shoes and clothing) from on-line merchants.   But until now, finding out if they fit couldn’t be done until the product arrived and you found you couldn’t zip your new jeans, or perhaps found them to be undesirably baggy.

Bodymetric’s technology creates 3D body maps. Unlike the controversial systems used by TSA which take X-ray-like images, the Bodymetrics version only measures the outside dimensions of your body, converting them into a virtual 3D image.  They moved from the laboratory into British retailer Selfridges installing a pod that a customer could walk into and have their measurements taken.  It would then recommend which sizes and styles of clothes would be a perfect fit.

Here is a clip of one of these in-store pods.

The in-store pods, while expensive, were a big hit in London and in Palo Alto.   But the high price would not support a widespread expansion of the system.   The next generation is an in-home version selling for about $150 that uses Microsoft Kinect technology (the same motion sensing system used for video gaming on products like the Wii).  Now, at home in your work-out clothes, you can shop for, virtually try on, and add clothes to your shopping cart and make a purchase.   Check out this video featuring the in-home version.

What this story illustrates is that their business success is based on tuning into important shopping trends and emotional motivations, and responding to them in a creative manner.  Bodymetrics seems to recognize:

1)      that shopping can be a frustrating and overly time-consuming activity.

2)     that many people prefer to shop on-line, even though buying clothes in that way can be very “hit-or-miss”.  Yet many of us still would prefer the convenience of shopping from home.

3)     that we want and appreciate a customized shopping experience (similar to what Amazon does by feeding us suggested items based on our past browsing history).  We want to be communicated with as if the seller of services is speaking to and interacting with us on a personal level.  (As social media guru Seth Godin says, we don’t want to receive e-mail anymore.  What we want is “ME-mail”).

4)     the trends in mass-customization and democratization of fashion (putting consumers more in a position to influence shopping experiences and trends.)  Note the company Polyvore whose web site allows visitors to create mix-and-match outfits, publish them and then see what styles are “trending” based on consumer submissions rather than the opinions of elite fashion designers.

The entire notion that we want to take greater control over our lives accessing and using information and technology to better serve us is at the core consumer motivation.  We live in a world where we have more choices and less time.   This means we ignore most of the traditional marketing messages aimed at us as we seek out situations that speak to us on a personal level – and put US in control.

Who knows, the term Kinect Shopping might someday soon become part of our lexicon. 

Two Approaches to Innovative Strategy Development

We spend a lot of time in business school teaching strategy as a process of understanding the competitive landscape, assessing the strengths and weaknesses of competitors and trying to figure out how to beat them.   That is one approach, and it is sometimes inevitable.

The other approach is to forget about competitors, and focus instead on the consumer.  What if we could understand their emotional drivers more deeply than anyone else?  What if we could see things that elude our main competitors?  This can be possible because we worked harder too empathetically understand customer needs.  Such is a path to leadership in your industry or segment.  In fact, we might even find ourselves on the forefront in shaping a whole new segment, product or service.  Isn’t that the magic of Steve Jobs and Apple?

It comes from exercising our powers of observation BEFORE engaging our powers of imagination.   We need to observe the world around us, sense which way the winds are blowing, and then ask how we might take advantage of key trends and serve unmet needs. 

This is not necessarily the domain of large corporations

Some of us think of Apple, with all their financial and human resources and think innovation is the domain of big companies.  Not so, as discussed in the article on Creative Disruption by Waldeck and Hopkins-Callahan (see below).   Small businesses are equally capable.

Consider the case of the owner of a small pool company who offered pool and water quality services for municipal, commercial and residential customers.   He charged per service call.  He also sold heaters, pumps, and other related pool care equipment as well.   In the case of their municipal customers, water quality monitoring was a big deal, but the systems to provide it were more expensive than most commercial and residential consumers were willing to pay.  Smaller pool owners wanted good water quality, but it had to be reasonably priced.  When the pool company owner attended a trade show, he saw some moderately priced new technology.   So he purchased a few systems himself, and offered the monitoring service to his smaller clients with a modest monthly monitoring fee.

In a sense, he saw the opportunity to exploit the new technology by changing his business model, getting into the equipment leasing business.  This was an innovative solution (I think) that was enabled by a new technology, and required flexibility on his part to change.

