Look Outside Your Industry for Breakthrough Ideas

Be Different

I recently met with the leaders of a highly successful company. Sales growth, which had been strong for years, was headed into negative territory. They were desperate to find the next “big idea” that would put their company on track for future growth.

As they discussed potential innovations, the same tired, incremental ideas that had been tossed around for years kept resurfacing.

What they needed was something to shake up their thinking.

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3 Mistakes in Managing Risk and Uncertainty

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Not long ago, I stood on a pier near Cape Canaveral, Florida and watched a SpaceX rocket launch.

People were wearing SpaceX t-shirts and talking excitedly. SpaceX has brought the thrill back into space exploration.

Founder Elon Musk figured that by developing a way to reuse rockets, just like airplanes, he could reduce the cost of travel to space by a factor of a hundred.

He’s well on his way to achieving that. The company created the first commercial spacecraft in history to shuttle cargo to and from the International Space Station, and has already cut the cost of launching into space to less than a tenth of its prior level.

His ultimate goal, however, is to colonize Mars, making human life inter-planetary.

How’s that for a bold vision statement?

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Feel like your company is in slow motion? Five explosive steps to increase speed

In my work to help companies move faster on strategic opportunities, I hear stories like the following too often:

“My team is excited about growing our business, but it’s soooooo slow getting anything done around here.”

We sold a deal last week to a customer who was really—I mean REALLY—excited about the value we could create for him. But when we got back to the office, to put the pieces in place to deliver what we had AAEAAQAAAAAAAAlUAAAAJDU1NDhlOThhLWQ2OWEtNDY0Zi04ZDRjLWE0OWQ2ODZmMjFkMApromised, we ran into road block after road block. Approval processes, other priorities, and ‘business as usual’ slowed us down to the point that we eventually had to call the customer back and say we couldn’t meet her deadline.

“We had worked so hard to sell the customer on the idea, but because we couldn’t deliver fast enough, a competitor stepped in at the last minute and won the deal”

Do you sometimes feel like you are walking through Jello to get work done?  Like the rest of your organization just “doesn’t get it” when it comes to delivering value to customers?

No matter how bureaucratic, inept or slow the rest of your organization is, here are five things you can do to speed up your organization to get things done faster, win more business and make change happen:

1. Enlist believers:

Everyone wants to belong to something great, and people love creating new things.

Paint a picture of where you want to go—whether its starting up a new product or service line, entering a new market, or implementing a new operational procedure—and start talking it up with those in a position to help.

Notice who gets excited about your intent and immediately starts contributing ideas to make it successful. These are the enthusiastic, creative believers you want on your team. Enlist them.  Simply say “This is going to be hard, but worth it. Will you help me make it happen?”  You may be surprised at the avalanche of support you gain.

2. Build a virtual team, before you need one.

Once you’ve enlisted a few believers, you’ve got the beginnings of a virtual team. Now’s the time to build the comradery that will lead to commitment and speed.

Your virtual “team” may be spread across disparate time zones, divisions and functional areas. They may even speak different languages.  No matter how far-flung your believers are in the organization, you can instill a sense of community and belonging.

Provide a steady stream  of updates about your progress. Something as simple as “we talked to a customer in Chicago today, and they loved our concept!” can provide the juice to keep the conversation going (“What did they like most? When will they be willing to try it?”).

Find reasons to get believers talking to each other. Talk in vivid terms about what it will feel like when you achieve your goal. You’ll soon find that the “virtual team” takes on a life of its own, and that you have an army of believers throughout the organization to help you reach your goal.

3. Write different rules.

Corporate rules are written for typical, everyday scenarios. Approval levels, priorities, and policies designed for the average situation get in the way of accomplishing anything truly miraculous.  

You know that you’ll need different rules to accomplish your goals, so negotiate those rules before you need them.

