SCOTT PROPP Equipping the individual, team and enterprise for growth leadership Wed, 26 Jul 2017 08:00:59 +0000 en-US hourly 1 How Do You Develop New Solutions When Your Sales Team Won’t Help? Wed, 26 Jul 2017 08:00:59 +0000


I was wrapping up a recent talk on doing growth programs in larger firms, when during the Q&A session, one of the up-and-coming innovation leaders expressed a common concern:

“We sometimes build some interesting things in our product team, but we can never get our sales team even remotely interested in sharing them with a customer.  How can we get our sales team on board?”

My response probably surprised her.

What I told her, is that it’s actually a good thing that the sales team is resistant to casually sharing new features and product enhancements proposed by the product team.  The relationship that is nurtured and watched over by your account team is built on two big foundations: trust and performance.  The customer needs to know that when they place a purchase order, the full weight of the firm will move heaven and earth to fulfill it.  This kind of trust takes time to earn and is very easily lost.  So it’s with good reason that sales is resistant to having casual feature discussions.

The question that will unlock a mutually beneficial discussion is this:

How do we develop sales team members as an integral part of the growth process?

When we ask the question in this way, we set the stage for a very different alignment. By setting up the activities under a new charter (discovery of the best possible new offering), it allows both you and your development partner to contribute time, energy and resources with your eyes wide open.

How does this help create the most value?

  1. It drives senior-level commitment both within the firm and within the client.  To achieve this mutual commitment, you’ll need the endorsement of the product team lead, production team lead and the sales leadership.  This will assure that everyone is informed and fully behind what is being discussed with the beta client so the account team is able to carefully position this work in a new space: high-value discovery work for mutual value.
  2. It allows the beta client to engage its best and brightest.  These kind of activities need to be well sponsored on the client side, as well. After all, it’s one thing to have an interested member or two on the client side, and quite another to have them bought into some type of joint development.  By raising the stakes, you actually improve the probability of a good outcome.
  3. It allows the account executive the freedom to build value and not degrade their commission metrics.  There is a romantic notion that sales exec’s live on the leading edge.  But the truth is that they live in the growth zone of well-vetted solutions that solve big pains for their clients.  The solutions they bring to these need to be bulletproof so they can do the customer development work and not get involved with inventions.  To shift to new solution development will take valuable on the ground time away from making their numbers, so the sales leadership team needs to comp them for this time.

You may be asking yourself how this really works, because to do a Joint Development Agreement, some informal “dating” needs to be completed first.  How then do you do this without disrupting the sales process?

Using an example from my own work, I can tell you that the best discovery work is done just beyond where your sales team is currently having success.  You can find this space by attending conferences and reading papers written by the leading-edge thinkers that have taken industry leadership roles.  By working with the marketing press, researchers in your field and conference leaders, you will quickly identify the space where solutions are being discussed, but yet to be configured.  This takes some pick and shovel work, but the payoff is well worth it.

In this case, we were looking for leading applications of wireless technologies in transportation.   By using the above techniques of investigating where the growth was, as well as the pressing unsolved problem, we were able to develop a really strong hypothesis for where the intersection of our strengths and the market need landed – all without engaging the sales team.

Once we had the participants in mind, and the outline of a new product, we were able to engage the groups more formally in a discussion that became a joint development agreement.  We were able to work with a leading member of the account team (who is still a friend today) in a win-win structure that got him paid well for his work in client development, and then enterprise a solution that it was able to leverage in lots of applications and locations.

This approach of doing your homework first, and bringing the card-carrying sales team to the table second, may seem like a lot of work.  Truthfully it is, however this method will retain the integrity of your sales and operations teams, while making you a sought after participant in the projects and programs.

If you’d like to go deeper around the tools that underlie the ideas in this post, please give me a call at 847-651-1014 or click here to set up a no-strings-attached phone call.

Related posts you can benefit from…


Growth Leaders Beware: the Road to Hades is Paved with Good Intentions Wed, 19 Jul 2017 08:00:06 +0000


It’s a common conversation, yet it continues to surprise me.  I was talking with a P&L owner of a smaller, publicly-traded firm, when they raised the issue of how they put themselves in a bind: “I’m not sure what else we could have done. We hit the customer need dead on, yet when we went to scale, we hit the wall.  We have orders with deadlines that I can’t meet and operations is ready to throw me overboard.”

One of the most common patterns I run into is the misprioritization of the work needed to create the breakthrough.  It’s not an issue of total resources or lack of hard work, but more a misplaced overinvestment in three areas (more on this later).  In other words, there is plenty of effort being applied, but it’s being applied to known work to be done – instead of to the major roadblock risks to be eliminated.

The best example of how to take on big things and productively develop new platforms harkens back to the space race.  When you look at each generation of the program (Mercury, Gemini, Apollo), each mission was predicated on the previous one, with the foundation and platform of expertise growing with each cycle.  In each case they removed risk from the ultimate goal – a moon landing.  Mercury was launch and orbit, Gemini the rendezvous and docking, along with the outside vehicle work, while Apollo was moon orbits, and developing lunar module operations.  By building a platform of capability, they were able to take the next step with a limited amount of risk and exposure.

In the same way, we can build a platform of new expertise in new business.  You may not need to go to the moon, but you do need to use your platform and bridge your business to something new.

I get to work with many capable firms that have well-established businesses that have hit the plateau of diminishing returns.  My job is to assist them in assessing their current foundational strengths, then help them target productive (and less competitive) new offerings so we can build an efficient and workable bridge between the two.  (Just because it’s easy to describe doesn’t mean it’s easy to do).

There are patterns that emerge repeatedly that consume these firms’ time, energy and resources. These over investments usually take three different looks:


1) Overemphasis of Technical Proof Points

The most common place this occurs is in tech teams, which have a tendency to overshoot the basic requirements of the project with significant additions to scope…in fact, we usually find R&D teams working well beyond the boundaries sketched out by the marketing team.  Secondly, it’s very common to find them working on enhancements to the core product or service before the main platform has been operationalized.

