Start Innovating: The One Question to Start the Discussion

Question

Is your business stuck in a rut? Are sales slow, stagnant, or even declining? Is your product commoditized or becoming irrelevant? How should you move forward?

The answer for most companies is obvious…innovate. The problem is not in the what, but in the how. Innovation is a challenge for even the very best and impossible for the newbies to the game of innovation.

Mature companies that produce known products or deliver staple-like services are the most prone to the innovation dilemma. They’ve done what they’ve done for so long that the mere test of time suggests they know what the markets need and what their buyers want. Arrogance and complacency drive their strategies and plans, and often times they are able to putter along treading water, buying time for “things to change”. They are not change leaders but change followers.

Here’s a simple question you can ask those you work with to get an innovation discussion going: What would Amazon or Google do? If Jeff Bezos owned this company, or Sergey Brin, what would they do to change things?

It’s quite possible the owner or other executives will balk and provide sarcastic responses like, “he’d probably dump the business”, or “if we had Amazon’s brand recognition we’d be in the clear”, or even “they’ve got millions to spend to do whatever they want we don’t.” Try to keep them focused. Remind them that each of these companies began as a dream and then moved into the realm of small business. They didn’t start out as the financial behemoths they are today. Each time their businesses got comfortable they broke them and started working on something new…consciously. If you had to break your business today how would you do it and what would you focus on next?

Innovation is not easy. It’s scary, unpredictable, uncertain, risky, and can be terrifying. To not innovate can actually lead to all of the same emotions. So if that’s true isn’t it better to be in control than to be controlled.

Ask that question today.

Is a Leader a Solo Act?

alone

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal published an article on Bill McDermott, the CEO of SAP. The article profiled McDermott’s rise within SAP and the fact that this German company will now be at the hands of an American CEO for the first time in its history.

McDermott has placed his beliefs front and center, stating that SAP must move quickly and innovate. “There is no speed limit on innovation” McDermott told a crowd at a recent event. But herein lies a fundamental problem that challenges  the “believability” of that statement. Can innovation happen through the efforts of one person alone or does innovation require a team?

Today’s most admired companies are those that innovate. Companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, and ExxonMobil are all at the forefront of their respective industries due to constant innovation. Additionally, their ability to innovate is often credited to their employees and the teams they have assembled to drive some of the best innovations and inventions of our times. Yet McDermott seems to have chosen a “go it alone” strategy having terminated most of SAP’s previous leaders of innovation.

SAP’s advisory board seems to be in full support of Mr. McDermott and has done nothing less than support him in his me, myself, and I strategy. But will it work? Here are 3 areas where McDermott’s strategy may go awry:

1. Collaboration breeds innovation – even the late, great, Steve Jobs saw the benefits of team collaboration when launching the first iPod as referenced in the book Inside Steve’s Brain by Leander Kahney. Teams were assembled to take a raw idea and bring it to life. Contrary to popular belief, Apple’s success wasn’t Steve Jobs alone.
2. Checks and balance. Not having a #1 or #2 on your team can lead to beliefs of invincibility and disillusionment. Every leader needs a strong next-in-line. Believing that only you have all the answers or ideas is very risky. Beyond the benefit to the business, having the right #2 will stretch and challenge the leader to explore options he or she might have otherwise dismissed.
3. Competitive Intelligence. Much like the reasons for #2 above, it’s highly unlikely for one person to be “in-the-know” on all things at all times. I rely on my team as a unit to keep us all up to speed on current and trending market conditions. Having multiple inputs from different folks minimizes bias and assumptions.

So will SAP’s strategy work? Time will tell.

Where Chemistry and Leadership Intersect

Chemistry

Chemistry focuses on the relationship between atoms and other phenomenon. Cause and effect. How does an atom change when external factors are introduced. Had I only known then – 30 years ago when I took Chemistry in school – what I know today, I would have paid more attention.

Team building is all about chemistry. After all, the human body is made up of atoms and when two bodies are interacting it represents millions of atoms interacting with one another.  Interaction reactions are just as varied between atoms as they are humans.  Sometimes you just don’t know what will happen.