Here’s how you might ask: “Mr./Ms. Decision Maker, we are setting out to penetrate a new market that could be a huge growth engine for our company, but to win the first few deals, we need to be lightning-fast delivering solutions to our customers. In the past, I’ve seen our approval process add weeks to delivery timelines, so I’m asking you now, before I close this deal, if we can agree on a 24-hour approval timeline. Would that be okay with you?”

4. Show results early. 

Nothing speaks like results.  Get a few closed-deals under your belt and internal resources—the ones who you need on your side—will suddenly start listening to you, or even lining up to help you.  Communicate every positive step on your journey loudly and often.  A positive customer comment; the initiation of a proof of concept trial; the first dollar of revenue—all these are hard evidence that your cause is worth investing in.

5. Give everyone credit.

Most important, when you start making progress, spread credit for your accomplishments far and wide.   Let the road blockers, naysayers and slow pokes have a share of the credit, and you may just find that they are moving faster next time around.

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What To Do When Your Customers Are Changing Faster Than You Are

Are Your Customers Changing Faster Than You Are? 


If you are like most businesses these days, your customer’s behaviors and needs are evolving almost constantly. Sometimes the change is so subtle we barely perceive it, until suddenly we notice customers are defecting.

On the other hand, when we notice these changes, and capitalize on them, we can create exciting new sources of growth for our businesses.

During my consulting work, and in conducting research for my book, The Agility AdvantageHow to Identify and Act on Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World, I’ve observed five things that successful entrepreneurs, businesses and non-profits do to stay ahead of changes in their marketplaces.

  1. Spend time observing and interacting with customers.

Shop any Thursday at Home Depot, and the employee who helps you find the tool, part or garden supply you need might just be an executive from corporate headquarters. By directly interacting with customers and experiencing firsthand the problems that store associates do, these decision makers tune into emerging market changes, and can develop practical solutions and improvements.

Similarly, Nissan responds continuously to comments customers make on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, and gets these comments quickly into the hands of the relevant employees in customer service, manufacturing, and at the dealers. As a result, quality problems get fixed fast, and service is continuously improving.

Make it easy for customers to give you feedback. Talk to and observe customers daily and you’ll be the first to see and respond to changes in their needs.

2. Anticipate and prepare for what might happen next.

Ever noticed how some business people seem to be able to spot trends coming, and position themselves perfectly to catch the wave?

 While no one can foretell the future, some people have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Their secret is simple – they take the time to ask themselves: “What changes have I observed in customer’s needs, in technologies, in regulations, or in competitor offerings?   What might happen next? What can I do to take advantage of these potential events?

For example, one business person I know noticed a line outside her competitor’s door on certain days of the month, and discovered those were the days Groupon offers came out. Anticipating that this trend might accelerate as other new promotions technologies became available, and wanting to avoid the deep-discounting inherent to couponing, she developed a loyalty program that built a strong bond with her best customers and ensured their repeat business.

 3. Differentiate by developing new offerings and new ways of doing business

When you see changes in your industry, you can rest assured that your competitors have probably noticed the some of same market trends that you’ve observed. If you respond in the same way as your competitor, you run the risk of becoming—or continuing to be—undifferentiated and commoditized. (For more details I wrote a short piece on the topic here)

Therefore, don’t follow the competitive pack—devise a different and better way of capitalizing on the changes you see.

For example, Airbnb was founded during a difficult economic time when many homeowners were having trouble paying the bills. Company founders observed this, and came up with the idea of helping people to generate income by sharing extra “capacity” in their homes. They matched these homeowners with trustworthy guests who were looking for a travel adventure, and created a whole new industry in the process.

Test new offerings and ways of doing business often. By placing small bets that you can learn from, you’ll minimize risk while maximizing the speed with which you adapt to market change.

Facebook runs hundreds of different versions of its site at any given time. You may see a version of an ad with one set of colors and features, and I see another—simultaneously. Facebook measures customer response, then retains the versions that perform the best, while eliminating the others. Each incremental alteration to the user experience is minor, so users can adapt gradually to change. This rapid innovation and learning cycle has been essential to the company’s success.

