Share your Vision, Climb the Ladder to Trusted Advisor

In a recent post I argued that a powerful way to drive innovation at your tech company is to regularly put your best engineers in front of your best customers, under conducive circumstances.

Today, a few words about one such "conducive circumstance", one with multiple benefits that extend even beyond those described in my earlier note.

First, consider how your prospects and customers think about the contestants on your competitive playing field…

Whether explicitly or not, prospective customers tend to categorize you and your competitors along a scale of relevance and confidence from "vendor" on the low end to "trusted advisor" on the high, (with various shades of grey in between.) If your customer ranks you a vendor, you'll spend most of your selling time with a junior manager in the purchasing department. If, through your approach and successes over time, you've climbed the ladder to trusted advisor status, you'll be sitting down with top brass there over coffee on a regular basis.

In my experience, one of the most powerful techniques to climb that ladder to its highest rung is described below. Here's the recipe:

Step 1. Develop a comprehensive view of how your technologies and products will advance in the mid to long term future — a road map of ideas and innovation. Push your team to keep this refreshed with your latest and best thinking.

Step 2. Develop a compelling narrative describing how those advances can enable new solutions and benefits for your customers (and perhaps for their customers), expressed in your customer's own language and terms.

Step 3. Capture these thoughts into presentation materials (developed with a keen eye toward encouraging audience interaction).

Step 4. Use this presentation as a centerpiece in customer visits (your place or theirs). Invite your best and most creative engineers to the meeting. The presentation should be led by the most senior member of your team able to speak compellingly about the intersection of your future road map and emergent customer solution opportunities; this can be a teamed affair.

Step 6 (The most important). LISTEN to what your customers say in response to your ideas, and engage them in a robust dialogue around their perspectives. (This is where your engineers can add great value to the process.)

Properly done, the ensuing discussion will bring out your customers' best thinking about what they find truly powerful in your vision, what needs further tuning, and which "good ideas" may need to be re-directed or dropped.

Properly done, you'll learn from each other: they about what's possible just over the technology horizon, you about their thoughts regarding the future of their business.

Properly done, the ideas for your next great product will come out one of these sessions, and your engineers will be energized with enthusiasm and subtle insights.

Properly done, and repeated regularly, you'll come to be regarded as a thought leader. Combine thought leadership and flawless execution and, over time, you'll find yourself a Trusted Advisor.

There, wasn't that simple?

Well, no, not really. There's actually quite a bit to master here…

First, you better have something meaningful to say in these sessions. For that, you'll need to be an genuine innovator. (Note however that this technique creates a virtuous circle — the more you employ it, the more you'll have to say next time around.)

Next, you need to be able to express your ideas in your customers' terms. That means learning their language, their business issues, their priorities. The presenter / discussion leader must keep the discussion focused on the very point of intersection between your road map and their future business imperatives.

Creative, innovative people on your team often like to talk. Listen? Sometimes, not so much. You'll need to ensure a balance between words spoken and heard. (This can be a challenge when the enthusiastic innovator is the CEO!)

You better be able to execute. All the brilliant ideas in the world won't earn you anything (except declining credibility) if they stay up there in PowerPoint.

A few other tips..

Above, I suggested that your presentation should include your mid to long term (3 – 5 years, not next quarter) road map. Multiple benefits are realized through this focus: the longer range ideas will likely have the greatest impact (gee whiz appeal: "Wow, you can do that?"), they will run much lower risk of cannibalizing or stalling any pending projects your sales team is trying to close with your customer, and the dialogue will not come across as a sales pitch (it's not intended to be, except in the broadest sense of relationship building — it's about the ideas; there will be plenty of time to sell later.).

Related to that last point: While your future technology, product and solution ideas can't be fiction, they don't need to be specific in all details, including in the time it will take to reach them. Jerry Swartz, Symbol's founder, used to use the term "Pole Star" to describe this concept. Like Polaris serving as a guide to a hiker, the star may never be reached, but it sets and announces a committed direction. And, every once in a while, your engineers will develop arms long enough to reach that star. We talked about a laser "Scanner on a Chip" for a decade or two before it was realized (scoring points for vision and innovation prowess all along the way).

Some may wonder if this fulsome disclosure of future technology directions might not expose you to the risk of them leaking to your competition. I suppose it can, but with a bit of care, the advantages outweigh the risks. Ask your customers to sign a non-disclosure agreement in advance of the session. It may not afford total protection, but it does some, and it can actually add to the "this is something special" impact of the session. Your real protection should come from the fact that your strategies reflect a unique fit to your company and its competencies (the Colts playbook is not so valuable without Peyton Manning as the quarterback), and from your commitment to execution excellence (are you going to let your competition beat you on your turf?).

In my experience, this stuff works — powerfully. Some years ago, a week or two after one such session, I found myself sharing a golf cart with one of the US's largest retailers' key IT executives (Coincidence? I don't think so…). I can still hear him, saying something to the effect, "You know one of the main reasons we buy more from Symbol than any of your competitors? It's because you bring us more good and innovative thinking about how your technology can transform our business than even our major system platform suppliers," (who were many times Symbol's size). That's Trusted Advisor talk.

