What I’m Up To…

Details to follow (over time), but here's a summary of what I'm up to these days: I'm working with companies, ranging from established leaders to "two guys, a dog and a crazy idea" who are busy:

  • Delivering on the true, high value promise of RFID in huge (really) untapped (seriously) markets
  • Offering the industry's first Cloud-based Mobile Device Management solution
  • Inventing Intelligent Mobile Workspace solutions, around best-of-breed tablet computing platforms (a category they pioneered nine years before the IPad)
  • Leveraging unparalleled skills in custom device engineering services into a foundation for a breakthrough products company
  • Preparing to launch "Groupon on steroids" (from an already very successful platform in the space)
  • Re-conceiving accounting (of all things) as an enterprise and investment management tool
  • Will soon be helping you and me leverage our loyalty program participation to new heights of value
  • Connecting brands and consumers in previously unimagined ways

All are involved with inventing the future.

Oh, and I'm having fun doing it.

Innovate to Create Your Own Future

"The best way to predict the future is to invent it"
Alan Kay

In the chaotic times in which we seem to be destined to live out our days, predicting the future, never a high percentage game, is a no win proposition.  If this is so, just how do we as business leaders decide on our forward course, with the future landscape blurring into a fog of uncertainty just a quarter or two into the future?

Attempting to harness future unknowns through scenario planning is fraught, given the non-linear nature of our complex and deeply interconnected world — the branching of future trajectories creates a thicket of possibilities often too dense to model into a useful road map of practical actions.

I believe that the answer lies, at least in large measure, in creating your own local reality through innovation.

You're unlikely to be able to influence the vast majority of global forces shaping the macro-economic environment in which your industry operates, but you can render them less of a factor in your business by displacing them with forces that enjoy the leverage of proximity and focus.

What do I mean?

The levels of GDP growth, employment, consumer spending, inflation / deflation — and the less tangible but more powerful "animal spirits" they influence — will always have an influence on your prospects, to be sure. They either buoy or depress your customers' willingness to reach for their wallets. Disruptive changes in technology or competitive landscape? They'll remain powerful winds blowing across your bow and churning up the sea ahead, no doubt.

Can you stop these forces? Absolutely not. But you can overpower them with ones that you set in motion… if you have the courage to do so.

Your customers and prospects, appropriately chosen, are subject to influence by you in measure outsized to your economic footprint. Why? Precisely because your actions can be clearly and tightly focused on them — their needs, fears, dreams and desires.

If you amplify that focus with an inventiveness that presents them with a set of compelling future alternatives they did not earlier see as even possible, you can pull them into a local world of your imagining, built around your vision. Invent a new category of product or solution, and YOUR ideas shape the perceptions as to how that category works: what's important, what's not…

Global factors? Still there, but with muted influence. Suddenly they need that red iPod. Not want it. Not weigh the investment in it vs. a week's groceries. NEED IT! This is how Apple, born in one recession, has been able to thrive though this one.

This idea is not just about impressionable consumers and B2C marketing. If anything, it's still more powerful in B2B settings.

Your enterprise customers are just as uncertain about their futures as you are. Be their lighthouse. If you demonstrate insight into their world, and a clearly articulated vision of how you can make it better through your innovations, you'll get their attention. If you deliver on that vision, they'll buy. Do so more consistently than your competitors, and you'll assume thought leader and trusted advisor status, and secure a disproportionate share of their business.

Restrict yourself to only incremental moves (in product development, business model, process…) you'll get stuck in a reactive, poorly differentiated world of low margins and reverse auctions. Your "local" influence is too weak to overcome macro forces, and you'll be just one of the crowd of competitors.

Have the courage to break out of the crowd, accept the risks of innovation and leadership, and hold up a genuinely creative, high impact alternative to the current order, over time you'll be able to mold markets around your vision — in effect defining a playing field where you've written the majority of the rules. And shame on you if you can't win a game where you've done that.

[2011: 1/365]

The Future Of Selling

As a result of a kind introduction by my good friend David Brock, I recently participated in a fascinating project organized by OgilvyOne Worldwide, called "The Future of Selling."

By bringing together a community of interested (and interesting) marketing and sales professionals, it focused attention on how changes in buyer behavior, combined with current and emerging trends in social media, are challenging B2B sellers to think differently about their trade.