This is not unlike the Bodymetrics story – In their case the enabling technology was the Microsoft Kinect technology, which opened the door to a low-priced in-home solution rather than the expensive walk-in pods they had sold to Selfridges and Bloomingdales.

In both cases (pool and body-mapping) there was a common thread – the understanding of consumer desires, needs, and preferences.   They also were open to the possibility of changing their service offering and delivery method.

Too often we turn our attention internally, to our own R&D departments where our own very smart people think they know best what our products should look like.  Or, we turn to our marketing departments to the word out better.   Looking outside is much more likely to produce a sustainable competitive advantage, products that WOW users, and breakthrough innovations.  

Other Resources

How Bodymetrics and Razorfish are out to Change Retail, by Shareen Pathak

Creative Disruption: Innovation Lessons From Small Business, by Andrew Waldeck and Renee Hopkins Callahan 

Mass customization is trending so hard right now, by treehouselogic

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Converting Empathetic Observations Into Solutions


IPODSIn my last article, Driving Innovative Strategy through Empathetic Observation, I introduced the Empathy Map as a technique to aid your team in conducting insight generating field immersion research.  It is intended to supplement the hard research you collect as a part of any planning process, and should promote a deeper understanding of your industry, business product, service or customer.

The goal of conducting Empathetic Observations is to enable you to go deeper into the motivations that drive customer behavior.  This helps you to ask better questions to identify the more important problems to solve.  This is the path to achieving breakthrough ideas.

Imagine Apple, a strictly computer company in 2000.  How did they transition from making Mac and Apple computers to the revolutionary iPOD?    At that time we mostly listened to our music on CD’s.   A number of companies–including Creative Labs, and Sony-had been selling MP3 players for a few years but none of them had been big hits.   So, in this case, Apple didn’t invent the concept, but it was about to revolutionize it, by understanding consumer attitudes and desires better than all the competitors at that time.

The Apple Team was somehow able to sense the possibility of the congruence of computers, the internet, and a lightweight (MP3-like) portable and personal device that could really change the game.  They did their own assessment of the market and consumer needs.   They recognized that the slow adoption of MP3 devices was partly due to price, partly due to its features, and partly due to the lack of an enabling infrastructure.

The 1999 Creative Labs Nomad had 32 MB of memory.  That’s enough for about 1 or 2 CDs and cost US$429.   In 2000, the digital music market was still pretty young and people were being pursued in court over the violation of copyright laws when they downloaded or copied “illegal” music.   There was no organized “store” from which you could download music.  Using MP3’s was cumbersome and risky. Yet Jobs and his team saw the possibility of delivering mass customized music on demand – listeners could hear what they wanted, anywhere, and at any time.

Apple spoke with consumers and thought about the problem holistically.   Their solution:

1)      Increased memory – the first iPOD could store about 1,000 songs

2)      Simpler operator interface  –  not buttons or hard to read dials, but a circular touch-sensitive element you could direct with the light touch of a finger

3)      Lower cost  –  the first iPOD cost $250 – about half of the Creative Labs version

4)      A convenient and legal platform for easily transferring music content to the device –  Apple’s APP store was created to offer this and it ultimately morphed into iTunes

5)      Easy integration to your PC  –  by downloading iTunes on your PC, you had now one simple way to organize, categorize and manage  your music collection, create customized playlists and to easily plug-in and download to your iPod

So now a holistic solution was present, and the iPOD took off, selling a quarter billion units in 7 or 8 years, leaving the competition in the dust.  It totally transformed how we all think about media.  WE are in control.  It led to the creation of “podcasting”, and is behind the trend of streaming video, TV programs, and books.

My hypothesis is that Apple’s competitors chose to see themselves as device makers – good at mass production.  They expected the retail sector to suck their products out the end of their supply chain as they had in the past.  The Apple team (under Steve Job’s direction) came to understand it needed to integrate all the above elements to satisfy consumers.

Using Your Empathy Map

The Empathy Maps your teams create are what lead to these insights – to more problems to solve that can bring about revolutionary change.  The “problem” for the tech industry was NOT how to make a better MP3 player.   Above I listed five major problems that ALL needed to be solved, and integrated together (price, memory, user interface, access to content, and integration.)   All five needed solutions for the revolution to take place.   While I’m not sure, it is plausible that the engineers at Creative Labs looked at the problem one dimensionally, like we need to lower cost, or we need bigger memory.  (Check out the link below suggesting that by as late as 2007, Creative’s designers still didn’t get the whole picture.)