  1. Allow employees the flexibility to pursue your company’s purpose. 

The most important thing a leader can do is to enlist and inspire their employees around a clear and compelling vision and purpose. With this established, you can give employees the autonomy to adjust course as they see changes occurring in the market. When employees have a bit of free rein, they will not only be more energized, happy and loyal, they’ll be better able to spot and jump on emerging opportunities, to ensure your company’s continued success.

This post originally appeared in The Atlanta Business Chronicle

Amanda Setili is founder and managing partner of Atlanta-based business consulting firm Setili & Associates and author of The Agility Advantage, How to Identify and Act on Opportunities in a Fast-Changing World (Jossey-Bass, 2014).

When Commoditization Is On The Horizon: Don’t Become ”Just Another Product”

Commoditization seems to be constantly nipping at our heels. Like gravity pulling us back to earth, natural forces tend to drive our products toward sameness with competitors over time. We’ve all seen what happens when this occurs: growth stalls and profit margins erode.

Business, technical and societal changes are making it harder, in some ways, to differentiate now than in the past. These changes include: the rise of powerful procurement groups, who force suppliers to deliver to standardized specifications; the improved visibility, via the web, into competitor offerings; the ready availability of non-proprietary technology; outsourcing of functions such as manufacturing, customer service and technology development; and just plain “me-tooism.”

Here are three things we can do to resist these forces and to differentiate from competition:

  1. Stop doing what customers suggest. Listening to customers has always been important, and new technologies have made it more efficient to do so now than before. Collecting information from online reviews, holding customer advisory boards, working on the front line, visiting customers (and talking to all the functions, not just the “decision makers,”) and getting to know your “customer’s customers” are a few of the ways strong companies stay in touch with changing customer needs. Many of these efforts, however, tend to accelerate commoditization. Customers to ask you to provide everything your competitors are providing, and you, eager to please, say “yes.” Listen hard to what customer’s say, but more importantly, watch what they do. If your products are online, observe which of your products are getting pinned on Pinterest, and by whom. Watch how your most demanding and forward thinking customers are using your products, and your competitors’ products. Observing how these “micro-niche” customers behave can provide valuable ideas for breaking out of the pack.
  2. Anticipate competitor moves, and then do the opposite. If you want to differentiate effectively, look not just what competitors are offering, but how they think. Look at who their top officers are, where they came from, and what their M.O., or modus operandi, Even thirty minutes spent looking at management bios, listening to investor calls and perusing LinkedIn can yield great insight into the minds of your competition. Resist the urge to copy features and services offered by the competition. Instead, anticipate what they might do next, and consider doing the opposite.
  3. Take away, don’t just add. Don’t fall victim to the temptation to add features, services, products, and markets every year. Consider how you can differentiate by taking away features, by doing less. Ikea is a good example. They eliminated features that were standard fare in other furniture stores. They took away in-store service, delivery and assembly. The stores are almost entirely self-service, but Ikea makes shopping fun through inspiring displays and ready availability of tape measures and note pads. Customers have to carry the products home themselves, but Ikea packages them cleverly into small boxes that fit easily into a vehicle. Customers have to assemble the products themselves, but Ikea’s simple, stick figure instructions make it fun, like assembling a Lego toy (the Journal of Psychology reports that customers like their product more, and are even willing to pay more if they assemble their Ikea product themselves – amazing!). While other furniture stores emphasize the durability and timelessness of their products, Ikea makes us think of furniture as a fashion accessory, something we can use for a while, and then replace. By taking away features, Ikea creates a compelling customer experience, and keeps prices amazingly low.

By watching what customers do (not what they say), by anticipating competitor moves (and doing the opposite) and by considering what to remove from our product offerings (rather than adding features), we can avoid getting sucked into the torrent of the mainstream. We can distinguish our products and services from those of competitors and enjoy healthy margins and growth.

