I received an email from a regular reader of this blog asking the following question:
I need to think about an interesting topic to do a 10 min presentation to my Global Consumer Insights Vicepresident. If you were him, what would you like to hear about from a CI manager of a WW consumer goods company?
Here are a few thoughts from conversations I've had with clients recently:
Remember that the consumer is a source of information, not answers.
Think about what you really mean when you talk about statistical significance.
Insights are derived, not observed.
Innovation is not random. There is a way to identify and evaluate the market relevance of opportunities before investing in development.
When taking the time to derive a consumer's motivations, remember that the most valuable result of the work is to pose the right (ie: market relevant) problem for the organization to solve. Don't shortcut this work and jump into problem-solving mode before you know whether or not you're solving the right one!
I'm sure others could add to this list, and I would love to know what you think.
It's no secret that I believe that the ability to translate market needs into viable offerings that meet those needs is the key to successful innovation. It's also no secret that I believe that this ability does not reside in any one discipline, educational background, or company process. Last year I wrote three posts, each about an element of translation that I felt was important for an organization to embrace the capability. The three elements were Awareness, Capability, and Evaluation.
I still believe that these three elements are necessary for an organization to embrace translation, and I have been focusing on what it would take to actually recognize and build it. In the post about having the capability to translate, I ask the question about whether or not the organization has the right people to perform this task. This past year, I have been trying to put my finger on what exactly it is that a person who is good at translating is actually doing? What skills do they posses? Is it learned? If so, then how do you teach someone, and by extension an organization, to make accurate connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, disciplines, process phases, or stakeholder needs? Is it innate? If so, then how do you teach an organization to recognize these skills, accept the differences, and embrace the outcomes?
Where I have landed is that everyone can learn better techniques and processes such as deriving motivations from contextual research, or evaluating intangible attributes. However, even with the best techniques and processes, some people are able to make these connections, and others are not. Once that pink elephant in the room was called out, the rest became more clear. It gave me a different perspective on process, and has allowed me to continue to hone my best practices in identifying these people because these skills don't fit on current HR checklists.
Some people may not like this conclusion, but it's really no different than recognizing that people possess different physical abilities that make them better than others at physical tasks, so why wouldn't different mental abilities exist as well? An exploration into the field of perceptual psychology has shed some light on this subject for me as well, especially when we look at recent research into synesthesia.
Synesthesia is a perceptual experience, where some type of sensory crossover takes place. For example, a person with synesthesia may hear sounds when they see certain colors, or they may experience a smell when they come in contact with certain textures. Historically, synesthesia has been confined to describing specific sensory crossovers that are not experienced by the general population. Recent research by experts in synesthetic perception, has broadened the understanding of what goes on in our brains as we perceive the world around us. He has found that cross-sensory mapping is happening all the time, to the point that we take it for granted. For example, dancing is a kinetic response to sound stimulus; a cross-sensory mapping ability that goes unquestioned by the general public. They suggest that we only notice when people perceive sensory crossovers that are not commonly experienced by the average person. It sticks out when someone sees a color and hears a sound, but we don’t find it odd that a person may hear a sound, and move their body in a way that mimics the rhythm of the sound.
The newest thinking actually goes so far as to define synesthesia as a consciously elevated form of the perception that everyone already has. Just as people have varying degrees of physical abilities, it makes sense that varying degrees of perceptual abilities exist as well. It therefore also makes sense that some people are naturally better at perceiving one type of input, such as consumer motivation, and mapping it to a seemingly disconnected output, such as an offering toward which the consumer will respond positively. To put it bluntly, some people are better at making the connections necessary to create successful, market relevant innovation, and this skill is independent of which discipline they choose to study.
So what does this mean for translation ability? Is it a form of synesthesia? A form of creativity? Much more work needs to be done before we will know for sure. What is important is that we are beginning to develop models that support the idea that getting the right people in place to focus on innovation is an important first step. We can then develop systems and processes to support them, rather than take the place of the human element.
We've talked about the difference between the innovation process and the development process in terms of the results they are expected to achieve; the innovation process being used to identify market relevant opportunities for innovation, and the development process being used to efficiently and reliably get offerings into the market. We've also talked about how different people, and different thought processes lend themselves to achieving these goals.
What we haven't talked about is how the different processes should enable people to best do their work. This is where we often see culture clashes in companies who try to standardize performance objectives based on discipline when they should be targeted to the overall objectives they are tasked with achieving. Let's see how this plays out by examining some common process elements and seeing how they differ between the innovation and development processes.
