How to Avoid Becoming a Cutting Edge Casualty: Avoiding the Unseen Monsters

h2 monsters

You know the feeling:  you’ve started something big in your firm, with much promise of growth,  and the ball is rolling well.  You have the sponsorship, you’re working through the issues and then you hit the wall – the sales team refuses to give you the time of day.

I have good news.  While your journey is personal and unique, my experience working with 12 unique business models in more than 20 countries has confirmed that the patterns of these journeys are really quite similar.

I used to marvel as my mentor was able to look ahead with 20/40 vision to help me clearly identify hidden roadblocks.  I now understand that the reason he had wizard-like foresight is that while geography, names and products change, the patterns of organizations, as well as those who are drawn to specific roles, do not.

I was on site with a client recently, and during a lunch conversation, a newly appointed team lead recounted their experiences as a participant on several journeys they had taken and the career outcomes for some of the leaders of those programs.  It was an all too common story that involved a rosy (and fuzzy) future-oriented scenario, a promising up and coming team leader, lots of investment, action and meetings, only to fall flat when moving to scale.  In the end, all this added up to lateral moves or being made available to industry for these promising leaders.

It is an issue that I address with senior teams and their functional leads frequently:

Your best individual leaders will struggle to deliver on the promise of growth if the project is not structured for success.

The Usual Path

One of two things happen in response to an external event or demand from the board:

  • A pet idea is pushed down from the top.
  • An internal “pitch day” is held for the sharpest up and comers, where you receive way too many or way too few internally generated ideas. These are given a back of the envelope analysis, shortlisted, and then a “call” is made.

Once an idea is selected, a leader is nominated who builds a “mini-me copy of the business” product team on top of the idea.  When it comes time for the marketing and sales team to take it to market, however, they balk and pocket veto the effort.  This is followed by a post mortem where the participants scatter and an M&A team is brought in to find a “tuck under acquisition” (by the way, there is no such thing).

From an operating leader’s point of view, this makes perfect sense.  You are moving from uncertainty to certainty along an efficient and contained path.  The reason for the organic program not taking off is poor execution – right?

Well, not really.

The Path to Growth

What I have found working with teams that are operationally excellent, is that they consistently drive for too much certainty at the front end of the process – virtually assuring that the backend of installing the growth project will be rocky.  This “certainty muscle” is the built-in bias that serves a business at scale to remove ambiguity and replace it with repeatability – and it drives a group through the ideation phase of a program too quickly.  This creates two issues that come up later in the program: too much detail around the area the team excels in (think product features), and too little work in the areas they have only a high-level understanding of (like channel and distribution).

Investment in the front end of the process builds two things that are crucial to a good outcome: insight and alignment.

Let’s talk about these one at a time.  Insight comes from taking the time to move to the boundaries of your known business model and look for untapped pockets of value.  A skilled advisor will take you through exercises that examine both your strengths and emergent areas of value that are just off the radar.  The work will have you centered in the valuable ambiguity, creating clarity and customer value in the process.  This assures that you have found a project that has strength of platform and is valued by the market.

The second item I referred to is alignment.  Many years ago Steven Covey developed the mantra of, “begin with the end in mind.”  In the case of growth programs, this means having a landing zone for the new business as soon as practicable. I insist that operations subject matter experts take part in the earliest sessions.  The reason why, is because this is where their insight is most highly leveraged.  The second benefit is that it becomes very apparent early on if a new business needs to be wrapped around the program, and this knowledge allows parallel action to assure a real launch.

Why is this road less traveled?

  1. It’s more work upfront
  2. It requires balanced investment by both operations and strategy
  3. It requires real sponsorship and ownership by the senior team

Once teams have experienced this balanced, cross-functional approach, it becomes second nature to put in the time on the front end of the process.  Recall that the first tenet of “lean” processes is that the “push” is removed from the system and the customer is allowed to “pull” what they need.  When this is done well, your end customer and market has “pulled” exactly what they need from your firm.  When you use insight and alignment to “pull” growth from your organization, great things happen.

I have honed a set of tools that will help your team structure the Right Project, then build the Right Team with the Right Plan.  The first step down this road is a one-day diagnostic.  If you’d like to have a new outcome from your organic innovation work, give me a call at 847-651-1014.

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