Potential: Revealed

Strategic Thinking, Innovative Ideas, Growth Marketing, and Revealing of Potential

Archive for June, 2008

Yes, and…

A little while back I took a management development class (at Duke, with props to their exec ed team) that was unique and continues to have impact on my work and management thinking. It was an “improv for business” course, taught by an great full time b-school prof plus a colleague of his who is a member of 2nd City, the famous improv troupe out of Chicago (John Belushi, Bill Murray, John Candy, Bonnie Hunt, and many othersn are alumni). Some surprises from that experience:

Improv while looking chaotic and without form (and at a given moment it may be) is actually governed by some clear rules and norms.

Rather than being at odds with business improv provides a framework and method for breakthrough thinking.

Improv is first about listening, then about acting. Intense listening with the intent to truly understanding the sender’s message is the key to being a good improv player.

While there are others, and for the experienced improv player many additional and deeper levels to the world of improv, here are the most basic of rules:

1. Say yes, and. That is, agree with your stage partners, and expand from there. On a superficial level this agreement can be literal, eg. “let’s go to the gym”, “yes, and I’m going to get you RIPPED for your wedding”, but on a more fundamental level it’s about agreement between the players that if they are truly open to knew information — and trust one another — they can create something unique by building upon each others input and ideas.

2. Treat everything your partner says/does like manna from heaven. Everything is a gift, and if you take the time to really listen to/explore what he/she has said/done, there is a bounty of treasure there for you to use.

3. Make bold choices. New improvisers tend to put the onus on the other improviser to add information to the scene rather than you putting it out there themselves. You learn however that it is more productive — and more fun — to be bold and add as much to the scene every chance you have.

4. Don’t try to control the scene. Look after your own character, and trust that your scene partners are doing the same. The best scenes emerge from your interactions with others, rather than any singularly funny or outrageous thing you or another character says or does.

We did many fun group exercises over three days where we practiced listening — ensuring we truly received the message from our partners. This is not easy and revealed all of our weaknesses in this area. We also did many exercises to practice being “bold”. This rule (#3) stretches — and hopefully breaks — your natural defense against experimentation and failure. If you are going to be bold you will fail ocassionally (and a lot, at the beginning). And lastly, rule #4 played itself out over and over as we worked together and practiced improv scenarios, reminding us that the most beautiful tapestry comes from the weaving of many threads.

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Good D

In a previous post I mentioned that D for Data was a critical component for revealing insights about your customers. In today’s age, that is as close to “goes without saying” as you might be able to get. So this post is intended to define a simple approach to improving your D … or in sports term, “playing good D”.

First, a “customer advocacy” mechanism is required. For some established companies customer-centric thinking (and ordering of data and systems to deliver insights) is second nature and a distinct “advocacy” role, department, program or such would be unnecessarily bureaucracy. For most companies though, such a formally designated entity is a key building block. A customer advocate can help both develop and drive the systematic approach for discovering and leveraging customer insights, and be a peer at the management table when priorities and on-going investments must be clearly proposed or vigorously defended.

Second, in the infancy stages of a customer insights journey, a world-class, competitively differentiating customer insights data set and deep analytics capabilities are too grand and far off to achieve in the near term. The risk and complexity in achieving this higher stage of customer enlightenment can overwhelm and obscure what are most likely low hanging fruit — or what I like to call “pumpkins” (pumpkins are actually a fruit, and they are not just low hanging but they can be found on the ground ready to pick up). An iterative-experimental approach can give both a good chance to take advantage of the pumpkins along the way and build momentum toward achieving the higher stages of enlightenment within a reasonable time frame. How to do this?

I’ve used a three-part, interconnected process that includes Research, Analytics and Experimentation. These ideally are set up to work together, under one leader. There’s no one best way to set this up and the choice depends upon the organization’s culture and management style.

Research: this is the “compass” function within the overall process. It helps to set the direction for where the keenest insights might be found. It develops an on-going portfolio of customer data and sources through qualitative and quantitative research.

Analytics*: this is the “targeting” function. Using analytics techniques and sound experimental design approaches, it generates testable hypotheses about the next best place to go, within an achievable distance, from the current understanding of customers.