Many intriguing and valuable ideas were exchanged, and a great number of new relationships were forged. I was privileged to have the opportunity to participate, and congratulate OgilvyOne's Chairman, Brian Fetherstonhaugh, for the success in making it all happen.

You can view an overview presentation below and download the detailed white paper here:  Download Ogilvyonethefutureofselling.


The Future of Selling

View more presentations from Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.





Thoughts on Starting a New Job

IStock_000002979477Small I'm likely going to be starting in a new job (and new company) sometime before the end of the year. Perhaps some of you are too.

Beginnings are always important times. Early impressions matter, patterns once set can be difficult to change and establishing momentum early is important.

Here's how I'm planning to approach the process:

1. Get acquainted with the Team — As we know, business is a team, contact sport. Precious little can be accomplished without the aligned and active support of those around you. The foundation to build that on is trust, which in turn depends on the establishment of personal relationships.

That takes time and dedicated effort. So, job one is to meet and spend time with members of my team, my peers and those members of senior management with whom I don't already have a relationship. In each case the goals are similar:

  • Get to know them as people
  • Introduce myself to them
  • Ask their inputs on what's most important to focus on in getting started (see below)

Throughout, it's important to remember that you're inserting yourself into an existing web of relationships, some links in which may have formed over decades. Coming to understand how that's working today, and about the cultural norms within which it operates, is another early key point of focus.

With their inputs, I should be able to lay out a prioritized plan for where and when to focus my attention. That plan will likely look something like the next steps listed below…

2. Immediate (First Week) Priorities — If there's a ticking bomb somewhere, I'll want to discover it fast, apply triage as required, and begin to develop a get-well plan:

  • Are any critical programs or initiatives about to come off the rails?
  • Major customer satisfaction issues (external or internal)?
  • Looming legal issues?
  • Budget blow-ups?
  • Critical people issues?

If any exist, it's likely that I'll readily find out about some easily, others make take some digging.

3. Mid-term (First 90 day) Priorities — After gaining confidence that something isn't about to blow up, these items will get my attention next:

  • Program Reviews: I'll be joining an up-and-running business. There will clearly be a good number of existing initiatives and programs that my team has going, either independently or on a cross-functional basis with others. I'll want to know how all of those are going, by attending already scheduled program reviews, calling new ones if required and spending one-on-one time with owners and other key players.
  • External Constituency Meetings: Since mine will be a market-facing responsibility, I'll want to meet as many key customers, as well as partners and suppliers, as possible, as soon as possible. The discussion agendas will be similar to those for the team meetings, described above. Listening here is more important than talking.
  • Establish a Local Management System: While the company overall most likely has a well-structured system of meetings and other processes by which it operates, it's likely that some local refinement and personalization will be appropriate.
  • Fill any Short Term Team Gaps: A thorough plan for Organization Development will come a bit later (see below), but it's possible that I'll find it important to fill critical gaps in the team early on. In some cases, I'll choose to don another hat or two rather than make a hasty hire or promotion before I know how to do so intelligently.
  • Refine and Align the Definition of My Role: Mine will be a newly created function. While I'll clearly have a good idea going in as to the definition of its responsibilities and accountabilities, it's also likely that some refinement of that initial conception may be appropriate. I'll want to focus on this, and secure alignment all around regarding any mid-course corrections required, during the first ninety days or so.
  • Homework: I'll want to lay out a learning agenda for myself: existing Business Plans, Industry Briefings, Analyst Reports, etc. Reading stuff for nights and travel time.

4. Longer Term (First 6 – 12 month) Priorities — Next, I'll turn attention to strategies and organization development:

  • Strategy Refinement: While the role I'll be taking is new, the team(s) I'll be responsible for are existing. They're executing current plans under some combination of company-wide and local strategies. While I'll want to understand what those are as early as possible (via the steps above), I won't be expecting to change them in the early going, if for no other reason (there are several), I won't know enough to do so in any informed way. Within the first 6 to 12 months though, it will be time to focus on refreshing, refining or extending those strategies. This is a team effort, and my preference is for broad participation. (More on this some other time.)
  • Organization Development: By now, I'll know enough to be thoughtful regarding how to build the organization I'll be responsible for so as to meet our responsibilities and challenges. Some of this may be done within the context of an annual planning cycle; some may not be able to wait that long. We'll see.

