When I was in business school, I did an independent study thesis on the fostering design and innovation within corporations. The process required selecting a department and a professor to sponsor the work. When I first started business school, I thought that my independent study would best be sponsored by either the finance or marketing departments as I felt that lens would give me the holistic view needed to foster innovation. I was wrong. After my first two semesters, I realized that the key to successful innovation would be to understand how people and organizations work - beyond the org. charts. As a result, I did my independent study under the sponsorship of the Organizational Behavior Department. What I learned has proven invaluable as I guide my client organizations through the culture, structure, and power issues to realize the change required to innovate.
When clients ask me if there are any reference materials on innovation, I start with a few articles that I still find invaluable to help me think through intangible organizational issues in a clear, structured way. I suggest they start with these articles to provide a common language and shed light on issues they will likely face. Most of them are fairly old, but I have found them to stand the test of time. Here are the articles I use as a foundation:
Edgar Schein - Organizational Culture - For some reason I can't find a link to this one. If anyone finds it please send it to me. (Excellent for discussing culture in a tangible and concrete way. Allows you to pinpoint cultural contradictions.)
Edgar Schein - Three Cultures of Management: The Key to Organizational Learning Available for purchase. (Great for understanding what motivates people's decision-making, beyond functional discipline.)
Steven Kerr - On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B (A great reminder on the true power of reward systems.)
Margaret Wheatley - Searching for Order in an Orderly World Available for purchase. (In undertaking innovation projects, it's a great help to understand the the contrasts in creating order in natural and unnatural environments.)
Maureen Scully and Debra E. Meyerson - Tempered Radicalism and the Politics of Ambivalence and Change Available for purchase. (Any internal person responsible for innovation is put in the position of being what the authors call "Tempered Radicals". It's an excellent primer for the issues they face.)
Deborah Tannen - The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why - (A good look at the differences in communication styles, and how our biases shape who gets heard, who gets credit, and what gets done. It's focused on gender differences, but the ideas are equally important to the cultural influences we face in an increasingly global workplace.)
Kurt Lewin - He pioneered the "Unfreeze, Move, and Refreeze" model that underlies all successful change management programs. I had a professor once who said that we could look at all the different change models and find that they could all be reduced to Lewin's. He was right.
Most consumer research focuses on learning about what people do, and most innovation projects focus on developing new technologies into things people will buy. Notice the disconnect?
Too little research is focused on how people make decisions, and too few innovation projects focus on developing something that fits better with people's decision processes.
Learning to do this type of research is difficult. Learning to connect this research to the development process is even more difficult - and rare. No one would argue that it is important to learn about how consumers make decisions, nor would they argue with the importance of connecting this knowledge to the development process is important. In fact, many would say they are already doing it.
I have not seen a product or service fail when this is done well, and yet according to Stevens and Burley, at least 1 of 3 products fail at launch despite research and planning. Clearly, we can see that doing these activities does not mean we are succeeding at connecting them.
The other day I was having a chat with some colleagues about authenticity. Current wisdom suggests that brands and companies that are perceived to be less than authentic are doomed to fail. However, we know that brands, companies, and even people will behave differently in different situations. We even expect that they should. To lack the flexibility to do so would be socially disrespectful. So what is authenticity, and how to we ensure that others will perceive our work as authentic?
"To thine own self be true." That's the standard answer. If you are true to yourself, then you (meaning your brand, service, company, etc) will be perceived as authentic. However, I think that's only part of the answer. People can't judge how true you are to yourself. They judge how true you are to them, based on what they perceive. If you know what cues your market will respond to, then you can manage their perception consistently. This requires the ability to suspend what it means to be true to yourself, in order to fully immerse yourself in what it means to be true to someone else.
A few years ago, I was mentoring a person just starting out in his career. I imparted the standard guidance as he was doing his first solo project, and I asked him to periodically let me know what he thought was "cool", and why. He did well on his project, and I learned a lot about how his social group thought about the world. One day, we were talking about why he shunned big, corporate brands, and he used me as an example. "The coolest thing about you Ellen, is that you know how uncool you really are. Some big brands get that right, but most don't."