This always results in sub optimization of the investment, as the learning in bringing the first complete version of the solution to market is always profound and impactful.  While the team may build some useful general IP, the utility of that effort could be much more focused.

The anecdote to this is to make the R&D team part of the end-to-end delivery system and reward them for putting a basic prototype in the client’s hands.  Five minutes in the client environment is worth hundreds of hours in the lab.

I once worked on a very costly and detailed device that actually pre-dated the ill-fated Apple Newton by some time.  The issue was that while the device tech worked, the wireless data speeds were measured in kilobits, which made the device slow and unusable for its group.  Technical win – market fail.


2) Overdependence on Business Model Proof Points that Align with Existing Business Model Norms

Success in the current business model results in an over confidence that it can absorb the new product with no issues.

Nearly every effort starts with the assumption that the same benchmarks for their current product will apply.  The business is modeled on the same ratios of sales investment, marketing investment and partner development investment.  This is very, very common and these assumptions very rarely hold.  The work of developing the channel assumptions with clarity is amongst the highest priorities the team needs to work on, yet these are frequently not even part of the initial discussion when resources are being allocated.  The result?  We put the new product in the old system and find the business model does in fact need significant work.  

My example here is about a client company that was great in the business-to-business space who decided to do some consumer-based device work.  They were completely unequipped to support the product and provide training for the front-line technical team that needed to equip the channel (which they hadn’t budgeted for).  By doing a more thorough set of work, we were able to efficiently bring a partner in that could offload the consumer-centric channel support so the product come become successful.

For an additional examples of “confirmation bias” examples, check out this post.


3) An Over Emphasis on Those Things That Were Hard Won in Their Current Business Model

When the leaders who are currently in place were building their careers, they were rewarded for solving a series of unique problems that they encountered.  Having been promoted and found success in that expertise, these “success imprints” stick with them, and so they continue to assume that the portion of the program is still high risk and hard.  This “fighting the last war” issue can be very compelling, as they have solid experience that backs their interest and curiosity.

You can see this clearly in groups that continue to pour money into extending a product line after the utility has passed.  Each significant new wave is preceded by an overly engineered version of the last wave.  An example that has played out in front of us is the PC microprocessor “competition.”  Intel and AMD were continuing to push cores and speed long after the true competitive sphere had shifted to mobile and battery life.


How do we Avoid These Issues?

So how do we go to work on these three areas?  It comes down to using holistic analysis and letting true risk to solution delivery be the guide.  In using the “Right Project, Right Team, Right Plan” methodology, we build a solid plan that traces the arc from current strength to new business as a system, sussing out both business and technical risks.  These risks are then sized and worked sequentially until the Minimum viable value chain has been established.

If you would like to know more about the tools and processes we use to support the creation of efficient projects that deliver, please give me a call at 847-651-1014 or click here to set up a no-strings-attached phone call.

Related posts you can benefit from…

How to Avoid Innovation Theatre Wed, 12 Jul 2017 08:00:45 +0000


It’s very common in mid-sized firms and larger: when a big review is coming up, particularly with the analyst community or a larger customer, there is a need to have a few slides that position the firm as a leader.  The R&D team is tapped for “some content” and many times a project is dusted off and the slideware refreshed and presented as evidence of innovation leadership.

These “sizzle” decks are very common and make the rounds inside most firms.  Usually commissioned for larger events, they then cascade through the firm, and eventually become content for department meetings and perhaps recruitment.

The issue comes in when the sizzle deck gets to the people who are charged with making it happen, and everyone realizes that they’ve inadvertently been a participant in what we have come to call “innovation theatre.”  This happens when the gap between actual commitment and the lofty vision come into sharp contrast.

The danger here is two fold: first is the eventual disappointment in the external community when they realize that the vision they have been sold was only partially committed.  Secondly, but perhaps more importantly, is the layer of cynicism that appears when later the leadership needs to rally the group, and everyone waits to see if the move is “real.”

While it seems simple to close this gap (as Nike says,  Just Do It), there is a deeper issue that deserves to be unpacked.  

Just how do we make sure we mean what we say and commit to putting it in motion?

The pace and the distraction level of the modern firm creates a huge undertow for those leaders that work hard to find new organic growth.  Constant requests from SlackTM, texts and deadline constrained work leads to focus that is equal parts needed and in self defense.  

While many new ideas come forward, it takes a substantial commitment to move them from PowerPoint to something that has gravitas and learning associated with it.  Short of that, and well it’s easy to be the unwitting director of a one-act play of innovation theatre.

So how do we short cycle this loop and make real progress?

#1:  Joint Agendas

One of the first things a group can do is to step back and take a look at the bigger picture.  In operations, the context and paybacks are well understood, so there is no need to agree on the domains and underlying assumptions.  But in the world of building growth, trying to make selections at the project level often leaves the team with significant passive resistance that will quickly be discovered when the work needs to move from the lab to scale for a client or customer.

When I had the opportunity to facilitate joint agendas between R&D teams and product groups for a large public firm, one of the biggest breakthroughs was the understanding that it was impossible to “push” R&D into the product team.  The learning was that the op’s team would only get behind those projects that had voice of customer “pull.” This shift in thinking caused us to invest in joint sessions to identify key offering gaps and domains for innovation across the teams.  Setting the R&D agenda and getting “tech transfer” became seamless.

The investment in time to agree the domains and boundaries for the new services and products work paid for itself many times over as deep commitments were made.  For more on this, check out the articles here and here).

#2:  Play as a Team

Many growth teams are cross-functional committees instead of teams.  When a group plays as a team, the only measurement that applies is winning as a team.  Committees on the other hand are always playing as independent practitioners first, with allegiance to their home function, rather than making sure that their team mission comes first.

Once you have a mission, things begin to come into focus, and the next big event is to structure the group for success – this includes both the end objective and meaningful mid-term objectives that allow the group to measure itself on more than breaking the tape at the end of the race.  I have seen teams use proof of concepts, production of IP and completion of first paid beta as useful mid-level objectives.