How Your Corporate Culture Is Killing Innovation And Speed.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAL9AAAAJDRhZmZjMTg4LTc1NjMtNGQ2Mi05ZTI2LTRmZjc0MzQwY2I0MQIn the past few years, Cisco, Coca-Cola, GE, IBM, MasterCard and other large companies have begun to launch “internal startups”—teams of employees who are sheltered from corporate rules and bureaucracy—to stimulate entrepreneurship and creativity and infuse agility.

I spoke recently with the leader of a business that existed—for a while—as an internal startup within a large corporation.

The thinking was that employees within this quasi-startup would be free to focus on their goals. Team spirit and collaboration would replace hierarchy. Innovation, risk-taking, and learning from failure would flourish. Time formerly spent on meetings and emails with other corporate groups would be spent focusing on the customer.

All those good things came true, as long as the team was left alone.

Before too long, however, someone at headquarters got the idea that the group would be more efficient if brought into the corporate fold.

The team was moved from a remote location to headquarters.

The business leader, who had been sitting side-by-side with his team, trading ideas multiple times per day, moved to the “executive floor,” where he could be closer to other executive leaders.

His employees stopped calling him AJ, and started calling him Mr. Johnson. He traded his jeans and polo shirt for a suit, in keeping with headquarters attire.

The easy efficiency with which he had formerly conversed with employees ended. Instead of walking to his desk to ask a question or offer an idea, they worked through his assistant to schedule a meeting or conference call with him. His schedule rapidly filled with meetings with executive peers, so subordinates often had to wait two weeks to speak with him. Five minute conversations became thirty minute appointments.

Relationships with suppliers changed, as well. When the team operated autonomously, suppliers were treated as partners. They were paid fairly, and they jumped through hoops to help. After being absorbed into the corporate structure, the team had to hand procurement over to specialists, who forced suppliers through an arduous bidding process. The best suppliers opted out, and the suppliers who remained existed on razor thin margins, that left no room for innovation.

When autonomous, the team had achieved remarkable sales growth, driven by an extraordinary level of energy, esprit de corps and commitment to customer satisfaction. Once the team was absorbed into the corporate office, however, things slowed down, and sales growth stalled (perhaps predictably, this lower level of sales growth was accepted without protest from above–in the corporate climate, as long as sales were incrementally better than the prior year, all was well).

The former attitude of “let’s do something amazing together” shifted to “let’s keep our heads down and stay out of trouble.”

If you are a leader in a large company, and you want to increase speed and agility, consider forming an internal start-up.


What Was Volkswagen Thinking? When Smart People Work Together To Cheat, Something Is Terribly Wrong.

News came out this week that VW engineered its software to evade emissions tests. The vehicle can detect when it’s being tested, to reduce emissions to allowable levels. As soon as the test is over, under real driving conditions, emissions are 30 or 40 times higher.

Volkswagen has acknowledged that similar software exists in 11 million diesel cars worldwide. The CEO has resigned.

This scandal hurts the reputation not only of VW (which also owns Audi, Porsche, Lamborghini, and Bentley), it hurts the reputation of Germany. When we think “German engineering,” we’ve historically thought of reliability, precision and performance. Now we may be more inclined to think “sneaky” or even “dishonest.”

When our teenagers misbehave, we often are tempted to say “what were you thinking??”  Psychologists tell us that this is unhelpful. The teen brain is not fully developed, so teens actually can’t think ahead to anticipate the implications of their actions as well as adults can. But VW is a full-grown company.

We also say to our children “Don’t cheat, because you’ll only be cheating yourself.” In this case, VW cheated its employees, its customers, its shareholders ($26 billion in share holder value was erased this week), its country and people everywhere who’d like safe, clean air to breathe.

I don’t know how much the departing CEO, Martin Winterkorn, knew about VW’s software, which so stealthily cheated on emissions tests. As a top leader, you can’t know everything your employees are doing.