Hmmm...who said authenticity was a good thing?
My last post was about the success of Monocle, and how founder Tyler Brule's incessant, immersive research plays a large role in this success. But it's not the only reason Monocle is successful. JD asked the question, "Is Brule able to do this because he is part of his target market, and he is providing products and services that he, himself, would want?" This is a great question, and my answer is that while this may very well be true, it's not enough. If it were, he could just sit behind his desk all day and dictate what he likes rather than spend time in the market.
Immersive research to get to the heart of what drives the consumer's decision-making process is half the battle. The other half is the ability to translate what we learn about the market into products and services that actually connect with these drivers. In my experience, this is where most companies fall down. The inability to translate these intangible needs into tangible products actually encourages superficial research. It's easy to make a direct link from what a consumer says they want, to delivering on what was described. This is great for incremental improvements, but consumers cannot tell you how to disrupt a market. Tom Martin said it well today in AdAge, "The customer is paying you to solve his problems before he even realizes he has them."
The translation from consumer understanding to the creation of the right products and services is the other area where Brule's team seems to be executing flawlessly. The fact that he is part of his target market may help him, but being part of his market does not automatically give him the ability to translate. We are all members of various target markets and may work for companies that make products for people like us, but the vast majority of us do not have this ability. So, Brule is good at translating in this market. For him it doesn't matter whether or not he's good at translation in general. For other companies, this matters a lot.
The ability to translate is equally important for all functions in an organization, yet it is a skill that is difficult to recognize. Traditional market research techniques often fail to uncover the depth of insight that will guide the development of disruptive products and services, and traditional evaluation techniques often fail to discern whether or not a disruptive idea will connect well enough to succeed. Brule clearly does this well, and I don't even need to say more than the words "Apple vs Dell" to further illustrate the point.
I fully believe that you do not need to be in a target market to derive the right insights and translate them into the right disruptive products and services. Right now we're seeing success with CEO's who are good translators, but the CEO doesn't have to be the translator. Is your company recognizing and supporting this role?
I enjoy the weekend edition of the Financial Times, part of which is Tyler Brule's weekly column. A few months ago, something started to catch my attention. It appeared that Brule's publication, Monocle, is doing quite well. It is a lifestyle magazine, and has an associated website with audio reports in addition to the printed publication, and even a recently launched retail concept. There is no user generated content, and it is obvious that everything, from the website, to the audio reports, to the physical publication itself, are very well produced. That's not cheap. So what is Brule doing that allows him to be successful by going against the current wisdom in the industry?
To satisfy my curiosity, I did a quick search and found an interview with Brule in the Austrailian WSJ that sought out my very question. What I learned was quite revealing. While there are several factors responsible for his success, what stood out for me was his statement that they don't do any research at all, and that he doesn't believe in it. He then described what research was to him, and it consists of using focus groups to decide what the cover should be, or other specific executional details. Later, however, he talked about how he spends time with consumers in the shop, just having a chat with them. He also mentioned that he watches what magazines business people are buying in the airport, and then how he observes what people are reading on the plane. From reading his weekly column, you can also see that he is spending the bulk of his time immersing in his market. He maintains a grueling travel schedule, and makes sure his reporters and correspondents are in the places they are covering. He then mentioned that they did use a readership survey to confirm some of their assumptions about their readers' habits. It was not to learn what features they might like.
Like most business people, Brule has a very narrow definition of what research is. Unlike most business people, he knows that research as he defines it is not going to help him to connect with his market and deliver the experience they are seeking but cannot define. From my perspective, Brule executes brilliant research. He does whatever is necessary to connect with his market, and fully understand what is driving their decisions. He knows that it is his responsibility to deliver an experience that will connect with this consumer, and he does not expect them to ask for it. He also knows that there is greater value in delivering an experience that the consumer wouldn't think to ask for, but suits them perfectly.
What can be learned from his success? There is little to be learned from the execution, as what he is doing is right for his market, and would probably not work for say, the New York Times. What can be learned is that he is ignoring current consumer, industry, and economic trends, he's learning what is driving his market, and he's delivering a series of products to satisfy their needs in a way that his industry competition has not.