The complexity of the development process can best be defined by the sheer number of tasks, functions, and people that must be managed. It is often a project manager's sole job to coordinate and keep track of everything that must happen. This person also communicates the interrelations between the tasks required of different functions so that the team can proceed toward the goal. For this reason, quality of work is evaluated based on whether or not the team members complete their required tasks efficiently and according to schedule. There are well defined parameters for the completion of tasks to hit project milestones. In fact, every task is planned and scheduled before the project starts, and the project operates under the assumption that when all tasks are completed, the project is done. As can be expected, the planning process is very involved, but this typically happens once, when the process is being initially determined. After that, most projects are similar to the first and can follow predictably along the same steps. So, it can be said that the purpose of the development process is to ensure that human error can be engineered out of the system.
The complexity of the innovation process can best be defined by the fact that the team typically has no idea what the tasks should be at the beginning of the project. This team is guided by an overarching goal, and needs to be flexible and creative enough to do whatever tasks are necessary to collect the information that will help to achieve it. The fact that a set of tasks worked on the last project may be useful knowledge, but it is certainly not a roadmap for the next project which will have a different overarching goal. For this reason it is difficult, if not impossible, to map a process step-by-step for a person outside the work process to plan, manage, and communicate. Quality of work is evaluated on whether or not each person is able to construct logic and create solid rationale leading to recommendations, making sure to voice any logic breaches that come up so that the team can step back and address them. Milestones are certainly helpful, but they are more useful for the team to structure their thinking, and less useful to determine tasks. At the end of the day, it can be said that the purpose of the innovation processes is to ensure that intuitive leaps are made transparent, able to be evaluated, and that recommendations can be presented in such a way that the rest of the organization can make use of them.
Think about how your company's development and innovation processes. Are they different? Do they try to achieve different goals while using a similar process?
I'm working on a project now where I'm trying to create a clear separation between the multidisciplinary team process for product implementation, vs product innovation. On paper they look pretty much the same. All the disciplines are represented, and the team is aligned around a common goal.
However, when you see the teams working together, something very different is happening between them. The best analogy I've come up with so far is that the product implementation team behaves much like a soccer team. The roles are clearly laid out, and the team members are executing specific tasks based on where the ball is at the moment. On the other hand, the innovation team is operating more like a rugby team. The roles are less clearly defined, and in a scrum, it's difficult to tell who's doing what, except that they all want to get the ball somewhere else and are working toward that end.
Implementation teams can work with clearly defined roles because the end product they are charged with making has been clearly defined. Innovation teams are charged with figuring out what should be made. As such, clarity around roles is difficult, and it makes sense to have people who are more flexible and can fill gaps.
What are the characteristics you would look for if you needed to hire people to fill each type of team. How are they similar, and how are they different?
What ideas has your company passed up because you lacked the resources to pursue them at the time? Companies often pursue the ideas they know are achievable.
Once the needs of the market are fully understood, many of those old ideas become viable. Sometimes it's a matter of looking at them in a new way. Other times it's a matter of having a reason to pursue an idea that may require more work to develop. Or sometimes an idea was ahead of its time, and now the world will be ready for it.
Whatever the case may be, it makes sense to capture every idea and keep them in a place where they can be used as a source of inspiration. Maybe create a library called The Cutting Room Floor or something like that.
Ultimately, an idea is only good if it satisfies your criteria. When the criteria changes, then the cutting room floor may provide you with a wealth of solutions.
If your organization is like most, there are many processes in place that ensure no one can make a mistake that could cost the company vast sums of money, damage its reputation, or do other terrible damage. While many of these processes are in place for a good reason, has anyone ever looked at the trade-offs that have been made as a result?
The reason I point this out is that I find it interesting that these processes are never, ever questioned. Even though I've watched companies miss out on very lucrative opportunities as a result of blindly following existing processes, I have been left wondering why no one questioned what else could have been done to have avoided missing out on the opportunity. A lot of effort goes into protecting the company from harm, which makes it all the more interesting that missed opportunities are seldom viewed as harmful.
I highly value thoughtfulness, and due diligence, and I am not advocating that companies abandon all existing processes to encourage people to chase after anything they want. Far from it. I just wanted to point out that it does seem a bit odd that questions about the value of missed opportunities are seldom, if ever, raised. It would be interesting to see if there are some processes that are costing more than they save.
Do you know why all the processes at your company exist? Would you know when their use should be questioned and/or challenged?
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.
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?
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?