But the CEO is responsible for his company’s culture. He exemplifies the values that guide that culture.  He should set clear expectations for fair-play and honesty.

And he clearly did not do that; at least, not well enough. When groups of very smart people work together to cheat the system, as it appears VW engineers did, it’s a symptom of deep cultural rot within a company’s soul.

Winterkorn has stated that he is “endlessly sorry” and asks for “trust on our way forward.”

That trust is going to take a long, long time to rebuild.

The More You Know, The Less You Need: How to Prepare Your Business for Anything the Future Might Bring

The boy scout motto is “be prepared,” yet scouts pride themselves on carrying the bare minimum for a safe backpacking trip, and having multiple uses for each object they carry.

In every business, a tension exists between being prepared for what you expect may happen, and being ready to take advantage of things you do not expect.

Amazon aims to run its servers at only 40% of capacity, because it never, ever wants to have an outage. It prepares, then, by having extra capacity.

Similarly, many companies carry extra inventory, to assure that they are never out of stock, or keep extra staff on the payroll, in case their skills are needed.

However, stockpiling has a downside: it can slow our ability to adapt when circumstances change. Preparedness for the “most likely” future can make it harder for us to see the unexpected future when it arrives. The company who stays lean has less to lose by changing course, so it is light and nimble.

I love the expression “the more you know, the less you need” because it conveys how important skills are if you want to be prepared for anything. In today’s fast-changing world, mindset, skills and learning agility are more important than physical preparedness. 

So, take the time to anticipate what might change in your business environment.  Ask:

– How might your customers needs, values and behaviors be different in the future?

– How will technology change what you, and what competitors, can offer?

–  What new business models, and new competitors, could enter the picture?

–  What new regulations might be coming?

And then ask:

  • What actions should we take no matter what the future brings?
  • What actions should we take now to mitigate the downside of each potential scenario?
  • What actions should take now to enable us to take advantage of each scenario’s potential upside?
  • What metrics and events should we monitor to glean clues about how the future might unfold?
  • And most important: What should we be learning now, so that we have the knowledge and capability to compete effectively in any future world?

In 1990, a man stopped breathing on a USAir flight. Two doctors sitting a few seats behind him on the plane performed an emergency tracheotomy using a Swiss army knife and a writing pen. They had the knowledge to save a life, and they made do with the tools they had. 

I’m interested in your comments – what might the future hold for your company, and what capabilities, knowledge and mindsets are you acquiring now to be prepared? 

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Think You Understand Your B2B Customers’ Needs? Think Again.

If you’re in a business-to- business market, how well do you understand your customers’ needs?  How would you say those needs have evolved in the last twelve months?

If you’re only using market research and feedback from your salesforce to understand how your customers are changing, you are probably missing a big piece of the picture.  With the right approach,  you can understand your B2B customers’ needs even better than they themselves do.

Let me give you an example.

I once knew a technology firm—let’s call it TechCo—whose biggest customer was a top-ten bank.

TechCo was deeply invested in providing great service to the bank. In fact, it had dedicated an entire team of sales people to making sure the bank’s needs were met.

So you can imagine how TechCo’s sales team felt when one of the bank’s top executives pulled TechCo’s CEO aside at a trade show and threatened to defect to a competitor if service did not improve.

Losing the account would have a material impact on revenues for years to come. TechCo would lose the confidence of its shareholders. Other banks would take notice of the defection, and might follow suit.

The thing is, the bank executive didn’t know exactly what was wrong with TechCo’s service.

She did know that a competitor had offered a price that was fifteen percent lower than TechCo’s.

And she did know that none of the bank’s employees were coming to TechCo’s defense, advocating to retain it as a supplier.

Neither TechCo’s team, nor top management at the bank, really understood what was wrong with the relationship.

My firm got involved, ultimately interviewing and observing more than 20 bank employees, spread across many functions and levels of the bank. Over the course of these conversations, a picture emerged of how the bank’s needs had changed, and what TechCo could do to get the relationship back on track.