Some of the truly powerful teams I have had the privilege to work with had the most selfless individuals on them.  Several times when key beta demonstrations and commitments were on the line, senior specialists rolled up their sleeves to do hands-on work, sometimes giving up sleep and time with their families so that the larger program milestones could be achieved.  This “surge” is one of the marks of a committed group, and while you cannot overuse it, the camaraderie established is powerful.

#3: Build the Bench

A remarkable number of firms don’t realize the long-term dividends from investing in promising mid-senior leaders who can sense early customer needs and organically develop projects and programs.  By providing developmental paths (programs and projects are by far the best tool), and along with cohort learning groups, significant progress can be made in months.

The most memorable personal example I have of recovering from “an empty bench”  was launching a full suite of new products with a lab full of new hires, one experienced tech, one amazing member of the technical staff and myself.  We met all the program milestones, and I still run into many of those new recruits who are now senior leaders across the industry – and part of the reason they are, is  because of their experience and early empowerment (out of sheer necessity).

Pulling it All Together

It’s that simple and that hard: the Right Project, Right Team and Right Plan.  When you are faced with a bout of innovation theatre, ask yourself which piece is missing or out of sync.  If we are unable to get behind this project, have we chosen wisely and as a team?  If we can’t field a team, and the group we have working on it makes only sporadic individual progress, have we been unable to establish a mission with good intermediate and risk-adjusted goals?  And lastly, if we are just not getting enough organic formation of new project ideas, have we let our bench strength sag?

If you would like to know more about the templates and diagnostics we use with growth program leaders and teams, please give me a call at 847-651-1014 or click here to set up a no-strings-attached phone call.

Related posts you can benefit from…

4 Ways to Overcome Resistance and Turn Your Growth Strategy Inside Out Wed, 05 Jul 2017 08:00:04 +0000

car stalled

Which is more challenging: the internal organizational resistance or market resistance?

A portion of my work is spent with cohorts of upwardly mobile, mid-senior leaders who are developing their growth programs as part of their commitment to professional development.  One of them asked me this question during a recent coaching session, and as usual, it was a question from the white hot, front lines of a growing organization that led to great insights.

The inconvenient truth is that many growth initiatives that would fare well in the external market are prematurely extinguished inside firms when caught in the complex web of internal politics, barriers to resources and budget turf wars.

I recall specifically a time when I was pitching a growth program for resources when the then COO of our firm told me quite clearly that if this didn’t work out, I would be on the outside looking in.  It’s this kind of resistance that we need to be able to push through if we’re going to thrive.  (PS – it did work out)

Helping Growth Leaders develop their skills in both dealing with inside the company resistance and marketplace pushback is critical to not only their career success, but the organization’s success as well.  

This set of skills in our Complete Growth Leader competency system are taken from the “influencer” and “challenger” branches of the model.  Influencer relates to those skills of lateral and vertical influence, where the Growth Leader can make a confident and effective case for the work needed to build a new product or service in the face of powerful organizational resistance.  Challenger skills allow the Growth Leader to have the persistence and critical thinking skills to drill down into those areas of disagreement and find a path forward that balances discovery and risk reduction.

So what does building these skills look like in a day-to-day sense for leaders?  Let me share a couple of key areas along with some short experiential applications:

1) Play the long game – When you are a growth leader in a firm, you are always on the prowl for talented, cross-functional team members.  Just as a pro golfer keeps notes on each golf course, you need to keep notes on people who impress you both inside and outside your firm.  When it comes time to make the case and press through the resistance, you’ll have the rolodex and the relationships that can help you pull together teams that carry the day.

To this day, I still keep in touch with key members of the breakthrough teams I had the privilege to lead.  By periodically checking in to see if you can help, you are setting yourself and your firm up for long-term successful execution.  When you need the extra nudge or insight, this network of top 10’ers always comes through.

2) Develop great sponsor relationships – Great internal work always requires sponsorship and air cover.  This too is best put in place well in advance of need.  Do not underestimate the power of having a great upward relationship with so-called staff roles such as legal, IT, HR and the like.  When it comes time to find a wise person, you can gain a great deal of insight from members of the senior leadership team who are not core P&L owners.  That being said, it’s also important to develop some “across the aisle” contacts with sales and operations, as well.  

It’s very important to learn the cycles of your firm so you know when you can ask for risk-related capital…and when it’s off the table.  Your ability to judge well and have great timing will come from your casual senior-level contacts.

3) Flirt – Be provocative, push the boundaries of the status quo and see how people respond.  Every leader I coach does this in his or her unique way,  but all of them are able to “move the boundary back” to get room for themselves and their team to be able to do the work of experimentation that leads to growth.  This delicate balance of earning freedom through performance is key to managing up and getting the freedom you need to do some of that early validation of your new and useful hypothesis for growth programs.

4) Keep your powder dry – Doing the heavy lifting of growth leadership is hard work, so before you put all your chips on the table, do what I call a Phase 0.  Use your intuition and your contacts to put together a back of the envelope business case and test it.  You can do this with a series of coffee conversations that tease out benchmarks, timing, customers who might be open to a beta event, etc. By doing this work beforehand, you can avoid using up your political capital on ideas that just don’t have the legs to move forward.

There is an old saying in the aircraft design community: “If the politics don’t fly, neither does the airplane.”  The same is true for our work to grow our firms from the inside out.  If you want to see your ideas flow to the market, you need to develop a skillful inside game.

So what’s the answer to the question I posed in the opening?  You might glean from my emphasis on the internal organization that that’s my bias…and you’d be right.  It’s the not-so-subtle internal resistance of many firms that keep them from looking for the new jobs to be done that would allow them to form products and services in higher-margin niches.

If you would like to know more about the tools and processes I use to diagnose and coach growth program leaders and teams, please give me a call at 847-651-1014 or click here to set up a no-strings-attached phone call.