So how do you go from the empathy maps to these innovative solutions?  Here are the steps.

1)      Have your teams share with the whole group their empathy maps and their main conclusions – 3-4 bullet points from each section of the Empathy Map

2)      Invite the assembled group to begin defining as many “problems” as possible by reading each of the bullet points and allowing your mind to run free.  Remember the Linus Pauling quote when he was asked how do you come up with a good idea?   “It helps”, he replied, “to begin with a lot of them!”    Write down these problems in the form of a “how might we” statement, such as “How Might We: make it easier for customers to transfer music to their device? Write each of these How Might We statements down on individual post it notes, and transfer them to a large board or wall.  Get as many ideas down as possible.

3)      Then group the ideas according to which ones seem to be related and put a heading on each grouping.   I am imagining in the iPOD case at least five main categories as outlined above:  price, memory, user interface, access to content, and integration.    Can you picture it?   5 labels with multiple post it notes grouped nearby.

4)      Assign teams to work within each problem area to generate ideas to solve these problems.

Some of you might argue that a process such as I am advocating may be too time consuming and requires too many resources pulled away from their day jobs.   If that is your impression, I would ask only “what is the cost of failing to do the kind of thorough analysis that leads to the holistic solution?”   Apple’s market share in the iPOD business was over 75% by 2007.   It enjoyed a zero share in 2000.  Those share points came from someone.

Other Resources:

How Apple Transformed Music and Our Lives, by Sam Costello, About.com

Creative Labs NOMAD MuVo² 4 GB MP3 Player–A Failed Attempt to Rival the IPod Mini, from Yahoo Tech

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Driving Innovative Strategy through Empathetic Observation


ObservingDeveloping great strategy that produces a sustainable competitive advantage comes from one of two methods.  One – you can study your competitors closely, try to figure out what their game plan is, and then decide how to beat them. Or, two – you can understand your customers better than anyone else; looking for insights about unmet needs and then satisfy them more fully than anyone else.

When we discuss the second approach the obvious question is “how do we come to understand our customers?”   For those of us who were students of engineering, the sciences, and possibly business, the first idea seems to be to collect data.  Yes, we love data.   We think about doing surveys that produce data which we can analyze, parse, cross reference, and review – with statistical precision.

Data Doesn’t Always Do It.

I am an engineer by training and I love numbers more than most but often times, the data does not yield insights that enable breakthrough innovation.  Surveys themselves are helpful only when you are insightful enough to ask the right questions.   In addition, how each is worded can also impact the responses. The ability to craft meaningful surveys when you yourself do not have a deep understanding of the consumer behavior of interest is rare.

Numerical data is one-dimensional and sterile.   It can reveal information about preferences, but without insight about what consumer motivations lie beneath.  It is often the subtext that triggers insights that produce game-changing new product ideas.

A third problem with data is that it comes from looking backwards in time.   While data on what has been happening can be interesting, there is no guarantee that the future can be divined by merely extrapolating past trends.  In a dynamic world, the past is not always a good predictor of what’s next.

A fourth problem is that data does not reveal root cause.   You could study various data sets and find a positive correlation between housing starts and bicycle sales, for example.   The fact that these two sets of data move together does not mean that one causes the other.  Understanding causality is pretty important.

Focus Groups Don’t Always Do It.

Many of the scientific and engineering people I know are cynical about wasting time to ask customers what they would like.   “They don’t really know themselves”, an R&D executive once told me.    This is true.   If you asked people 15 years ago how they would like to access and share information, it is unlikely they would describe a smart phone as it exists today. Their ability to describe new products and services is related to their life experiences, knowledge of what is possible, and their ability to imagine the unknown.  Now, if you showed them a prototype, they could probably give you some useful feedback on likes and dislikes, but if your goal is breakthrough innovation, this avenue does not seem productive either.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for data, and data collection and review should be a PART of your research strategy.  But we need more.

The Art of Empathetic Observation.

The idea of observing consumers (up close) as they shop for, buy, and use your product or service can yield new understanding that can complete the picture data alone cannot paint.   Observations can yield information that cannot be obtained by other means.   When the makers of Cheerios observed moms they saw that many were using the cereal in unintended ways – packed in baggies and doled out one at a time when an infant needed a snack or distraction.

