Years ago I embarked on a journey. This was a journey to learn how to better use the web to listen. Not to collect data or fragments of chatter, but to very intentionally engage customers in intelligent conversational experiences that provide insight. Insight that drives better business decisions.
Listening and insight. That’s what started me on my way. Over these many years my company has developed some of the most powerful web interviewing tools for strategic listening.
But something was missing in this mission. Because insight, while noble, was still a means to a larger end. What was it? We use that insight to help our clients align better to the needs and aspiration of their customers. We use that insight to help companies better co-innovate with the customers. And we use that insight to help companies better convert that engagement into sales-ready leads.
But, and the end of the day, why? Simply to drive the topline?
Perhaps. But I began to notice that as we worked with our clients something more powerful began to happen. I saw our clients being empowered by this process, increasing their confidence and indeed, being transformed as they began to realize their power to become transformative. It’s been amazing to watch.
I have come to appreciate that this power of transformation is really the reason we listen. Listening in a way that provides us insight that allows us to act with confidence transforms who we are and what we can do. This process is life giving. It is a promise worth the journey.
Brand. This is perhaps the most important and least understood word in our business world. Yet, loyalty to a brand is the most important predictor of business success.
A brand is far more than the superficial garb, it is the organizational persona.
To be successful, it must be authentic and purposeful, able to be align with the needs and aspirations of its customers in a way the unleashes the creative genius of its employees.
Well, at least, in theory. To be truthful, many companies are not able to define a purpose other than making money. And most employees are punching a clock. By some studies, fully 85% of employees would leave their jobs tomorrow if they they could.
Think about it. In our global economy, competitive advantage is no longer being defined by the ability to control a value chain, but by having a faster rate of innovation. We need to accelerate our innovation by aligning and unleashing the passions of our customers and employees.
Take a moment of reflection. How well has your company defined a transformational purpose that inspires customers? How well have you been able to unleash the creative potential of your employees to fulfill that purpose? Without asking these two simple questions, it is impossible to to define an authentic and successful brand.
During the 90’s I was running around Asia listening to business executives about their needs for IT systems and support services. There were two main methodologies that I used, focus groups and one-on-one interviews. In the first, I sat behind one-way mirrors and observed executives, in the other I would engage them in a one-on-one conversation. Both were valuable, but the latter approach would always yield far greater insight.
The reason was simple. By being able to engage an executive in a conversational experience allowed me to adjust the questions based on their needs and their aspirations. As such, I could delve into both to understand what the pains were behind their needs and what the passions were behind their aspirations.
This is strategic insight.
It is very difficult to gain this strategic insight in a group setting because it is hard to have the laser-like focus you need to delve deep below the surface and people feel far more guarded when they are talking amongst their peers. On-on-one interviews are most effective.
But insight is what is critical for shaping effective strategies. If you can begin to find the commonalities of the needs and the commonalities of the aspirations and align your brand around those, a tremendous amount of focused, innovative energy has the potential of being released.
If this is all true, then we need to develop new ways of listening powered by new, web-enabled, tools.
I am beginning to see the future. Working with high school students helps you do that. Our business and political leaders are not the future, it’s the newly minted young adults that are. And they live in a world that is very differently from ours.
I have heard the complaints about this younger generation – that they are unmotivated and lazy. Or that they are not willing to pay the price of admission to success that we paid, but, instead, are impatient and want it all now.
The more that I spend time with this generation the more that I realize the disconnect between their world and ours. They are the first true digital generation whose fluency with electronic devices makes our heads spin. But we continue to teach them the same way that we did fifty years ago, in a slow, plodding and often painful journey with unclear goals. No wonder we have a crisis of relevancy and our graduation rates are suffering.
That is not how they are wired. As never before in the history of mankind, they have access to tool sets that allow them to quickly acquire knowledge they need on the fly or, with a click, connect themselves to someone with expertise they need. But what they are missing is often a purpose to focus their potential. Put that piece in place, I believe, and we will be able to help them unleash an amazing creative genius which will underpin a new age, birthing a digital renaissance.
So I did an experiment. We took five students who did not know how to write a single line of software code, matched them up with a developer who had never taught kids, threw them at a problem that was really important for them, and watched what happened.
