When I owned a consulting company we viewed innovation as an imperative. It was the main thing that created differentiation, credibility, and opportunity. We had an innovation budget, solicited ideas from the team, and evaluated those ideas quarterly.
Almost as important to me was that this was fun. It gave everyone on the team the chance to suggest ideas and participate in the process. That was meaningful and supported the collaborative, high-performance culture that had developed. The team was inspired and empowered to make a difference, and that led to an ever-increasing sense of ownership for each employee.
The team also had a vested interest in having the process work, as quarterly bonuses were paid based on their contributions to the company’s profitability. There was a direct cause and effect correlation with tangible benefits for every member of the team.
We developed the following 10 questions qualify & quantify the potential of new ideas:
- What will this new thing do?
- It is important to be very detailed as this was used to create a common vision of success based on the idea being presented.
- What problem(s) does this solve and how so?
- This seems obvious, but if you are not solving a problem (which could be something like “lack of organic expansion”) or addressing a pain point then selling this new product will be an uphill challenge.
- What type of organizations have those problems and why?
- This was fundamental to understanding if a fix was possible from a practical perspective, what the value of that fix might be for the target buyer, and how much market potential existed to scale this new offering.
- What other companies have created solutions or are working on solutions to this problem?
- The lack of competition today does not mean that you are the first one to attack this problem. Due diligence can help avoid repeating the failure of others, and potentially provide lessons learned by others and help you avoid similar pitfalls.
- Will this expand our existing business, or does it have the potential to open up a new market for us?
- There are upsides and downsides to each answer, but breaking into a new market can take more time and be more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to achieve.
- Is this Strategic, Tactical, or Opportunistic?
- An idea may fall into multiple categories. When Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act became law we viewed a new service offering as both a tactical means to protect our managed services business as well as an opportunistic means to acquire new customers and grow the business.
- What are the Cost, Time, and Skill estimates for developing a Minimally Viable Product (MVP) or Service?
- What are the Financial Projections for the first year?
- Cost to develop and go-to-market.
- Target selling price, factoring-in early adopter discounts.
- Estimated Contribution Margin Ratio (for comparison with other ideas being considered).
- Break-even point.
- Would we be able to get an existing customer to pre-purchase this?
- A company that is willing to provide a PO that commits to making a purchase of that MVP within a specific timeframe increased our confidence in the viability of the idea.
- What are the specific Critical Success Factors to be used for evaluation purposes?
- This was an important lesson learned over time that helped minimize emotional attachment to the idea or project, as well as providing objective milestones for critical go / no-go decision making.
This process was purposeful, agile, lean, and somewhat aggressive. We believed it gave our company a competitive advantage over larger companies that tended to respond slower to new opportunities and smaller competitors that did not want to venture outside their wheelhouse.
With each project, we learned and became more efficient and effective, and made better investment decisions that positively impacted our success. We monitored progress on an ongoing basis relative to our defined success criteria, and adjusted or sunset an offering if it stopped providing the required value.
The process was not perfect…
For example, we passed on a couple of leading-edge ideas such as a “Support Robot” in 2003 that was essentially an interactive program that used a machine-learning algorithm. It was to be trained using historical log files, could quickly and safely be tested in a production environment, refined as needed and ultimately validated.
This automation could have been used with our existing managed services and Remote DBA customers to further mitigate the risk of unplanned outages. Most importantly, it would have provided leverage to take-on new business without jeopardizing quality or adding staff – thereby increasing revenue and profit margin.
At the time we believed this would be too difficult to sell to prospective customers (“pipe dream” and “snake oil” were some of the adjectives we envisioned), so it appeared to lack a few items required by the process. Live and learn.
In summary, having a defined approach for something as important as business needs innovation to grow and prosper, as best demonstrated by market leaders like Amazon and Google (read the 10-K Annual Reports to gain a better understanding of their competitive growth strategies that are largely based on innovation).
Implementing this type of approach within a larger organization requires additional steps, such as getting the buy-in from a variety of stakeholders and aligning with existing product roadmaps, but is still the key to scalable growth for most businesses.