Related posts you can benefit from…

Three Reasons 60 Percent of IOT Projects Stall at Proof of Concept Wed, 28 Jun 2017 08:00:02 +0000

car stalled
I received some interesting notes back regarding the post (here) from SCPD, particularly on the 60 percent of IOT programs that don’t make it past proof of concept.  For those of you coming from outside the tech world, IOT refers to the “Internet of Things.”

I wasn’t surprised, as the Gartner Hype Cycle for IOT has been consistently showing various elements of IOT in the “peak hype” portion of the curve for several strategy cycles.  For those unfamiliar with this curve, it builds on the common observation of new-to-the-world technology undergoing a massive boom of expectations, before sinking into a deep trough of disillusionment, and then finally emerging on a solid platform of costs and benefits.

There are deeper reasons why this technology has had such a stubborn battle with moving from expectation to delivering on its promise.  And these reasons all pivot around one truth: the end customers don’t want IOT solutions.

Let’s unpack why this is the case.

IOT has been around for a couple of decades now in various forms.  The current wave was put in much stronger motion coming out of the ‘08 economic crisis primarily due to semiconductor firms needing to generate demand for devices that could put their huge fixed investment in fabs back to work.  What better way to do this than to go to the “bottom of the pyramid” where the number of nodes needing connection was nearly infinite.  By picking up on some existing trends in products and manufacturing, they were able to develop some early successes (smart cities, connected vehicles, smart home, retail tags, etc). Great marketing was created that pointed us toward the “future.”

The truth, however, is that these use cases had been along well before IOT was a thing, and the most successful of them are not looked at as IOT programs at all.  Smart cities have their roots all the way back to the mid 70’s and very high quality work has been going on in the transportation industry for decades, as illustrated here and here.  The same can also be said for Smart Grids, which you can read more about here and here.

What is really going on here is much bigger.

First, it is absolutely true that we have made huge strides in technology.  Moore’s law, cloud storage, sensors and open source software and hardware have opened an enormous amount of potential for connectivity and data gathering.  What we are just beginning to get our arms around is that our current view of supporting devices is inadequate for this huge explosion.  We simply cannot treat billions of devices in the same way we think in traditional enterprise IT security (see article here).

Secondly,  in many cases we are taking devices and architectures off the shelf that were purpose built for the previous applications, and mapping them to this new world.

Every significant wave of new technology has gone through this cycle and there are always some very strange artifacts on the path from one paradigm to another.  For example, consider how persistent the physical keyboard was in the evolution of the smart phone.  We consistently demanded that each device be a mini typewriter until 2009, when the iPhone smashed through that wall with a touch screen that changed how we all use devices and ended our need to move a mechanical key.  Do you recall the “hybrid devices” that had both? 

Whenever new business models are born, there is a predictable path that occurs.  I’ve roughed out a six-step process that captures this pathway:

  1. A hypothesis of benefits for a select group of clients based on a “new” application
  2. Build out crude prototypes using off the shelf elements from the last generation of technology
  3. Furious experimentation to solidify the reality of the benefits established
  4. Reference architectures emerging that provide a reliable platform for those benefits
  5. Customized elements of those architectures being built to improve cost, performance and refine the experience
  6. A long and robust cycle of adoption and scale

In many ways, IOT as a category skipped the first three steps and proceeded to step 4, i.e reference architectures and solutions looking for a profitable application.  What this means, is that we have things that worked well in one application, being sold as general purpose items for the “IOT” industry.  In doing this, the success ratio of new projects drops (in the case to 6/10 not working), and the whole cycle needs to start back at stage one.

Which leads us to the third key issue, the programs that are “failing.”  When you are undergoing a shift like we have described above, the temptation for firms is to create a scenario, rooted in their current business paradigm, where each project or program results in a financially contributive line of business.  This results in programs that are wrongly structured.  When these shifts occur, the business case needs to be looked at as a hypothesis to be tested, and the primary outcomes being the learning and insight that can be gained.  The reason this is so extraordinarily hard, is that the value narrative of these core businesses are shifting.  Just as value migrated from AOL as Google became popular, value migrates during successful IOT projects as well.  Programs need to be set up to derisk and discover these powerful new value shifts.

I’ve written about the STRIDE framework here and here.   IOT projects find themselves in the “R” trough, where the real learning occurs that is going to become the core intellectual property of the offering.  Recognizing this, savvy leaders structure programs with risk identification and reduction as the primary outcome, rather than initial financial success. (financial success is a lagging indicator in these transitions)  In this way, you can make prudent investments in risk reduction and learning, guided by the longer term vision of the business case outcome.  I can’t overemphasize how important it is to get this thinking “right side up.”  When taken to extremes, upside down thinking here will lead to catastrophic damage to P&L’s and careers (see article here)

So, to my opening premise, the shocking truth is that your customers don’t want IOT. Rather, what they really want is your core products and services benefits served in the most efficient way, which is highly likely to use all the technology bits combined with hard won IP that your firm develops while doing the hard work of hypothesis testing.

I’m working with several clients through this process right now, and it leads to some much deeper insights and breakthroughs in two areas.  First, by starting with the “Why” and the hypothesis, “if we do this, then the end customer will receive X, X and X benefits,” it leads to much crisper and specific understanding of the real needs, areas of risk and clarity in specifications.  Second, this allows us to look at building blocks that are much better suited to what the need is from a cost and quality perspective.  It allows us to spend value on the right elements to support learning and discovery on the path to real benefits.

I’ve covered a lot of ground with you today.  If you’d like to talk more about this first principles approach it all starts with a 20-minute virtual cup of coffee.   To get started, give me a call at 847-651-1014, or click here to set up a no-strings-attached phone call.

Related posts you can benefit from…

From the Practitioners: Five Takeaways from the SCPD Conference Wed, 21 Jun 2017 08:00:05 +0000

Augmented reality was one theme at this year’s conference

Picture a group assembled under one mantra: accelerating innovation.  It would be an eclectic group of industry leaders, thought leaders and others who make their living building value.  Mix in equal parts of dialogue, interaction and new experiences.