When you’re in a B2B market, this kind of indepth observation and discussion—across many different parts of your customer’s organization—is often required to fully understand the customer’s evolving needs.

Consider the following approaches, taking into account your specific situation.

  • Examine the entire process. Observe the customers’ employees in their workplaces. Follow your product through as the customer receives and uses it. Watch how the different players in the customer’s business experience your service. What is changing in their process or needs? What new problems and opportunities do these changes create?
  • Observe how people use your competitor’s products and services.Watch the customer using both, and note how the experience varies. Does your product solve a different problem than your competitor’s does? Does it solve the same problem in a different way? Have you made the most of any advantage you have—and communicated these differences to customers?
  • Watch what happens beforeduring, and after the time that your product or service is employed. Do problems occur upstream or downstream that your product or service could help to solve? What triggers the need for your product? Could you solve the customer’s problem earlier, or prevent it altogether?
  • Witness the customer process during both their busy and their slow times. Is there anything that could be optimized to make your offering more useful, easier to consume, or more effective during peak times? Is there a way to take cost out of your offering during slow times, without reducing value to the customer?
  • Look at the tools, processes, and outside services your customer uses in addition to those you provide. Have any changes occurred in the tools, processes, and services your customer uses other than those you provide? How do these affect the customer problem you are solving? Are there opportunities to make your product work better with other products? Could you partner with other service providers to offer a bundled package that is more efficient or easier to use than buying the services separately? How can you help make the other tools and processes that your customer uses more effective?

Taking this type of comprehensive and in depth look at the multiple parts and layers of your customers’ organization will allow you to understand their needs much better than they themselves can articulate. You may even find you know the customer better than they know themselves.

I’d love to hear about techniques you’ve used to understand your customers better, and what you learned – I’ll be interested in your comments!

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Want breakthrough ideas? Look outside. WAY outside.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAb8AAAAJDhkOTgyMDkyLWQ5ZjItNDg3ZC1hZWFiLWE4ODk1MGIwODAwZAI recently met with the leaders of a highly successful company. Sales growth, which had been strong for years, was headed into negative territory. They were desperate to find the next “big idea” that would put their company on track for future growth.

As they discussed potential innovations, the same tired, incremental ideas that had been tossed around for years kept resurfacing.

What they needed was something to shake up their thinking.

These managers had been so busy delivering product, serving customers, dealing with people issues, managing the budget and attending meetings, that they had focused all their attention inward. They hadn’t looked outside their industry for new ideas in months, or even years. As a result, their thinking was stale and uninspired.

When you want to develop breakthrough ideas, try looking at companies outside of your industry to fuel new thinking. If you are in healthcare, look at technology or consumer products companies.  If you are a services company, look at manufacturers. You get the idea.

Pick one company, and list what’s intriguing, controversial, new or different about it. Be specific about what you observe, and then ask: “How might we apply this idea in our own company?”

An industrial products business, for example, looked at Walmart as an exemplar, even though the two companies are in different industries and are of vastly different size.

The smaller company observed how Walmart has made its store-brand Ol’ Roy dog food the bestselling brand in the world, and decided to explore the idea of offering private-label products. It observed how Walmart has standardized apparel sizes across many different clothing suppliers, and decided to simplify and standardize its product sizes, so customers could more easily specify and buy what they needed.

This video describes this process:

Click here for a framework and example.

When I suggested “looking outside your industry” in a blog post a few weeks ago, readers contributed how they had:

  • Found new ideas for an aerospace company by looking at consumer products technology trends.
  • Developed a new hotel concept after looking at the consumer and employee experience across brands like Starbucks, Harley Davidson and Quick-Trip.
  • Applied ideas from investigative journalism to sales training.
  • Employed GM and Toyota product positioning and pricing ideas within an information services company.

Next time you want to develop new ideas for performance improvement and growth, look at companies in completely different industries than your own.  Be specific about what you observe, and then think about the implications for your own company.