From our early childhood, to adult life, chemistry is at work in the choices we make and the outcomes they render. Remember those days on the school ground picking teams? Who did you pick, or at what point in the team-picking process were you picked? When you got your first management position how did you feel about your team? Were you able to make changes or new selections? If so, how did you go about doing that?  If not, how did you assimilate to your team?

I’d submit that chemistry is one of the single most important factors in establishing a successful team. The team’s ability to interact with one another given internal and external influences is a necessary requirement for a high performing teams. And like explosions that can occur when atoms are rammed together with great force, so too can human interaction experience similar explosions if not careful.

Here are 3 points to be aware of when navigating team chemistry:

  1. Have a clear vision.  Make sure that you’ve created the “destination postcard” for the team.  This represents where you are headed, why, how you’ll get there, and by when.
  2. Have clear rules of engagement.  Demanding honesty and input must be balanced with diplomacy and humility…even if it must be forced.  The team must understand what is expected, as well as, how they are expected to accomplish the “what”.
  3. Have clear values.  Stating your values and then demonstrating those values on a daily basis…walking the talk…is critical for your team to see.  You can’t state that you despise cussing and yet at every meeting use language to the contrary.  Your actions and values must be aligned at all times.

Be careful to not confuse good chemistry with the belief that you can only hire those that “think” like you.  That’s not the case.  Instead focus on attracting people to your team that “feel” as you do, hold similar values, work ethic, and attitudes.  Specific skills sets MUST be varied across a team but common values must be woven into the team’s fabric to succeed.  And that’s chemistry.

 

The Millennial’s New American Dream

millennials

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of hearing a key-note speech by Tony Kuczinski, President and CEO of Munich Reinsurance America, at the 2014 MidYear Target Markets conference in Baltimore. His topic addressed how trends in the market will affect everything from how someone buys insurance to how that specific risk is evaluated.

Tony spoke of the major changes in the past 10 years. From social media, to the impact Millennials have on our economy, things around us are most definitely changing. And it’s not whether we believe those changes are good or bad, but it’s what we do to adapt to those changes that will determine our future success and relevancy in the marketplace.

During the week there were many points made about Millennials that impact all sellers of goods and services, whether B2B or B2C. Here are few to consider:
1. Millennials make up 36% of the workforce but represent only 7% of those employed by Fortune 500 companies.
2. Millennials are highly networked individuals focused on working for a company that is a cultural fit while providing meaningful work.  Perhaps a reason why this group tends to lean toward working for smaller companies rather than corporate behemoths.
3. 1.75 billion smart phone users worldwide. 60% will use their phone monthly to surf, research, and shop.  Millennials have created an insatiable appetite for better, faster, more accessible technology and mobile apps.
4. Given the rapid rise and adoption of technology, the Millennial generation requires instant feedback and ongoing communication at work, much like they receive in their personal lives with Facebook, Twitter, and texting.

The final and perhaps most intriguing change is the shift that’s taking place in where Millennials are establishing their homes…their roots. This demographic is a group that is used to, and requires, sharing. Sharing of everything. Pictures, experiences, ideas, emotions. All are shared via the electronic airways in some fashion or another. This need for “sharing” followed by the need for feedback and validation of what’s been shared has influenced the nature of where Millennials are most comfortable living.

The shift is not only apparent but is also a game changer. The traditional American Dream of a house in the suburbs is changing. Millennials are migrating back into, rather than away from, urban areas. City living is at the core of this demographic. The need for connectivity is growing, not just electronic connectivity but personal connectivity and interaction…the need to be a part of something greater.

This shift is something that cannot be ignored. The attitudes and needs of the next generation will be met regardless of your personal beliefs and opinions. It will be those who listen, observe, and respond who will flourish. The rest who dismiss or ignore will become irrelevant.

What will you do?