A Simple (but BIG) Key to Innovation

Want to drive killer innovation at your technology company? Well, there are a lot of moves that you'll ultimately need to master to lead the league in that category, but today I'll talk about one that's fundamental and that I know works, from first hand experience. Best thing about it: it's dead simple…

Create the right opportunities to put your geek engineers in front of your customers, especially your best customers.

That's it.

Pause, while some sales pros among you compose yourselves. You're thinking, "OMG, why would I ever want to do that? Those guys are bound to say something embarrassing, or outright stupid, that will kill my next sale." (Like the unvarnished truth.)

Here's why…

Because they create, literally, the value that your customers buy and that funds your commission.

Because if they hear the raw, unfiltered thoughts of your customers, they'll be that much smarter in designing your next generation product.

Because your customers will be amazed that you did this — since very few, if any, of your competitors do.

Because they'll help you climb the ladder from "supplier" to "trusted adviser / thought leader".

Because they're the smartest guys in your company, and you should leverage their IQ points to best advantage.

Because the ensuing dialogue will often result in your customers telling you exactly what they want from you in the future.

Because your engineers will realize just exactly how painful for your customers it is when your products don't live up to lofty promises.

Because your engineers will be energized to do big things. They, at least the best of them, want to build great products, not just play with neat technology. Great products are those that make a meaningful difference to (important) customers. How do you know that you're working on a "Great Product" if you never talk to the customer?

Above I said, "create the right opportunities…" Sometime soon I'll expand on one way to do just that.


Small Within Big

IStock_000002647543XSmall "We need to stay small within big." It was one of the core ideas our founder, Jerry Swartz, preached from our earliest days at Symbol, right through to the point where we had grown to be pretty big indeed (5600 associates, $1.6B top line, $4B market cap). Jerry understood that our ongoing success would depend on maintaining many of the behaviors that come naturally as a small company, but that can fall by the wayside if not continuously reenforced as an enterprise scales.

In may ways, I believe that we were quite successful in living up to Swartz's admonition. I further think this was one of the secrets of our success, and a principal reason so many of us developed and held a deep passion about working there.

Allow me to offer a few thoughts about how to stay small within big…

Keep focused externally, on what matters: customers and competition. Large companies often fall into the trap of getting all wrapped up in their own organizational matters and processes, and fail to pay attention to what's paying the bills.

When focusing on competition, work hard to ensure that your team takes success and failure as seriously as they care about their home town ball team's winning and losing.

Commit to remain responsive. Answer all calls and emails within 24 hours. Manage time effectively to allow responsiveness. Not too long ago, I called to schedule a five minute follow-up phone call with an executive at a major corporation. His assistant offered me two time slots, both six weeks into the future! I thought she was joking; I found out not, and that this sort of thing is routine there.

Use small-as-possible cross-functional teams as the basic organization building block to get things done. One of the things that brings about hardening of corporate arteries is the silo behavior that develops if most work is organized on strict functional lines. Cross-functional teams, properly managed and supported by executive management, break down silo walls. Often, small teams get more done than larger counterparts, especially when it comes to innovation.

Make sure that everyone understands not just what they're supposed to do (priorities), but why it's important (in the big picture). If not, they'll start approaching their work as "just a job", not as a passionate undertaking aimed at big things. You want to laugh at Dilbert cartoons, not become one.

Encourage experimentation and learning (especially from worthwhile failures — those with initial promise that didn't quite work out). Risk aversion is another affliction of companies that have grown too large (in their thinking and behaviors) to succeed.

Encourage unorthodox ideas (and their authors). They are often the keys to breakthrough success. Learn how to manage and nurture productive non-conformists (not easy, but important). You do not want a company of clones.

Put real energy into ensuring that there's a genuine and candid dialogue up and down and all across your enterprise. All hands meetings, online forums, management by walking around are all effective tools. Listening, genuinely listening to what your team is saying is incredibly important.

Don't forget the basic principals that keyed your success and fueled your growth to begin with. Even as you develop and deploy new strategies to address new opportunities and challenges, be careful not to forget or abandon blindly the cultural values and other foundational elements on which your early dreams were realized.

Don't forget to have fun.

Consider using Jerry's "Small within Big" phrase, it worked for us!

I'm sure that there are many other ideas, but the ones above are among those that proved successful in my personal experience. Perhaps they may be of use in yours.

A Timely Adage

It's October, and for this long time Yankee fan, thoughts inevitably turn to balls and strikes… and in this case to a connection between them and the world of business.

Snapz Pro XScreenSnapz001 "Hit it where they ain't." That, according to (very) old timer Willie Keeler (Baltimore Orioles 1896 – 1897), is how you get on base and drive in runs in our national pastime. I believe that inside that old adage lies a lesson that every business person should take to heart.

If you want to boast of a high batting average, you should aim for the gaps, not the shortstop, especially if he's Derek Jeter (with apologies to fans of all other stripes than pin). If you want to grow your business profitably into a leadership position, you should plan to deliver unique solutions to underserved applications, customers and markets. These are the "gaps" of business opportunity.