I have recently been investigating and visiting universities with my eldest daughter, who is currently a Senior in High School. Last week we visited Stanford University (an amazing experience I will post about soon) and then spent a week in Northern California on vacation. After being home for a day and a half I am currently in Texas for a week of team meetings and training. The first night of a trip I seldom sleep, so I was listening to the song, “Don’t let it bring you down” by Annie Lennox, which is a cover of a Neil Young song. That led to a Youtube search for the original Neil Young version, which led to me listening to the song “Old Man” – a favorite song of mine for over 30 years. That led to some reflection, which ultimately led to this post.
The reason that I mention this is because it is an example of the tangential thought process (which is generally viewed as a negative trait) that occurs naturally for me. It is something that helps me “connect the dots” more naturally. It is part of the non-linear thinking associated with ADHD (again, something generally viewed as negative). The interesting thing is that in order to fit in and be successful with ADHD you tend to develop logical systems for focus and consistency. That has many positive benefits – such as creating repeatable processes and automation.
The combination of linear and non-linear thinking can really fuel creativity. The downside is that it can take quite a while for others to see the potential of those ideas, which can be extremely frustrating. But, you learn to deal with that. The upside is that you tend to create relationships with other innovators because they often tend to think like you do. The world is a strange place.
It is funny how there are several points in your life when you have an epiphany and things make complete sense, which causes you to realize how much time and effort could have been saved if you had only been able to figure that out sooner. As a parent I am continually trying to create shortcuts for my children so that they can reach those points much sooner than I did.
I started this post thinking that I would document as many of those lessons as possible to serve as a future reminder. But, like most children, they will each learn in their own way and at their own pace. So instead, I decided to post a few things that I view as foundational truisms that could help foster that growth process. So, here goes…
- Always work hard to be the best, but never let yourself believe that you are the best. Even if you truly are, it will be short lived as there are always people out there doing everything that they can to be the best. Ultimately, that is a good thing. You need to have enough of an ego to test the limits of things, but not one that is so big that it alienates or marginalizes those around you.
- Learn from everything you do – good or bad. Continuous improvement is so important, and by focusing on this you constantly challenge yourself to try new things and find better (i.e., more effective, more efficient, and more consistent) ways to do things.
- Realize that the difference between a brilliant and a stupid idea is often perspective. Years ago I taught technical courses, and occasionally someone would describe something they did that just seemed strange or wrong. But, if you took the time to ask questions and try to understand why they did what they did you would often identify the brilliance in that approach. It is something that is both exciting and humbling.
- Incorporating new approaches or best practices of others into your own proven methods and processes is part of continuous improvement, but it only works if you are able to set aside your ego and keep an open mind.
- Believe in yourself, even when others don’t share that belief. Remain open to feedback and constructive criticism as a way to learn and improve, but never give up on yourself. There is a huge but sometimes subtle difference between confidence and arrogance, and that line is often drawn at the point where you can accept that you might be wrong, or that there might be a better way to do something. Become the person that people like working with, and not the person that they avoid or want to see fail.
- Surround yourself with the best people that you can find, but look for people with diverse backgrounds and complementary skills. The best teams that I have ever been involved with consisted of high achievers who constantly raised the bar for each other while simultaneously creating a safety net for their teammates. The team grew and did amazing things because everyone was both very competitive and very supportive of each other.
- Keep notes or a journal because good ideas are often fleeting and hard to recall. And remember, good ideas can come from anywhere so keep track of the suggestions of others and make sure that attribute those ideas to the proper source.
- Try to make a difference in the world. Try to leave everything your “touch” (job, relationship, project, whatever) in a better state that before you were there. Helping others improve and leading by example are two simple ways of making a difference.
- Accept that failure is a natural obstacle on your path to success. You are not trying hard enough if you never fail. But, you are also not trying hard enough if you fail too often. That is very subjective, and honest introspection is your best gauge. Be accountable, accept responsibility, document the lessons learned, and move on.
- Dream big, and use that as motivation to learn new things. While I was funding medical research efforts I spent time learning about genetics, genomics, and biology. That expanded to interests in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, neural networks and interfaces such as natural language and non-verbal / emotional. Someday I hope to tie these together in a way that could help cure a disease (Arthritis) and improve the quality of life for millions of people. Will that ever happen? I don’t know, but I do know that if I don’t try it will never happen because of anything that I did.
- Focus on the positive, not the negative. Creativity is stifled when there is fear of blame.
- Never hesitate to apologize when you are wrong. This is a sign of strength, not weakness.