A maker of a leading cooking spray found some consumers using their product to coat the underside of their lawnmowers to reduce the buildup of wet grass (another completely new market for them).

Sometimes we can learn things in more empathetic ways.  We can listen to the tone of voice, look at body language and  notice facial expressions that allow us to “read between the lines” when speaking with customers.  In this manner we can often infer subtle things about their motivations and buying behaviors.

As described in my recent article Innovating a Mature Product – the Sealy Case, these people saw things by talking with and observing people shopping for mattresses that surprised them.  How the product looked and felt in the showroom really mattered (which was counterintuitive to them because their product was neither seen nor felt when in use).   They saw that there was a certain category of buyers for whom a mattress was a major investment in their health, productivity, and well-being.  They recognized that the mattress was, in a sense, a reflection of their personality. So the Sealy people concluded they needed to give their product a suitable personality to match.  This, they did, actually raising product costs by 25% and the selling price by 40% resulting in two consecutive quarters of record sales!

The graphic below, called an Empathy Map, is a tool you can use in your own field research efforts.

Empathy MapStart by designing your field immersion learning experience.  Think about whether to do an interview, observation, field trip, etc. and create a field interview/observation guide.    (You can contact the writer for examples).  Select your research team (eclectic and diverse is best).   Send them out into the field and tell them that the end product of their effort is the creation of an empathy map (using the template above.)

It has several sections – as outlined below.

1. See

What issues and problems surround them? What are market and environmental factors that seem to be most influential?

2. Think and Feel

What are their guiding thoughts and beliefs?  (Things they never overtly expressed, but you inferred using your empathetic observation skills)  Whose opinions might be influencing them, too? What emotions might have the greatest impact? View Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions.

3. Say and Do

Who do they say when they are in public? What are their attitudes and actions?  What are they saying to others?

4. Hear

What are they hearing from other people? The most prevalent thoughts and opinions surrounding them by friends, co-workers, family, and the communications channels (like social media, broadcast, etc.) that are they plugged into?  (The things they hear that are most likely influencing what they are thinking)

5. Pain

What are their frustrations, dislikes or concerns?  What compels them to action, or what stops them from taking action?  What problems do they have that you might help solve?

6. Gain (Wants and Needs)

What are their aspirations and motivations? What benefits do they gain if you can better serve their needs and solve their problems?) What do they really want to achieve?

When this field work is completed, then your researchers can bring these Empathy Maps back stimulate discussion and ideation.    I will offer more about this topic in future articles.  In the meantime, try this tool (or play the Innovation Game referenced below).   See what you might learn.

Other Resources:

Spark Innovation Through Empathic Design, by Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey F. Rayport, Harvard Business Review

Challenges of Doing Empathic Design: Experiences from Industry, by Carolien E. Postma, Elly Zwartkruis-Pelgrim, Elke Daemen, and Jia Du, International Journal of Design. (Note particularly the “Baby Care Project” case example)

Empathy Map – Goal: Understand What Your Stakeholders Want from Your Business, from Innovation Games

 

Using Empathy Maps, by Bryann Alexandros, from Skylance.org

 

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Three-Box System: Balancing Break-through Innovation with the Short-term


3 boxes

One of my favorite strategic innovation thinkers is Professor Vijay Govindarajan, from Dartmouth’s Tuck School.  He proposes an interesting idea that helps bring the idea of innovation squarely into the space of strategic planning.

One of the hardest things for executives to balance is the dichotomy between short and long-term thinking.  We all WANT to be strategic, don’t we?  We all WANT our organizations to be capable of break-through innovation, don’t we?  But we must also meet the financial metrics for this quarter or month.   Both are important.  If we are too far forward-thinking and fall out of covenant with our lenders, this can be a serious problem.   But living our entire lives dealing with quarterly financial goals and tactical matters leads to eventual problems also.  So we need to strike a reasonable balance between the short and long-term view.  My personal sense is that for most of us, our bias is too far in favor of the short-term – since these problems are likely to be more immediate.

This tension between short and long-term is perhaps the biggest impediment to strategy execution I can think of.    We have no problem thinking “big” thoughts when we engage in strategic planning.  But when the plan is created, it is hard to pull ourselves away from the pressures of meeting daily performance goals.