Experimentation: manages the experiment through to implementation and measurement of results, working in partnership with other parts of the organization, external partners, vendors, etc. to get it done.

The key is setting up such a process and team to iterate quickly, gaining the benefit of pumpkin insights and the benefit of honing the skills of implementation of customer insights in the most rapid way possible.

* not to be confused with the general, pervasively useful capability of “analytics” (see Kyle McNamara’s blog for a clear view of analytics).

4 P’s, lots of D, stir and taste repeatedly.

Working recently with a client in the banking industry, they remarked about “growing beyond our ability to manage customer relationships by feel”. What they meant was that they prided themselves on being a “high touch” banker and saw it historically as one of their competitive differentiators but that it had, alone, lost its ability to create this much needed differentiation. The loss was probably imagined though (I offered) … you probably never really had it.

When you are a large commercial organization, and a bank is protypical of a large commercial organization, it is difficult to truly be “high touch”. It merely sounds good (on marketing messages, in PR ,and advertising). To scale the abilty to have your customers perceive that you know them well and catering to them as individual, highly-valued customers (that is, to have them feel as though you are high-touch), a more integrative approach is usually required. Large organizations, with their scale and resources are uniquely able to pull this off and can create differentiation for themselves, but a fair amount of change is required — procedurally, organizationally and culturally. I’ll spare all the details but a simple, high level way to think about it is:

– manage the 4 Ps of marketing as an integrative set. Define your target markets and customers in ways that you can focus on those where you clearly understand customer needs, can deliver a differentiated offering, can reach them effectively through carefully chosen channels and promotion strategies, and because of the former three you can price in a way that delivers sustainably high profit margins.

– in today’s world, you cannot possibly do this without adding plenty of D, for Data. In a subsequent post I’ll talk specifically about what’s required to add the D required for knowing the market and your customers in a way that leads to differentiation and success. Data, turned into “customer insights”, can be the glue that binds the organization together to act in concert from the inside (typically in the headquarters where the data is stored and managed) to the outside (where customer-facing associates in sales, relationship management, and customer service areas touch the customer directly).

– last but not least, managing the 4Ps intergratively and conquering the capability curve to be able to add data as a competitive weapon is not easy. I believe it requires an “iterative experimental” approach. This is very different than the perfuctory approach of “piloting” a new business process or system. I’ll use a cooking analogy (which is a great metaphor-rich activity): often times the first attempt with a new recipe in an uncharted style may be good but not yet fully satisfying. Yet the experienced, creative and most successful cook will use the experience to adjust (a little less salt? a dash of cayenne?), evolve the recipe and find the successful combination … and then continue to evolve the recipe and themselves, challenging and striving for even higher culinary heights and delights. The delighted look on a dinner guest’s or dining room patron’s face is all they need for validation. A similar mindset is required for the successful company that wants to tackle the integrative maketing and data challenge because they are convinced the results will be a uniquely delighted customer.

And in the end…

Perhaps fitting (or just cheeky?) this blog will start by stealing from one of the best. In this case, The Beatles. On their last recorded album, “Abbey Road”, they were famous for naming the supposed ending tune “The End”. Yet they rewarded those that were patient and persistent with a gem (14 seconds) after “The End” called “Her Majesty”. I loved it when I first heard it (thanks Big Sis’ who gave me the original issue 33rpm), and still love it today.

For some reason I have always been a fan of surprises. As a child, I actually liked waiting until Christmas morning to find out what presents were there for me under the tree. Later in life, I have found pleasure in the word “latent” which is defined as “present potential not yet realized or revealed”. Sort of like a surprise of a different but related sort. Looking back at personal and business experiences that I’ve enjoyed and been fortunate to be a part of, many have some aspect of latency. Whether they were reinvigorating a tired product line with a great and loyal customer base, or finding hidden value in data that is the artifact of a core business process, or on a more personal note volunteering as a elementary school tutor and helping kids see possibilities in themselves that were always there, but just not able to shine through as brightly as they could.

So, this is not actually the end but the beginning of hopefully an interesting experience sharing ideas, insights, and thoughts on the subject of “revealing potential”.