That’s what the SCPD (Society for Concurrent Product Development) conference is all about.  Set each year at the 3M Innovation Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, the event brings together leaders from around the world to hear challenging talks, listen to provocative panels and build new insights at the intersections of their work and the insights of others.

Given this background, let me share five provocative takeaways from this year’s 16th annual event:

1) We have reached “peak accelerator.” In their zest to become home to (or retain) their best and brightest, many communities have invested in the creation of new business incubators.  Included in these is a combination of collocation, mentoring, network building and investor exposure.  Through his research, Brian Abraham pointed out that we have more of these than the market can absorb, and in fact the real metric of sustainable businesses being created is going the wrong way.  In other words, while acceleration experiences are useful, they are not preparing groups for the long road ahead – much like a conveyor belt with a gap in the middle.

This teed up some insightful dialogue from later participants about their journeys, and how they used a combination of their day jobs, early contract wins and the shrewd use of scarce resources to get across this no man’s land.

panel2) Those best sellers are not helping. In a fun moment, Santiago Vallejo put up a slide with a number of the innovation best sellers on it and did a hand raise on who had read what.  The punch line was: “and none of these is useful to the corporate innovator.”  His point was that while books are filled with ideas and stories, it’s in the hard work of integrating and applying them that the real value is created.  

3) Your job is to edit your team. Mike Bollinger did a great job of sharing with us how he has built a great culture at LiveFront, with the insight that it is up to us to be constantly shaping, releasing and focusing our teams.  So many times we tend to dive deep, when what we really need to do is step back and make sure we have the right focus, the right team members – and have set the context up well.

4) Visual capture need not be pretty to be effective.  Jeremy Kriegel walked us through a number of exercises designed to prove those of us wrong who say we can’t draw.  The truth is that simple sketch visuals are the key to releasing lots of energy and new ideas in a team.  By stepping up to the whiteboard, we can bring order to chaos and represent the conversation in a very useful and transportable way.

5) 60% of “IOT” programs stall at proof of concept.  Jen Nowlin of Accredent delivered a great talk where she exposed a lot of the unspoken truth about doing Internet Of Things business case work in established firms.  The powerful insight is that if the business case is not compelling and very strong, when it is time to put real
weight into the work (i.e. Proof of concept and beyond), the work stalls.  This is a good note to all of us who practice in this area to not underestimate the need to create powerful momentum around these programs.

I’m hoping you have some provocative conferences on your agenda this year.  We can all learn from one another, and the need to create value has never been higher.

If you’d like to talk through how to improve your enterprise, team or individual strategies, it all starts with a 20-minute virtual cup of coffee.   To get started, give me a call at 847-651-1014, or click here to set up a no-strings-attached phone call.

Related posts you can benefit from…


Becoming an Amazing Growth Leader: Building Strong Connections with Your Peers Wed, 14 Jun 2017 08:00:18 +0000

It’s that moment.

It’s among the hardest things that growth leaders need to do.  After discovering and validating a new product or service (which seems like the hard part), they need to bring the people on board that can help scale and integrate the offering.  This is the point when many strong and well-built new services wind up getting put on the “technology shelf” while we “make the quarter.” 

It turns out that the internal sell is actually harder than developing external demand.

Why is this?  When you are doing something new in the firm, when you approach anyone with a need or an ask, it looks like an absolute side road that is at best a distraction.  It’s on you to be able to set the context and make the case of what’s in your mutual interest.

If you are the project sponsor, there is a delicate balance to be struck: you want to keep the team sheltered from heavy and restrictive demands that the larger firm puts on business units, but also have those same business unit leaders accept the new offering when it’s time.

A Surprise

In my coaching work with growth leaders, I use a term called the “connection fraction.”  My working definition is how much customer value is produced for every dollar spent in R&D.  It is not uncommon for firms to leave 40% of the R&D spend on the table by not getting the full cycle complete – that is getting that validated product and service all the way through their firm and into customer’s hands.

In my own product leadership experience, I was privileged to spend years taking projects from R&D and forming the connection through the firm to an appropriate market.  In getting several major wins, and some equally painful misses, I was able to hone some tools to complete this work, which I have now built and shared through my consulting business.

The surprising part of all this is that, while technical and product market fit issues abound, they are almost always solvable.  

What isn’t obvious at the outset, is that organizations are connected horizontally with weak forces . Click to Tweet

The introduction of new products and services stretches these weak forces and in many cases, progress stalls.

Leading Growth is all about Forming Great Lateral Relationships

There are four essential competencies of a Growth Leader.  Even the strongest growth leaders usually fall short in two of the dimensions, and by doing the work to shore up those areas, we are able to improve their ability to move the work forward.  

When you are getting ready to scale, the competency that is tested is what I call the Champion, and specifically, the role of influencer and diplomat.

Let’s drill down on three skills that help us release our hard-won research into customer hands:

1) Bridge Building – Growth Leaders who get to scale have the most unlikely relationships.  If they have a background in research, they may be best friends with the technical operations or manufacturing team.  By taking the time to invest in getting to know their upstream and downstream peers, many practical issues of scale are completed with much less  friction.

The fundamental, but usually missed in practice skill here, is that these relationships have a subtle and unseen mutual agreement.  That agreement is that the work we do is high value and serves our firm in a bigger way than our individual or functional agendas. By forming this agreement and routinely honoring and creating value in it (R&D on call for a production issue, Manufacturing creating some “beta prototypes”) these weak bonds get strong.  When it’s time to do a heavy lift, the pathway already exists.  True story: our team was once challenged by a client to deliver a fully-integrated system on site in ten days (which through normal channels would have been months).  By having these relationships in place, we were able to get it done.  More on that here.