So, that will be my basic plan of attack. I will refine it as I come to learn more during the early stages of settling in. Should be fun.

Know Which Game To Play

Checkers and chess. Both are games of skill. Both have winners and losers.

While they share the same playing surface, if you sit down with a friend to play, it’s entirely clear which set of rules you should be using, based on the pieces on the board.

In business, it’s not that simple.

It’s Monday morning and you sit down at your desk.

Checkers Should this week’s focus be on steps toward securing the partnership that could be the key to opening up that new market segment that’s so promising (“chess”), or on how to fill the open slot on the development team who’s work is slipping (“checkers”)?

In some idealized textbook world, both happen in parallel: You as leader focus on the “big picture” strategic issues, your team on the executional tactics.

Not in the real world.

Here, what you focus on matters. It sets the priority. Your team notices, and that’s where they focus. (That's even before you get to the issue of your incremental experience and ability to contribute to the best outcome.)

If you meet with the hiring manager and her HR partner to discuss the open slot, their efforts to fill itChess  take on a different level of urgency. If you meet with the candidates, you’re more likely to land the top prospect.

Conversely, if you leave the job of laying out the critical strategic partnership framework with your Director of Business Development, the deal is less likely to come together than if you are a hands-on participant in the process.

Substitute any set of “checkers” and “chess” issues, and the challenge as to where to focus is the same:

  • The design review, or the new product strategy meeting?
  • The customer visit, or the next generation go-to-market innovation council presentation?
  • The current parts shortage or the long term cost reduction initiative?
  • The compensation plan or alternatives for opening up South America?

Just as in the case of whether to view a glass as half empty or full, and of through which end of the telescope to look, there is no one right answer.

As a team, you need to win at both strategy and tactics, chess and checkers. Which means that as a leader, of a team large or small, you have to lead in both.

My purpose here is to get you to think about that. To think how you’re balancing your time. To realize that you don’t win big in the long term without a well conceived strategy — but that you never even get to the long term without excellence in execution.

Chances are, you’re naturally drawn to one game more than the other. Me, I’m a bit more of a chess guy. I know plenty of more natural (and skilled) checkers players. That’s why, a couple of years ago, one early morning in a Starbucks, before my first cup of coffee, I bought a small, brass-covered magnetic travel game of checkers. It’s sitting on my desk to this day, to remind me to make sure to think about playing checkers each and every day, with at least as much effort as playing chess.

Think about it.

Oh, and yes, also know when it's time to stop playing, and time to sit down with your wife for a glass of wine… which it is here, and now.

Love Your Channel, But Don’t Let Them Crowd You Out Of Customer Dialogue

Love your channel. Feed your channel. Help them get rich. But don’t let them block you from having a regular and robust dialogue with your end use customers.

A very significant percentage of B2B commerce is conducted through third party channels: Distributors, VARs, SIs and OEMs. A well developed channel ecosystem, properly supported and managed should, over time, become a major asset and differentiator for its manufacturer principal. Often the company with the strongest channel wins.

Strong partners also wield considerable clout however. They, almost by definition, have naturally closer relationships with end users than do their principals. They will often seek to build on and then leverage this control over the customer to their advantage. Up to a point, you should be OK with this: you want your channel to have great relationships with your shared customers.

But you make a serious mistake if you allow your channel to be your only connection to your customers. If this happens, whether by lack of focus on your part or by allowing your partners to elbow you aside, you lose.

  • You lose the ability to deliver your story, your positioning and other key messages, clearly, accurately and with maximum impact.
  • You lose the ability to establish credibility and authority with your customers as a thought leader capable of articulating a vision for how the forward trajectory of your business can help theirs.
  • You lose the ability to engage your customers in your innovation process. (I wrote about this here.)
  • You lose the opportunity to hear, directly and unfiltered, the “voice of the customer” — what they think about you, what’s working, and what needs improvement.
  • You lose the ability to establish human relationships with the very people will determine your future success or failure.

All together too much to lose.