Trying to build a business by doing a little bit better, or just a little bit different, than entrenched competitors is tough going at best. Yes, you'll get a grounder just past the shortstop's reach on occasion, but more often than not, you'll be out at first.

My current company, Intelleflex, has been built from day one on a gap strategy, in marked contrast to many other players in RFID technology. I believe that the principal reason that RFID's breakout success still lies ahead of us is that, lured by the promise of huge volumes, many of those other players have been trying to squeeze one by the shortstop, by, in effect, offering a bit more capability than bar coding, for only a bit higher price. Bar codes are the Derek Jeter of automatic identification technology. Bar coding is flexible, cost effective, proven, and broadly entrenched. Tough to beat that allstar combination with an incrementalist value proposition.

Our strategy is to try to get a hit where bar coding ain't — and where it will never be.

Bar codes are great, but they will never be able to measure and log temperatures. They can't be read at 100 meters distance. Can't be located in large open areas. Can't read through optically opaque materials. Can't store 60 thousand bits of read / write data. We can do all those things. As importantly, It turns out that there are underserved, high value business problems that depend on various combinations of these "extended capabilities". Those are our gaps, and that's where we're aiming the ball. (We may still go down swinging, but it won't be for a flawed gameplan.)

Do you have a clear picture of your gaps? The real, compelling and meaningful differences between your offerings and those of your competition? The customers to whom those differences matter? If not, perhaps it's time to watch a little baseball, and think a little business.

Atoms and Bits…

"This can be a very big company someday, because even if the particulars of our technology will be different in the future, as they certainly will, the problems we're attacking are fundamental, and will never go away. We should make that clear to our investors."

I spoke words to that effect to our founder Jerry Swartz sometime around 1980, as we were discussing how best to explain ourselves in that year's Annual Report.

At the time of that conversation, Symbol Technologies had annual sales of around $1 million, was still a few years away from turning a profit, and had only just taken the first tentative steps toward a focus on the bar code scanning products that would become our growth engine for the following decade… a decade in which we doubled sales every year.

The "fundamental problems" I had in mind were those related to connecting the "world of atoms" to "the world of bits" — the physical world of "stuff" and the computer systems we use to track it, manage it, account for it and control it.

I felt that if we described our vision in those terms, and staked our aspirations to that framework, we might fail, but we wouldn't do so by dint of a playing field too cramped or subject to obsolescence. Regardless of how technology evolved, driven by our efforts or those of others, it seemed clear that solutions effectively linking these two domains would always be important. The markets around the development and delivery of those solutions should grow to be large and valuable. They did.

Starting with that annual report we began to articulate our fundamental purpose in these terms, externally and in our own thinking and planning. We talked about connecting atoms and bits, computers with the physical world. We said that we were "The eyes of the computer" (Jerry particularly liked that phrase of his).

We could have said that we were "The Bar Code Scanning Company" or even "The Hand Held Laser Scanning Company" (both accurate but narrow descriptions at the time). But by laying claim to higher ground, we staked out territory in which to advance what became a much broader agenda.

Fifteen years later we had become leaders not just in bar code scanning, but also in mobile computing and wireless networking — all technologies critical to solutions at the boundary between bits and atoms. A few years further down the road, and the "atoms and bits" articulation of our strategic intent was still valid, despite the fact that our revenues had grown a thousand fold since that day in 1980.

And we were by then solidly profitable, for many years running. One of the reasons why: because we chose to do something hard. Delivering technology that works, and works well, at the boundary between bits and atoms is tough. The world of atoms is inherently messy. Bar codes get dirty or torn. Users drop scanners and hand held computers. RF communications encounter interference. This is, as Jerry use to put it, "blue collar computing." Messy.

You can earn a buck by getting good at any business, but you only get to make a lot of money if you do really hard things (that customers care about), really well. That's what we did. We engineered solutions to the messiness of the physical world. Scanners that read poorly printed and abused bar codes. Computers that could be dropped without damage. Networks that worked in the real world.

We did these hard things well, better than others. Our unique skills and focus held off competition many times our size, and allowed us to grow profitably for many years.

I read somewhere that the great majority of life on Earth exists at boundaries (between air and sea and land). I've often thought about how this is suggestive of the richness of opportunity at the boundary between bits and atoms. It's a good place to do business.

I was attracted to Intelleflex, where I'm currently serving as Executive Chairman, precisely because we've challenged ourselves to do a hard thing ("Extended Capability RFID") well (delivering rich functionality, robust performance, great price point) along that same atoms-to-bits boundary. I like our chances for significant success.

So, this little story has been about the importance of choosing a sector in which to do business, and of the articulation of a vision that enables long term growth and value creation. Symbol's founders (I wasn't one) set our initial targeting. Debate, rigorous enough to break up that founding team, set the trajectory beyond our earliest beginnings. And our chosen way of answering the question, "What business are we really in?" provided scope to grow an interesting, large and successful company.

Choosing and appropriately defining your playing field doesn't ensure success however. Next time I'll share a few thoughts about what separates hits from misses, making reference to our national pastime…