A Thank You for Mom and her Leadership Lessons

MothersDay

Happy Mother’s Day.  The one day of the year where we can all stop and recognize our mom’s for all they do and have done for us along the way.  They teach us many of life’s most important lessons.  They do it in a way that creates lasting impressions along with that second voice in our head that asks, “what would mom think?”  And while father’s instill their own brand of leadership lessons (stay tuned for June), here are few that I have learned specifically from my mom that have helped me be a better person and leader:

  1. Empathy.  Until recently empathy in the workplace, especially in a leadership role was viewed as a weakness.  Soft.  Being empathetic meant you weren’t able to make the tough choices.  However, over the past decade a great deal of research has been done that’s revealed the most effective leaders are empathetic.  The ability to feel and understand others emotions.  It’s the piece that allows you to connect on a deeper level with those you work with.  This is something I learned from mom.
  2. Forgiveness.  We all make mistakes.  Some are bigger than others.  Recognizing an honest mistake versus malicious intent is critical.  Honest mistakes happen every day, and will likely occur in all our lives until the end of time.  Understanding the mistake, its intent, its impact, and the lesson learned is where the act of forgiveness comes in.  Mistakes happen in every workplace, on everyday of the year.  Some mistakes are small with no material impact to the business while others can be quite costly.  Focusing on the mistake itself and not the person is something I learned from my mom.
  3. Faith.  The ability to strongly believe in something with conviction is faith.  Be it in ourselves, others, or God, faith represents one of a handful of traits that separates human beings from all other animals on the planet.  When all the strategizing and planning is complete, a leader must have faith in him or herself, and the team they lead, that they will be able to execute their plan to achieve the desired outcome.  The ability to believe in, or hope for, something better is something I learned from my mom.

There are many other lessons I’ve learned from my mom yet these three stand out.  She’s taught me a lot in my first 46 years and I’m sure there’s much more to learn in the next 46!

Have a great Mother’s Day.  (Love you mom!)

Profoundness Found in the Simplest of Places

Profoundness Found in the Simplest of Places.

Profoundness Found in the Simplest of Places

NewCastleSeattle

 

I spent this last week in the great city of Seattle…Bellevue to be specific.  Seattle has always been one of my favorite cities to travel to from my first visit in 2001.  From downtown to the Harbor Steps, Seattle is a down-to-earth city with great people, wonderful food, and some of the best sites in the world.

I was dining one evening this week in downtown Bellevue with our President, and Chief Operating Officer of our company.  No doubt a busy week with many meetings, big initiatives, and key decisions to be made.  Pretty much a normal week.  It had rained on-and-off most of the week with brief reprieves resulting in glimpses of sunlight and blue sky.  Our President selected an Italian restaurant for dinner.  We left the office and walked to a wonderful place called Andiamo.  We were seated immediately with each of us picking up our menus to peruse the entrees.  As we chit-chatted a bit while taking in the selection of delightful dishes, she looked up, and that’s when it happened…profoundness in the simplest of statements.

The rain had passed, the sky had opened, and the combination of the sun with the bluest of backgrounds in the sky was breathtaking.  She sat back, placed the menu on her lap and said, “I just love these breaks of beautiful.”  What an amazing statement.  How simple.  How profound.  How beautiful.

Over the past few months I’ve experienced the death of a good friend and colleague, and a close member of the family.  I’ve gotten calls about family members struck by illness and hospitalized.  My phone has rung with a couple close friends who have lost their jobs looking for guidance and assistance.  Clearly part of life, these situations and others like them tend to change our view of our circumstances.  We focus on them and we begin to move ever closer to skepticism, pessimism, and any other adjective that describes our saddened state of mind.

Our President, most likely without knowing, had just made a comment that struck me like a blow to the chest.  It got me thinking about focusing on all of life’s “breaks of beautiful”.  While she clearly made this comment in the context of the visual beauty she saw in Seattle’s sky, breaks of beauty are all around us.  Since this moment I have found breaks of beauty in the sound of my wife’s voice, the unexpected call from my daughter to say hello, a late night chat with my dad, an email one of my sales reps sent me excited about a great accomplishment, the start of a new friendship, and a corny but funny joke my son texted to me while I was sitting in a meeting.

The point is to stop and take notice of all the breaks of beautiful in your life.  They’re there.  You really don’t have to look hard.  You just have to look a little.