Is your company using research this effectively?
Last week I attended the first Mass Innovation Nights event. This will be a monthly event to highlight Massachusetts innovators by giving them a forum in which to showcase their latest products and inventions. It was good to meet so many in the local innovation community, and a great way to learn what's going on in our own backyard.
The next day I was talking to Mark Roth about the event, and mentioned that while it was great to see all the new ideas, it typically took me several questions to get a sense of why I should be interested in them. Mark called that the "So what, who cares" test. Entrepreneurs, typically those in the technology sectors, are usually so engrossed in the nuts and bolts behind their invention, that they often skip the first step in explaining them. At the end of the day, people don't buy cool technology. They buy what that technology enables.
Try Mark's test the next time you're evaluating a new idea. The answer to the question, "So what, who cares" should be easy to understand, and it should matter. What answers do you get when you ask that question of the new projects going on in your company?
Walk into almost any company and ask a random employee what they do. You'll likely get very specific answers. "I'm in marketing", or "I'm a manufacturing supervisor", or "I'm a software developer." They are all very clean, neat, and tidy, with little to no overlap.
Does this make sense? I would say that when there is a problem in the product development process, it is usually because there is a problem with translation. By this I mean, how does someone within the company translate what they are doing to success in the market? Companies spend a lot of time and money trying to integrate the disparate functions within the organization. They focus on smoother hand-offs from one group to the next. They focus on more integrated processes to bring everyone's interests to bear on the task at hand.
My question is, how often is the task at hand defined as a real market issue that needs to be solved? Sales people are rewarded for pushing more stuff into the market, and some marketing people are rewarded to the extent that they contribute to this effort. But how often are the engineers, software developers, and finance people rewarded based on an external measure? How completely did the marketing person uncover and define a true underlying need in the market? How well did an engineer or software developer do in coming up with a unique solution for that need?
Rather than focusing on pushing people together to try to integrate their competing interests, it may be better to pose a common challenge for the group to solve. If this common challenge focused on an external issue, then focusing on the competing interests of different internal functions would be less relevant. The group would naturally be pulled together, and the overlaps between their disciplines would be covered.
Now, how many companies actually reward their people for meeting these types of challenges? My guess is that there is a lot of talking about cross-disciplinary functions, but the rewards focus on single discipline metrics. This even plays out in recruiting. There is a time and place when you need strong functional expertise, and an equally important time and place when you need cross functional ability. The right people for these challenges may not be one and the same. Remember, there are people who live in the overlaps. The challenge lies presenting the right challenges to the right people at the right time. Easier said than done, but that's no excuse not to try. How are the overlaps covered in your company?
People often ask me how they can improve their consumer interviewing skills. The thought being that if they can perfect the art of the one-on-one interview that they will have the key to understanding their markets.
I applaud the intention, and people who try to stick to a script rather than have a conversation with a consumer can surely improve their skills. But it's important to remember that one-on-one interviews are only one tool in your toolbox. Full understanding of what will drive consumer behavior in a given market requires a combination of qualitative and quantitative, primary and secondary, and generative and evaluative research tools.
How do you know which ones to use? The answer to that question requires a clear understanding of the business decisions that need to be made. Research should never be expected to give you an answer. It is a tool to give you information that will help you to derive the right answer. And the best way to ensure that you've arrived at the right answer is to collect information that will expose all sides of the issue you are dealing with, covering the proverbial blind spots.
Which leads me to the blind men and the elephant metaphor. In the story, six blind men are asked to describe an elephant, yet each only touches one part of the elephant. The man who touches the tusk thinks the elephant is like a spear, the man who touches the side things the elephant is like a wall, and so on. They end up arguing that the elephant is most like whichever part they had experienced, without realizing that the elephant is made up of all of the elements, and is not at all like any single one.
My advice is that the best way to improve consumer understanding skills is to figure out which perspectives and information will be necessary to paint the whole elephant. This can only be done by reconciling the results of all the tools used, rather than relying on any one to deliver the answer. Which then means that the best skill to hone is critical thinking.