2) Understanding we all have unique pressures and expectations.  Each function in the firm has different languages and sub metrics that can make this very challenging.  Sales has a number to beat, marketing gets paid to source qualified leads, production gets measured on everything, but primarily on the value delivered per day against cost it consumed to deliver that value.  The key to forming these great relationships is to take a walk in the other person’s moccasins.  Knowing that it’s impossible to get something into the production line the last week of the month is only possible when you know what kind of pressure your peers are under.  By doing this you can avoid asking for a heavy lift, when with a little planning, you can make it work smoothly.  

Second true story: early in my product development career, I had an engineer come in over the weekend to make some updates on some “special” customized units.  What I didn’t know is that he broke protocol badly by climbing the stockroom fence, making the changes to the units and then returning them to stock – with no paperwork.  Needless to say, I had a very interesting voicemail  with lots of adjectives and adverbs on Monday – along with a coaching session for my associate.

3) Being really clear in our communications.  When you work across the firm, you need to up your game in asking and listening.  Each group develops its own communication protocols and vocabulary, and anytime you make a request or set and expectation, you need to use the practice of asking for exactly what you need – no more no less.  A common area of contention is on budget – who is paying for the labor, materials, commission, shipping and a host of other items with P&L impact.  By developing the insight to have these specific items decided and ready to go, you won’t inadvertently throw your colleague under the bus by having them do you a “favor” that puts them in their boss’s office.  The second point here is to be clear that this is “early stage” and we expect some gaps.  By giving everyone a heads up, you won’t tarnish the reputation of your fledgling product or service.  

Final story about the impact of doing communications well: we had completed at great expense, the run of a new-to-the-world device that needed to be halfway around the world in a few days.  When it came time to pack them, both teams realized that no one had revised the packaging to be able to use our very robust logistics channel.  Long story short, those units had their own airline seat, and one of our production leaders got his first trip to a new country.

It’s in the white spaces, between boxes on the org chart, where the real work of bringing vibrant product and services to the customer is done.  If you’d like to talk through how to improve your “connection fraction,”  it all starts with a 20-minute virtual cup of coffee.   To get started, give me a call at 847-651-1014, or click here and set up a no-strings-attached phone call.

Related posts you can benefit from…

Business Unit Leaders: 3 Unconventional Ways to Access Your Hidden Growth Wed, 07 Jun 2017 08:00:51 +0000

It’s that moment.

It’s when you are given that target for next year, and suddenly you feel a tenseness in your upper back.  It’s the “stretch goal,” and if you were doing athletics it might be fun, but in the context of your P&L leadership, this is a goal that if you miss it, the consequences will be real.  Meet it and you grow your team, generate bonus pools and maybe get a new job.  Miss it and you’ll be reducing your “costs,” slimming down your team and looking into a reduced role.

I have come to call the distance between organic growth and your target as “the gap.”  

The gap is the shortfall that you experience when the pace of your year-over-year P&L growth falls below the organic targets that are expected by your shareholders and senior leadership.  Most firms set an overall objective for the upcoming planning cycle, and then decompose the needed business results into sub-goals that are given to the P&L leaders as their targets.  Each of these goals then becomes that standard by which your performance will be measured.

In the middle of my manufacturing operations career, I was tasked with leading a product group that had enjoyed fantastic year-over-year performance, and then had fallen on much tougher times.  The senior team had set some very challenging goals, and frankly there was not a lot of patience to improve performance.  We had some new product on the drawing board, but nothing that would be ready to move the needle for some time. Because of this, I learned quickly how to find areas that would unlock some value pools that were embedded unseen in the firm.

So where do you dig in?  Well you may be tempted to call R&D and press them to move up all the dates on that new product or service.  But what I’ve learned, is that there are systematic, proven and repeatable pathways that can give your R&D team the time to do their work right, and still meet your needs for business results.

Keep in mind, that If you have this challenge, you need to be committed to make some dust.  


3 Ways to Unlock Your Hidden Growth

Run rates of teams are deeply ingrained and established over a long period of time, and you need to show up with your best diagnostic and influence skills to make progress.  Once you’ve made the shift and have the ability to connect with your team and acknowledge the mutual challenge that you face, you can use this list of ideas to activate some work to find the needed upside.

Issue #1: Your sales and distribution team works in “a zone.”  

If your firm has established channels, it’s a very good bet that the distribution team has settled into a pattern of serving those clients they know best, and have reduced their efforts in winning new leads that they don’t believe you can serve. We humans are pattern-making machines, and since it takes 10 times more effort to win the new account, the average distribution team will self select existing over new.

To go to work on your sales “zones,” you need to either go yourself, or bring on a skilled surrogate who will get out to the front lines and see what the value transfer and new client development looks like.  This involves deep customer interviews, forensic work at trade shows and conferences, and a look at substitutes to your current offerings from outside your market.

This work needs to be approached with a very open mind, as you will find great insights in the most unexpected places: for example, a radio shop leader in an influential transportation department was instrumental in opening up a large business niche by being a highly-engaged beta partner.  Through careful listening and a mindset of releasing new, mutually beneficial value, very significant new margin can be found.

In my case, we found that our successes had moved us to “farmers:” those sales teams who are good at working existing clients, vs “hunters” who are able to find a new path and client.

Issue #2: Your existing business metrics are hiding growth in plain sight.

I worked with a client who rigorously reported their market share using a vetted third party to deliver the data quarterly.  The reports always showed that they were in the top 2 for every category that they surveyed.  You know what’s coming next, right?  There was an adjacent product category that was a substitute for their own product that was not on their radar. And when it came out of their “blind spot,” it had revenues and margins that were eclipsing their own.  This other firm went on to develop a public market cap of a billion dollars, while this client remains a small fraction of that.

On the metrics, you need to periodically develop a completely fresh, organic view.  There are always ways to get an unbiased look, and by hiring people known for stepping out of the box to review the structure of your data collection systems, you will save yourself getting blindsided by another firm.

Issue #3: Your people are only bringing you a small slice of “what’s going on” in your market space.  