- And above all else, honesty and integrity should be the foundation for everything you do and are.
Hopefully this will help my children become the best people possible, and hopefully early-on in their lives. I was 30 years old before I feel that I really had a clue about a lot of these things. Until then I was somewhat selfish and focused on winning. Winning and success are good things, but they are better when done the right way.
During a very candid review years ago, my boss at the time made a surprising comment to me. He said, “Good ideas can be like diamonds – drop them once in a while and they have a lot of value. But, sprinkle the everywhere you go and they just become a bunch of shiny rocks.” This was not the type of feedback that I was expecting, but it turned out to be both insightful and very valuable.
For a long time I have held the belief that there are four types of people at any company: People who want to make things better; People who are interested in improvement, but only in a supporting role; People who are mainly interested in themselves (they can do great things, but often at the expense of others); and People that that are just there and don’t care much about anything. This opinion is based on a working and consultant and many companies for several decades.
A recent Gallup Poll states that Worldwide, only 13% of Employees are “engaged at work” (the rest are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”). This is a sad reflection of employees and work environments if it is true. Since it is a worldwide survey it is hopefully was highly skewed and not indicative of what is typical. So, not quite aligned with my thinking, but interesting nonetheless.
So, back to the story… I had come from running my own business for nearly a decade and being a consultant for 15 years to working in a larger company. I was used to taking the best practices learned from other companies and incorporating them into our own business practices to improve them (and later sharing those improved business practices with Clients). I tend to take a systemic view of business and see the importance of having all components of “the business machine” working in harmony, so improvements in one area ultimately make a positive impact in other areas.
While I was trying to be helpful, I was insensitive to the fact that my “friendly suggestions based on past success” were creating quite a bit of frustration to people who would prefer that I minded my own business. Suggestions and examples that were intended to be helpful had the opposite effect. Even worse, it was probably just as frustrating to me to be ignored as it was to others to have me infringe on their business. And, this was very noticeable to my boss.
Had I been an external consultant those same ideas (“diamonds”) may have been considered, but as part of the leadership team I was coming across as one of those people who were just interested in themselves (leaving “shiny rocks” laying around for people to ignore or possibly trip over). Perception is reality, and this was hurting me. Luckily, I received this honest and helpful feedback and was receptive to change.
What are the morals of this story?
First, people who are engaged have the most potential to make a difference. Part of being a manager is making sure that you have the best possible team, and are creating an environment that challenges and motivates your team. Disengaged employees or people unwilling or unable to work with others and collaborate might not be your best choices, no matter how talented they may be.
Second, doing what you believe to be the right thing isn’t necessarily the best or right way. You need to be sensitive of the big picture and test whether or your input is being viewed as constructive. If you are not being effective then consider that your execution could be flawed. Self-awareness is very important.
And third, use your own examples as stories to help others understand problems in a non-threatening way to help them become more effective (and then challenge them to do so). And, if someone else has good ideas, help support them and collaborate. In the end it should be more about growth and achievement than who gets the most credit.
While this seems like common sense to me now, my background and personal biases blinded me to that. The biggest lesson learned was about adaptation. There are many ways to be effective and make a difference. Understanding the situation so you can employ the best techniques is critical to success.
One of the biggest changes to my professional perspective on business came during the seven years that I was running my own consulting business. Prior to that I had worked as an employee for midsize to large companies for ten years, and as one of the first hires at a start-up technology company. I felt that the combination of doing hands-on work, managing, selling, and helping establish a start-up (where I did not have an equity stake) provided everything needed to start my own business.
Well, guess what? I was only partially correct. I was prepared for the activities of running the business, but really was not prepared for the responsibility of running a business. While this seems like it should be obvious, what I’ve seen many times since then is that small business owners usually focus the majority of their efforts on growth / upside. That type of optimism is important for entrepreneurs – without it they would not bother putting so much at risk. I will write more posts about my business ownership experiences later.
People tend to adopt a different perspective on the decision making process once they realize that every action and decision can impact the money moving into and out of their own wallet. Even in a large business you can typically spot the people who have taken these risks and run their own business. It’s more than just striking out on your own as a contractor or sole proprietor. I’m talking about the people who have had employees, invested in capital equipment, and went all-in. These are the people thinking about the big picture.