Senior Leader Mindset

Senior leaders need to fight this tendency, and it helps if they develop a mindset that accepts that:

  1. The world is rapidly changing.   Technology, demographics, social attitudes, economic trends and so forth are in a continual state of flux.
  2. To think you can simply keep reengineering your business around what you do today is a dangerous mistake that can lead to disaster.   Every business needs the ability to leap to the next wave at the right time.

When we think about some of the greatest innovation stories of the recent past,   Dell Computer, Amazon.com, Netflix, Zappos, etc. we marvel at how these people managed to imagine game-changing ways of creating new business value.  What interests me is the question “why did it take outsiders to develop these innovations?  Why didn’t IBM come up with Dell?  Why didn’t Sears or K-Mart develop Amazon?  Why didn’t Blockbuster create Netflix?  It is interesting that we are willing to face bankruptcy, or exit a business rather than develop new business models that are different from our primary way of operating.

Govindarajan invites us to consider that our strategic planning process should explicitly include planning around three very different sets of initiatives.   He calls his concept the Three Box System.

Here is the exercise he suggests you try when you sit down with your team to consider the next round of strategic planning.   Make a list on post-it notes of all of the major initiatives your organization is pursuing and committing major resources of money and people.  On each post-it, also write down the approximate level of resource allocation each initiative carries.   Now on a board, draw three large boxes, and place each post-it into the proper one.

The boxes should be labeled thusly:

1)      Managing the Present – driving improvement in your current operations – lowering cost, increasing quality, improving service, etc.

2)      Selectively Pruning Away the Past – making room for the future.  This is about strategically identifying things you should be planning to “kill” – like underperforming businesses, products, or segments that are consuming resources without producing desired returns.  Strategically, means we are looking at the changing environment and recognizing when the key trends are not aligning in a positive way.

3)      Creating the Future – investing in new markets, products, services, or businesses that are taking advantage of the key trend drivers in your world.  Again, this is a strategic action considering the key industry drivers and a deeper understanding of unmet consumer needs.

After you have completed the exercise, the hard part is to have a discussion about whether your resource allocation is reasonable.   My strong sense is that most of us have far too much in the first box and almost nothing in the second.

I asked earlier why Blockbuster or perhaps Barnes and Noble did not invent Amazon or Netflix.   My belief is that most of us cannot imagine creating something that would cannibalize an existing piece of business.   This may be because of ego (not wanting to admit we are not succeeding),  fear of incurring losses in a current business segment before the new one finally takes off, or possibly because we didn’t want to face the step of laying off employees.  Whatever the reason, the resulting outcome is to allow our under-performing units to die a slow and painful death – consuming even more resources on the way down.   In the end we still kill them, but we could have done so much earlier and redeployed valuable resources in more productive ways.

Deciding on the right resource allocation for your business is cannot be scientifically determined.  In general the faster and more dynamic the change environment is in your industry, the more initiatives you want in box number 3.

In my company, Robotron Corporation, box 3 was a big arena.  One of our strategic metrics was the amount of sales we had from products or services that didn’t exist three years earlier.  We tried to be at 20% or higher.  To achieve this, we spent over 7% of our sales revenue on new product development.   If anything, we may have been too biased in this area – sometimes finding ourselves on what I call “the bleeding edge of technology”.   (Robotron’s story is profiled in the book The Next Level, Essential Strategies for Achieving Breakthrough Growth, by Jim Wood.)

The main point here is that you should be thinking about making moves in all three boxes.  Strategy requires that we be deliberate in the choices we make about what products or services we will offer, to whom we will offer them, and how we will strive to achieve a sustainable competitive advantage.   As executives this means we have to bet our precious and limited chips carefully on the initiatives that can yield the greatest benefit.

Watch this 7 minute video featuring Vijay discussing the need to create new executive mindsets.

Other Resources

Transforming your Organization with the Three Box Approach, by Vijay Govindarajan and Brian Goldner

The CEO’s Role in Business Model Reinvention, by Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble

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Re-learning What Strategy Is


Does the poster at the left describe how your organization thinks about strategy?  When I speak with managers and executives about the topic of strategy, (or when I ask a group to describe during a workshop what a strategy is) I find there is a lack of understanding about what strategy is, and why we need to create one.  If I am honest about it, I think my understanding of strategy was pretty superficial at the time when I first was taught  it during my MBA program, and I think perhaps I was not alone.  Many of us need to re-learn the basic concepts.