It’s not that they are doing it maliciously, it’s just that you have built systems that provide direct pipelines for information that confirms the “as is” strategy and path that you are currently taking.  Your customer service people are not bringing you requests for strange prototype offerings.  You are not looking over the returned or terminated products or services to find the deep whys until they exceed a certain threshold.

For your internal “listening,” you need to get exception reports in place – set up systems that absolutely bring all the crazy requests and unusual returns to your attention quickly. Either make the phone call yourself, or have a trusted right hand aid find out what’s up.  I have personally found multi-million dollar markets using this technique.  Best-in-class firms set aside time to receive minority reports and seek disconfirming viewpoints.  

In my example of the product line I was working with, there were several new low volume, high margin businesses that were lurking in that data. And frankly, we found enough margin to keep the team intact.

These are examples of pockets of potential growth that exist in nearly every firm.  The harder news is that it takes real work to access them and to get the potential growth to show up as real dollars and cents on the P&L.  Each of the above opportunities sits inside a well protected pocket of human behavior and established systems, and you need to go to work on creating new behaviors through cycles of insight, application and follow through.

The good news is that every one of the above actions will make your business more robust and will help you to be a better leader, as well.  If you found this conversation valuable, and would like to talk about how to access this growth potential inside your group or organization, it all starts with a 20-minute virtual cup of coffee.   To get started, give me a call at 847-651-1014, or click here and set up a no strings attached phone call.

Related posts you can benefit from…

Key Insights From the Front Line: Top 10 Takeaways from the Global Water Leaders Summit Wed, 31 May 2017 08:00:13 +0000


Water is the new key to security

I just had the privilege of attending and leading a panel at the 10th annual Global Water Leaders Summit held in Milwaukee on May 23 & 24th.  This year’s big idea, “A Secure Future Needs Water,” brought together thought leaders at the heart of water security strategy.  This was my first opportunity to join the gathering, which was attended by more than 200 people from all walks of the water industry, including large industrial firms, policy makers, technologists, academics and industry consultants.  There was a nice balance of powerful moderated panel discussions, informal discussions with very interesting and rich viewpoints, and vendors with a diverse array of services and products.

My official role was to lead an innovation panel that showcased two fantastic young entrepreneurs, (see their firms here and here) and unpack how their work intersected with the main conference theme of water security.  We had a dynamic discussion of the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the water space (think high regulation and slow adoption rates), as well as how their work in IoT and point-of-use water conditioning brings transparency and empowerment to the consumer who is then able to make more informed choices.  We wrapped up with the shift they both hope to bring to the conversation of how to make global access to clean water possible.

Here are my top 10 takeaways from the two days:

  1. panelThe re-use business is exploding.  Underscored by Snehal Desai and Emilio Tenuta, the new target for facility water use is zero net new water for large public and private facilities.  Harnessing this technology provides pathways for the growth of firms globally (that otherwise would have been capped by regulations), and has become a surrogate for good business practice.
  2. Water problems are not “me” problems…they are “us” problems.  You cannot fix water problems without a sense of community.  The creation and supply of water used to be a lowest cost game: people who run the utilities are dialed into providing their constituents with the lowest possible cost.  In the new view of water as a scarce resource, it has become very important for the dialogue to shift to a sustainable supply first, followed by cost second.
  3. Water issues are surrogates for government issues.  It’s actually a corollary of the above that when there are deeply entrenched water issues, those serving as designers to create and divide public assets have failed their constituencies.  The tricky bit is how the size of the group is worked out: see points 1 & 2 above.
  4. Only 1/10th of the world has 24×7 drinkable water on demand. Best-selling authors, Seth Siegal and Charles Fishman provided a rich global perspective based on their in-depth research.  A surprising percentage of the world lives with intermittent or low-quality water that is either supplied according to a regulated schedule (i.e, water in Mexico is switched off over the weekend), or through a patchwork of local resources (i.e., India).

  5. The US has made progress on usage. T
    he US has moved from 100 gallons a day per person to 89 gallons per day in the last 15 years, and that has allowed growth in areas like the desert southwest without increasing consumption.  In many cases, industrial consumers are meeting their expansion needs with zero net new water.
  6. We need better information on where we are using water in industry. Measurement and tracking of internal industrial usage within the enterprise is the next frontier in water utilization improvement.  Andrew Hobbs of Ford shared a remarkable body of work that has reduced the amount of water it takes to build a car by over 70% based on major changes in their plants and a substantial change to their painting processes. To make further progress, he shared that they will need to know much more about how much is consumed within the walls of each plant.
  7. Water is at the root of many regional and international political conflicts.  It can also be a huge tool of conflict resolution.  Key examples that were discussed include the Arizona area, Atlanta area, Iran and Israel/Jordan.  We had first-person accounts of the amazing negotiation journey from people such as Kathleen Ferris, Uri Shani, Lisa Downes and Stephen O’Day.
  8. panelHaving a real action plan for disruption is key.  Brad Ives reported a journey of interruption for the entire university of North Carolina Chapel Hill campus and hospital. You’ll find more on that here.
  9. Many incentives are inverted and conflicted.  Low-cost water has led to high usage, and there is a perverse incentive for each regional participant to not conserve prior to coming to the negotiating table, since they want to have a large starting position to anchor the negotiations to a higher absolute number.  Nearly every major urban center could find 30% reduction on conservation alone.
  10. Water security demands both cyber security and physical asset security. Caitlin Durkovich, Tom Kuczynski and Kevin Morley participated in a panel that was equal parts scary and insightful.  Rarely included in water conferences, the panel nicely put into perspective the uphill challenge for water infrastructure.  There are two major networks: the control side, commonly termed SCADA, and the business operations network.  The security of the physical assets is scary enough, but when we allow employees remote connections to the operations via broadband, we have just opened the “fences” to infinite global dimensions.  The consensus of the panel is that if a bad actor wants control of your assets, they will find a vulnerability. The role of the operations team becomes that of fast follower emphasizing, agility and response

The conference was ably facilitated by Charles Fishman as a series of lively, in depth conversations. The format was single room, and very conversational – no long Power Points allowed.  Rich Meeusen, CEO of Badger Meter, MC’d the event with wit and operational efficiency. This is not easy to do, so congrats the The Water Council for doing it well.