Thoughts of this came to mind recently in a discussion with another tech CEO. He was explaining the current problems he and his team were tackling. They sounded like they were related to the sort of “losses” I listed above.

I asked, “How often do you, personally, meet with your top end user customers?” His hesitation alone told the story, but he went on to answer, “hardly ever… our (SI) channel is very powerful, they pretty much keep us out. Further, we’re only a relatively small part of the solution that our customers’ actually buy.”

I pointed out the perspective shared above, and suggested that, even in cases such as his where your products comprise only a fraction of the total solution, it is possible to create and sustain a meaningful dialogue with your end customers.

I suggested a few specific ideas:

  • Develop a narrative that is centered on exactly how the distinctive characteristics of your products have impact on his business, expressed in his terms.
  • Expand that narrative by developing and articulating a vision as to how your future products will enable your customer to create strategic advantage in coming years.
  • Aim high: find out what your customer’s CEO cares about and is working on. (A visit to their web site, and some time on Google should make this pretty straightforward.) Make sure your narratives link to these C-level issues.
  • Then, as CEO of your company, reach out the theirs, and suggest the benefits of a one hour meeting to share ideas about his goals can be furthered by what you’re enabling today, and tomorrow. If you’re small and the customer’s large, you may get pushed down a level or two. That’s OK. With the CEO’s blessing, a meeting with middle management can be very effective. But try to secure participation by the most senior business owners possible.
  • Suggest that such meetings should be held no less frequently than annually, given your pace of innovation and other dynamics in the business.
  • Finally, involve your channel partner in the meetings, so that they don’t feel cut out, and you present a coherent and aligned message.

I know from personal experience over many years that these approaches work. Try them, you'll see.

What does WiFi have in common with Whale Sharks?

I was asked to say a few words at Fred’s retirement party. Without more than a moment’s thought, I knew just how to approach the task.

So, when I got up in front of a packed room a few weeks later, I began with the quote that had immediately sprung to mind earlier…

NewFred1 “All progress depends on unreasonable men,” I said, paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw. “Fred Heiman is one of those men. When I plan a vacation, thoughts run immediately to poolside Margarita’s in Maui. That’s reasonable. Fred? He heads straight to the western shores of Australia to scuba dive with giant whale sharks. Not so reasonable.” That reference was apt both with respect to Fred’s then growing (now full fledged) passion for underwater exploration and videography (see his web site), and the evening’s venue: the Monterey Aquarium.

But it was also an apt quote to describe Fred’s accomplishments and nature.

Fred could drive you crazy. Opinions? Fred’s got em. Compromise? Not in his vocabulary. Gray area, perhaps? Nope, that’s 100% white. I mean to tell you, the man is totally unreasonable.

But he’s also the reason Symbol Technologies entered and emerged as a leader in wireless networking142550-Motorola-8500XL_thumb and related enterprise mobility products. Fred saw that the world was going wireless earlier than just about anyone else I know. I can still picture the slide he presented to that effect at a product strategy meeting sometime around 1988. (Remember, this is what a cell phone looked like that year, and that it cost $4382 in inflation-adjusted dollars.) His was not an obvious or reasonable position to assert.

Also not reasonable: to base our design on an RF technology previously only used by the military (spread spectrum), and to propose that the project be tackled by an engineering team that largely didn’t yet exist, and had no prior experience in wireless product development. But that’s just what Fred insisted we do.

Well, the wireless and mobility technology we developed became the basis for what is now a billion dollar plus business within Motorola (who acquired Symbol), and our ideas are woven deeply into what we all now know as WiFi (we were one of six companies who drove the first round standardization efforts behind the now ubiquitous wireless LAN technology).

Fred has a habit of doing things like that. Earlier in his career, he was one of the principal inventors of the MOSFET IC, one of the key founding innovations that has led to our digital world.

I tell this story not just to tip my hat (again) to Fred, but to remind us all that we had better do our best to attract and keep around “unreasonable” men and women. They’re the ones that don’t recognize and accept present conventions and realities, they invent new ones. Yes, they can drive you crazy, but they are your future. Look around your team. See any? If not, better find a couple.