What do these people do differently than people who have not had this type of experience?
One of the biggest things is they view business in terms of “good business” and “bad business.” Not all business is good business, and not all customers are good customers. There needs to be a fair commercial exchange where both sides receive value, mutual respect, and open communication. You know this is working when your customers treat you like a true partner (a real trusted advisor) instead of a vendor. A business is in business to make money, so if the work is not profitable it is very likely that you should not be doing it. And, if you are not delivering value to an organization it is very likely that you would be better off spending your time elsewhere – building your reputation and reference base.
When you are not thinking or acting like an owner it is all about the sale and your commission. Selling products and services that people don’t need, charging too little or too much, and making promises that you know will not be met are typical signs of a person who is not thinking like an owner. Their focus is on the short-term, and they often feel that someone else will fix this once it becomes their problem.
How you view and treat employees is another big difference. Unfortunately, even business owners do not always get this. My feeling is that employees are either viewed as Assets (to be managed for growth and long-term value) or Commodities (to be used-up and replaced as needed – usually viewed as fungible and treated as if they are easily replaceable). Your business is usually only as good as your employees, so treating them well and with respect creates loyalty and results in higher customer satisfaction. Successful business owners usually look for the best person out there, and not just the most affordable person who is “good enough” to do the job. The flipside is that you need to weed out the people who are not a good fit quickly. Making good decisions quickly and decisively is often a hallmark of a successful business owner.
Successful business owners are generally more innovative. They understand the need to find a niche where they can win and provide good and/or services that are different and often better than what larger vendors offer. Sometimes this means specialization and customization, and sometimes this means more attention and better support. Regardless of what is different, these people are observant of the small details, understand their target market, and are good at defining a message that articulates that difference. These are the people that seem to be able to see around corners and anticipate both problems and opportunities. They do this out of necessity.
Former business owners are usually more conscientious about money, taking a “my money” perspective on sales and expenses. Every dollar in the business provides safety and opportunity for growth. These usually are not the people who routinely spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on business meals, or who take unnecessary or questionable trips to nice places. Money saved on things like travel or training expenses can be invested in new products, features, or marketing for an organization.
While these are commonly traits found in successful business owners, it is possible to develop them even if you have never owned a business. Do you understand the big picture vision and mission of the company that you work at? Who is your competition and how are they different? How is their messaging different? When selling, are you focused on delivering value, developing a positive reputation within that organization, and profiting on the long-term relationship? When delivering services, is your focus on delivering what has been contracted – and doing so on time and within budget? Are your projects used as examples of how things should be done within other organizations? Are you spending money on the right things – not wasteful or extravagant?
These are all things that employees at all levels can do. They will make a difference and will help you stand out. That opens the door to career growth and change. And, it may get you thinking about starting that business you have always dreamed of. Awareness and understanding are the first steps to change and improvement.
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein
I actually didn’t care much for consultants in the first part of my career. My experience was that people would come in, tell you what to do, and then leave victoriously while we were stuck trying to implement something that just wouldn’t work. It seemed that they made everything seem so complex – often as a way to justify their cost.
Then, I met a really amazing consultant who shared something valuable with me. He explained what he believed differentiated a true consultant from a contractor (something I wrote about a decade later in a Tech Republic article). He then made me aware of the Einstein quote above. This was one of those pivotal moments in my career.
Over the course of many years I have met many interesting people. Some seemed to try to intentionally obfuscate even the easiest things. Others took such a circuitous route that you sometimes forgot about what you were trying to understand. And sometimes explanations were just so tangential that the main point was completely lost. There are likely many reasons for these experiences – some intentional and many not. The real lesson learned is that it wasn’t just consultants who have the ability to be incomprehensible.
Just think about the power of a well crafted “elevator pitch” when you meet someone new, or the ability to quickly explain how your company differentiates itself from the competition (making you the better or safer choice). Or, being able to articulate your business strategy in a way that people not only understand, but interests them enough where they want to learn more. This goes well beyond just having good communication skills.
The best consultants have this ability to explain something simply, as do the best employees, the best managers, the best executives, and the best business owners. While this is only one attribute of success (likability, powers of persuasion, integrity, luck, etc. are others), it is something that can be taught, developed, and consistently applied.
The power to “explain it simply” is the power to make a difference.