I find often people can’t describe the strategy, or translate it into what they should do within their departments that supports strategy execution. For many of us, strategy is an annual event that feeds information upward together with a set of budgets and pro-forma financial statements.

What Strategy is, and Is Not

Ask yourself if YOU can define what strategy is, in just a couple of sentences.   Then, watch this brief video clip featuring Michael Porter talking about what strategy is and what some of the main mistakes are that people make.

Would you change your definition after watching this?

Strategy Must Be in Response to External Forces

While it is fine to ask what it is YOU would like to do, or how you would like to create your own business.   However, it must also be developed in response to those pervasive external forces (we call drivers) that are influencing your industry and your business.   These forces are seldom ones we can control, but our understanding them helps us imagine what we must do in response.

Here is Professor Porter speaking about the five main forces that drive (or should drive) strategy.   It has to do with understanding the external forces from competitors, suppliers and customers that drive profitability in your business.

How much do you know about your what things are driving not only you, but your customers, suppliers, and competitors as well?

You can’t Please Everyone

I don’t think I can think of any organization with unlimited resources (financial, or human).  So, almost by definition, strategy is about making CHOICES between possibilities that define:

  • What your products and services are (or not).
  • What customers you wish to serve (or not) (all markets are consisted of segments that all want something a little different.  In the airline industry, business travelers and personal vacation travelers are distinctly different.  We want to buy from people who UNDERSTAND us, and this is much easier to do and to project when you are deliberate about who you are serving.)
  • How you create value for those you are serving (some people call this your value proposition.  It answers the question “why would anyone want to buy from you?”)
  • How you will choose to deliver your value (this is not just a set of operating approaches, but reflects a set of deeply held values about how you want your organization to be)

This last point helps inform your thinking about tactical execution.   Remember this quote:

“Good tactics can save even the worst strategy. Bad tactics will destroy even the best strategy.”     —General George Patton

Deciding on what business you are in is not that difficult.  The hard part is exerting the organizational self-discipline to risk being drawn into new product-market segments without deliberation and purposeful effort.  When you end up chasing all opportunities that seem like could make a profit, you can end up unfocused, and stretching scarce resources in too many directions.  The best way to do a poor job with any one is to try to do a good job for everyone.

In addition to knowing what business you are in, the second issue has to do with what you want your brand to be about.  (How do you want customers to see and think about you?)  You can choose to compete based on being the highest quality, lowest cost, best service provider, or the most cutting edge technology provider, as some examples.  Wal-Mart and Nordstrom are both mass merchandisers, but provide two very different shopping experiences, and appeal to different customer demographics.  Here again, there is not necessarily any right or wrong choice, but you need to make one, and then act consistently with it.   If your goal is to be the low-cost provider, you may not want to be investing in elaborate corporate jets, or luxurious store decorations.

It is a team sport

It is fine to have senior execs with a strong vision, but even these people have difficulty getting everyone top-to-bottom understand it in the same way – and so, execution suffers.  A better approach is to engage people from across your organization in the process.   It can work if top execs define what, and ask the rest of the team to define HOW.   However you approach it, I think lower level people will almost always surprise you if you let them.

Not an Annual Event

If you are living your strategy every day, then it is unlikely that strategy can be an annual event at budget time.  Strategy is an organic thing.   The second you publish your strategy, the world is changing in ways you may not have anticipated.   So, the strategy must be flexible, and subject to revisiting whenever new things are happening that cause you to question some of the assumptions upon which it was initially based.

Requires Thinking and Action TOGETHER

One of my favorite strategy quotes comes from General Erwin Rommel when talking about battle plans (the Army version of a strategy is:  “Every [strategy] is a good one, until the first shot is fired.”   This is true in business as well.   We form a plan and begin to execute it.  But instantaneously, the market shifts, competitors react to our moves and the situation us highly dynamic.   So we need to think about strategy as being a circular, not linear, process.  We learn as we go, and continue to adapt tactics and strategies in real-time.  Think – plan – do – learn – re-think . . . etc.

References

(Sometimes these classics are well worth re-reading.   I hope some new flashes of insight will appear for you.)

What is Strategy , from HBR by Michael Porter

Strategy Safari, by Henry Mintzberg

What Strategy Is, by Balajhi Narayanasami, Business Week

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