This was a classic information problem. In high schools, kids don’t know what is going on. There are so many announcements, both general ones and for clubs, sports, etc, that the information flow is overwhelming. On top of that, the primary means by which announcements are communicated are incredibly ineffective for reaching kids. Announcements are emailed to them (but no one reads email in this generation) or they are read over telephone speakers in the front of the classroom (where they are almost impossible to hear).
The kids said, look, we need to have our announcements on our mobile phones with easily customizable filters so that we are able to focus on those that are relevant to us.
In two short meetings, they mapped out the solution for a new mobile app and an underlying management system for the announcements and then started coding using agile methodologies and putting together a solution using readily available technologies and platforms. Six months later they are ready to release their beta version in what may be the most sophisticated dynamic messaging solution for any high school in the country.
Never underestimate these kids. They are going to transform the world.
There was a great column published this week by Joe Nocera entitled “Down with Shareholder Value“. In that column he challenged the long-held notion that the end-all and be-all of a corporation is the maximizing of shareholder value. He point out that this “truth” has really only been with us for around the last thirty years. He discusses how this this singular focus has resulted in a fair bit of unintended, and not highly desirable, consequences. He calls forth new theories coming out of business schools that look at a more holistic and long-term context for defining long-term strategic advantage and corporate success.
But he notes that one of the reasons why shareholder value is used as a measurement stick is that it can be distilled down to a simple set of metrics.
Metrics are important. No, essential. Without them, we cannot instill the feedback loop that improves performance. But if we move away from standard profitability measurements for guiding improved performance, what then do we have?
I would argue that it is not only shareholder value but also customer value that is critical to define and measure against to guide long-term growth. Tools such as the Net Promoter Score (NPS) can become powerful tools – if strategically used — to help guide the tiller of the modern corporation. But the problem is that few use NPS and other measurements of customer value strategically – though that is the topic for a future post.
Okay, I am not going to get too geeky here, but there are important lessons that I have learned from hanging around with some serious geeks. One lesson was about the power of value networks (learned from the open source community). The other is the power of fast iteration. This one I learned from practitioners of genetic programming.
The origins of genetic programming dates back to 50’s but it really only began to come into its own after the turn of the century (doesn’t that sound quaint?) with cheap access to serious computing horsepower. The idea was that you could develop programs that could evolve themselves to solve complex problems.
Okay guys, let’s get one thing out of the way. Yes, there is evolution. Not all programs are created in unblemished perfection.
Key concept here: “evolve themselves”.
Basically, what you can do is to take a set of generic programs and point them at a complex question that needs to be solved. Turn them on, and walk way. Lo and behold, the problem is eventually solved.
In essence, in the darkened room of discovery, the programs begin to try to address the problem. They try, and fail, and learn from that failure, then morph, and try again. Over and over again until the answer is found. This process often takes hours, but it has been successfully demonstrated multiple times.
But if you think about it, this process is the same for any innovation. It needs to be focused. It needs to iterate a potential new solution multiple times, and it needs to learn. At its core, the innovation process needs be obsessive, agile and unrelenting. In time, it will work. Always. Though probably not in the way you expected.
Over the past two decades, companies have been focusing on squeezing more value out of their manufacturing operations. Cleaving the fat, making things lean. This process has, for the most part, been helpful in restoring competitiveness. At least for the short term. Because cutting costs is not enough.
Years ago I remember learning about the difference between competitive and comparative advantage. Comparative advantage, I came to understand, was based on production costs and places like Asia, with its low labor costs, was a great environment for reducing that element of manufacturing costs. But comparative advantage is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain. Someone will always find cheaper labor costs.
I learned that competitive advantage is based on value. Create more value than anyone else and you can build long-term customers. The problem, however, is that value is not static, but is constantly evolving as customer needs and aspirations change.
What I now understand is that competitive advantage is not based on value itself, but on the speed in which it evolves, that is, the rate of innovation. Innovating value faster than your competition is the only way to survive and thrive.
Which leads us back to lean. Improved efficiency is indeed important, but it is only one component. For a company to be successful it must also find ways to increase its agility and creativity. Combined, efficiency, agility and creativity are the three core elements needed for increasing an organization’s rate of innovation.
The question, then, is this. When was the last time you measured your organization on these three dimensions? You should ask your employees. You may be surprised what you learn.