Alternate Perspectives

In an earlier post, I suggested that it's important sometimes to focus on the "half full" aspect of "your glass" and other times on its "half empty" portion. Here, a few related words on telescopes…

Telescope When thinking about a business challenge, and making related plans and decisions, I believe it's valuable to force yourself to view it through both ends of the telescope: Both the "right way" around, magnifying and examining the involved issues in all their fine detail, and also the "wrong way", so as to step back and see the big picture, condensing the specific question at hand down to its essential elements only, and examining them in context of your overall situation.

The former way of looking at a new product development effort, for example, yields questions such as:

  • Do we know how to implement "Feature X"?
  • How much more will it cost us to increase performance by 10%?
  • Have we considered alternative ways to organize this development?
  • Is Company A the best partner with whom to work on this?
  • How can we shorten time-to-market?

And so on.

The later, "wrong way," view through the telescope yields these:

  • Should we be doing this project at all?
  • Do we know how we'll make money selling this product?
  • Are we proliferating too many product variants?
  • Would the money we're about to spend here be better used adding more sales people?

Both sets of questions are valid, and important to ask and answer.

You should challenge your team to turn the telescope around regularly, looking at the issues they're facing from both perspectives. They'll make better decisions and waste less time and resource along the way.

When coaching on this point, I often also recommend that folks try to think about the questions they're tackling from the perspective of "Their Boss's Boss" Why? Because it forces them to think about "their" issue from a bigger picture perspective. How will various approaches to the problem impact not just their project, but the overall business? It challenges them to ask broader-based, and often more relevant questions.

Beyond injecting a higher order perspective into project team thought processes, this advice also has the salutory side effect of lessening silo thinking and organization politics. A focus on how to help an entire business unit displaces the narrow focus on personal or team issues that can all too easily consume the thinking of middle managers.

Half Full, or Half Empty? It Depends…

The product manager presenting his case for approval of phase gate passage on a new product development project was pitching the merits of the prospective new offering for all he was worth. If they believed the slam dunk advantages it would offer versus their pathetic alternatives, our competition would have no choice but to fold up tent and surrender.

Smiling, I saw an opportunity to make a point, and I did, along these lines…

There's a time for looking at the glass as half full or better, but also a time to see it as half empty, or worse.

Glass When presenting to prospective customers and partners, it's clearly important to focus on your advantages, illuminated in their best possible light. Your claims must be true, supportable and credible, but highlighting them over your possible shortcomings is common sense and fully appropriate in that context. It's "Half Full" time.

However, when engaged in an internal planning or decision-making process such as the one we were in the middle of that day some years ago, I believe that it's important to force yourself to consider the half of the glass that isn't full:

  • How might your competition offer and position advantages that you don't see or fully appreciate?
  • Could they be about to launch a new offering that trumps the one you're planning to develop?
  • Do your customers see the relative advantages of your respective products the same way you do? Do they care about the features you're spending money and time to develop?
  • Might there be greater technical risk in your planned development than you're acknowledging?

Only by soberly confronting these questions, and answering them honestly, will it be possible to make a decision intelligently of the sort we were confronting that day. Only through a process of healthy skepticism can you emerge with both a solid decision and a basis for confidence in how you'll move forward and win — a confidence much more secure than if you falsely see a full glass. Because, more likey than not, it's your own cool aid you'll be drinking when you pick it up, to the laughter of your competition.

A bit later in that same meeting, I offered up a somewhat related point, involving telescopes, not glasses. But I'll reserve that story for another day.

The Golden Balance

Aristotelian philosophy holds among its tenets the merits of striving for a harmonious middle ground in all things. Many others since the ancients have voiced a similar point of view.

But others, not innate immoderates incapable of seeing an alternative point of view, but practical people thinking about how to get things done in the real world of business, have warned against aiming at analogues to The Golden Mean.

We're warned that failure to be decisive when called for leads to paralysis, that wavering leaders don't get followed and that trying to be all things to all people is a recipe for mediocrity, at best.

More specifically…

Michael Porter of Harvard cautions us against getting strategically "stuck in the middle" as, for example, between premium and value-based positioning.

Geoffrey Moore takes a similar position with regard to the need to choose a business architecture optimized for complex system sales or for sale of high volume standard products.

Treacy and Wiersema argue that we must have the discipline to choose between three fundamental strategic alternatives or fail to become a market leader.

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