If you’d like to talk about the intersection between technical & business model changes in water space, please give me a call at 847-651-1014, or click here and set up a no strings attached, 20-minute phone call.

Related posts you can benefit from…

Business Unit Leaders: How are you Doing at Breaking Out of the Box? Wed, 24 May 2017 08:00:49 +0000


As usual the real learning was in the application.

I was in Denver a couple of weeks ago with a group of colleagues for some strategic development and planning.  As part of our work, one of the team members set up some offsite time at a popular “escape room.”  In case you haven’t heard, these are all the rage; you and your team find yourself in a fun, well-designed puzzle room with a challenge and sequential clues that lead to a conclusion and allows you to “escape.” Of course you are competing with the clock…and in our case another group of colleagues, as well.

I’ll tell you how we did a little later. First I’d like share how much the process involves the same work we do with firms to help them find new markets that allow them to apply their strengths to earn higher margins with less competition.

Let’s start by talking about boxes.  We human beings are pattern-making engines.  We drive to work the same way every day, set our coffee on the same spot on our desk, and put our pencil in the same place in the drawer.  We have a calendar full of the same meetings, calls with similar customers, and trips to similar clients.

The reason for this, is because we simply need patterns to survive and thrive.  If we needed to do everything new every day, the cognitive load on our brains would be exhausting.  Patterns allow us to put a whole lot of life on autopilot so we can apply our fresh thinking to a small list of those areas that will give us good, fresh results.

In business, we tend to build and reinforce the same products and services to the same clients and customers, which leads to specialization around those tasks and activities.  We get so good at these specialized tasks that they suddenly become as important as the reason why we did them in the first place.

We promote these specialists, not so much for their creativity, but for their ability to bring efficiency and reliability.  This makes sense because our stakeholders like repeatable predictable returns – and who wouldn’t.

You’ve probably already gathered what this really does is build a “box.” Not only is this box a resilient one, but it’s hard to break out of as we are all cross connected around a tight “mission,” and work hard to eliminate distractions.

So guess how this plays out in the “escape room.”

Pattern Matching

When we are first put into a new space what is the most natural thing to do?  It’s to use the skills and patterns that got us here to help us get to the new place…“empty our pockets” so to speak of our individual skills and abilities and apply them to familiar patterns.  It was fun to see how we all did this: the IT person sat at the computer terminal, the operations person took inventory and the creative examined the photos, objects and artwork.

In business, this happens all the time when we are presented with a competitive threat.  We call our session, sit in the same chairs and build a solution based on the same patterns that are so familiar.  Most of the time it works well. However, eventually we get into the same thing that happened in World War I: even though enormous amounts of manpower were being consumed, both sides stubbornly competed at the same front, with the same tactics for months, with no progress.

Decoding Random Data

Well, back to the room.  We heard a teletype like sound, and a clue arrived on the terminal.  It was a helpful bit that allowed us to begin decoding a part of the room in a new and unique way.  It took all of us to do it, and once complete, we put the answer in the terminal and got the next bit.  It was remarkable how a snippet of data could allow us to focus and make progress.

In our businesses, random data bits come in every day.  I can guarantee you that after doing this for a while, the vast majority of these disconfirming clues are lost in your firm.  It’s not that you don’t have great people, it’s just that our human need for similar patterns pushes us to ignore and defer working on anything that doesn’t fit.

Retracing our Steps with New Insight

The deeper we got into the puzzle, the harder it was to use the clue and get the answer.  Our individual strengths became much less useful – even distracting at times.  We needed to have conversation, throw out insights, and describe what we saw (and how it might be useful).  We needed to have people who were integrators and were able to restate, allowing us to draw connections that none of us had seen.  Many times we needed to back up and try again.  This is a messy way to make headway, but oh so effective in finding our way with new challenges.

In business, when we need to find that new market, many times we reach those points when we hit an impasse.   The way forward is frequently a step back to reexamine our assumptions that got us to this point and do some careful focused experimentation.  By setting aside a small group and some focused budget, we frequently can unlock insights in a new way.

The real power to move forward comes from working as a group to unpack these insights, and having the trust to listen to one another’s observations…candid insights that only come from great relationships.  Great teams meet choices, put muscle behind intuition, and pick up on small but important threads that point the way through.

Those Times When it Gets Tense

I don’t mind sharing that we are competitive group, and we love to win.  We fought like family, and laughed like children.  We also saw people in new ways with new skills, and rich backgrounds that we didn’t anticipate.

Inevitably, when a business takes a new path, there any many significant hurdles that remain once the initial insight has been produced.  Finding the challenge and stamina to see it through is a key skill and need.  Ultimately, the firm moves from one box to another – we call this “unfreeze and “refreeze” based on the childhood playground game

So, Did You Make It?

Why yes, we did…and with only minutes to spare on our 60-minute target.  Did we best our colleagues in the adjacent room?  Sorry, sworn to secrecy.

Pulling it Together

A few takeaways from this experience:

  1. We all like patterns and they serve us well – until they don’t
  2. There are clues in your firms that are not being collected or acted on
  3. You will initially want to apply individual strengths and competency to finding the new space, but only collective group work will help you find it
  4. Once you find it, you will face resistance… and you need to keep the prize in sight to establish it.

If you are a P&L leader that needs to find that new box to complete in, we should talk.  I’ve spent decades helping teams through these challenges, and have assembled many tools and techniques to allow your team’s competence to accelerate the formation of new value.

You’ve probably gathered that there are a large number of process details, decision-making methodology and facilitation know-how that go into doing this well.  If you’d like to have a deeper dive on how this all works, give me a call at 847-651-1014, or click here and set up a no strings attached, 20-minute phone call.

Related posts you can benefit from…