Groundhog Day, Together On Zoom

Staying Optimistic At Work When Everything is Hard

We’re now seven months into the slog of this pandemic. Those of us who can work — and can work from home — are probably feeling fortunate that, despite the hassle of zoom and video calls, we’re able to keep the train mostly on the tracks.

But, I’m sensing that, for a lot of us, the routine is starting to feel a little bit empty. Like the movie Ground Hog day, but without Bill Murray. Maybe our moods are getting a little jagged, and the humor is getting a little dark. And, maybe that future we’re building towards is getting a little cloudier. We’re trying to do good work, meaningfully, to create something better and, if we’re lucky, more useful. This rock won’t push itself up that hill, you know.

But, it’s getting harder. Trying to do it from the basement or home office is going to get lonely, if it hasn’t already. After a while, it’s all going to feel like most days are our worst days, when work is bullshit and we can’t really see the point of it. (Or, maybe the work really is bullshit, pandemic or not; that’s another post)

It doesn’t help that the virtual world we’re working in is overcooked and populated by a lot of empty wannabes. Those of us who pretty much live and work online are pepper sprayed with positivity and hustle-secrets by bros hawking their classes and private communities. I read too many click-baity headlines and I get worried for those under-employed journalism kids getting crappy hourly wages to crank them out, seeking just a bit of a career toehold so they can get off their parents’ payroll. There’s too much glossy snark and manufactured “I’m living my truth” first person stuff from stay at home moms and dads who dream of becoming the next Tim Ferriss or Glennon Doyle, the edge cases who actually did it, who jumped off the “real job” grind. I’m avoiding Youtube because it seems like every video is over-dosed with ads featuring some guy pitching me their course that will teach me how to sell my course, so I don’t have to work for the man anymore.

The relentless hustle and commercialism of this new workplace is toxic and transactional like the old one, just in a different way. It just reinforces the fear among us working alone, at home, that we’re not only in the wrong job, but that we’re not trying hard enough.

So how do we stay grounded? How do we see the meaning in the work, the satisfaction in the routine?

On my best days, I remind myself, in the words of the philosopher, that I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.

Remember how Phil Connors escaped the bleakness of those Feb 2 day-loops? Hint: It wasn’t just waking up next to Andie McDowelI.

On my good days, I can wake up and see pretty clearly what we’re trying to do at Fahren:

• There’s a leader out there, trying to make something important happen at their job.

• It doesn’t matter too much what it is, but they’re probably trying to put some technology to better use.

• They might be trying to bring something new into the world.

• They know there’s a better way to work, some techniques they can use to do something smarter. 

• They want to keep growing and getting better. As workers, as leaders. As humans. They might be using their job to enact some real improvements in how they think, how they act and how they perform.

• They want help. They’re open to getting some ideas and support from a team that has gone through it before.

• Maybe they just want to hire an outside firm so they can work with likeminded people, so they don’t get stuck being a lifer in the old way.

• We can help. We can help that person solve their problem, to learn something new, to get a job done.

• We can help them make their own transformation, while they are changing the work they do.

Our chosen work is to help people develop and grow while they accomplish something important using the best, leading edge techniques and tools. That’s not a mission statement, or a slogan. It’s a reminder, a commitment.

Maybe that’s too optimistic? Perhaps a little naive? Well, that’s the choice I’m making. It’s how I want to view the world we’re working in now and I’ll keep doing it, even after the pandemic is over. I want my business to be successful, but I can’t keep working on it if cash is the only thing that drops to the bottom line.

We’re all swimming in tech. Technology is the water. But, when we click off zoom and look out the window, we have each other, good and bad, on the other side.

We work with people. We’re working for them, and in their own way, they’re working through us. 

I don’t want to be stuck in a loop of emails and Zoom. This choice is my way out.

GSD: The Maker’s Schedule for the CEO?

We’re a couple years into our “startup” journey with Fahren and, oh man, am I learning a lot about how NOT to manage my schedule. But, I think there might be a better way.

While I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do in our short time, I’m one of those guys that can’t stop thinking about how to do more and do it better. As the CEO/Founder, it’s my responsibility to make sure we’re on track and driving this whole thing forward. It’s humbling to say it, but “clock management”- my time management skills (or lack thereof) – might be one of the things that is creating drag for us. If we want to accelerate, I have to be better at GSD.

My whole career has been an attempt to excel in what Paul Graham calls the “manager schedule”. Its been a schedule designed around 1-2 hour meetings, lot’s of variety throughout the day, and, a blend between quick decisions and deep consideration. Successful managers and directors and VPs were the busy ones, stacked up in meeting. A day full of meetings typically indicated more busy-ness and, by the power of the transitive property, more busy-ness meant “success”. In other words, a typical workday in corporate America is mixed bag of start/stop, high and low pressure, inefficiency. In those days, I had to come into work at 5 AM to get my “deep work” done in the quiet hours before the meetings started. It was a weird schedule, but, I was pretty good at that.

The team at GoKart Labs (RIP) were super talented makers, some of the best, most creative folks I’ve ever worked with. There, I learned the importance of the “Maker” schedule, where the focus was on the deep work that resulted in smart, clever solutions to gnarly problems, whether it was technical, creative or product strategy. I understood (and still do) the problem of context switching, and the lost creative momentum and productivity that happens when you are on the hook to make something great, but your day is broken up into 1 hour meetings. Back then, because I was a manager at the time, that was sort of a theoretical problem. Now the shit is real to me.

At Fahren, we’re building the business and, as the CEO/Founder, I’m a both a manager and builder, too. I’m a maker of things: Proposals, strategies, concepts, blog posts, etc. I’m supposed to be both a doer while I work “on” the business (i.e. figure out our healthcare plan options, pick some software for X), a doer while I work “in” the business (e.g. work on client engagements) and a maker (of ideas, posts, industry analysis etc). I’ve been trying to do all of it on a “Managers” schedule and it’s not working especially well. I have to make some changes, fast.

This isn’t an unexplored dilemma. These days, we’re all dealing with it to some extent. But, it’s one thing when your clock management skills get in your own way, and another when your lack of skills is holding back the rest of your team. Managing the balance between the two types of work is, I believe, a critical skill that any “ready” leader needs to hone. So, I’m going to try a couple adjustments.

  • Workshop Mornings – I’m going to pick at least one morning a week to block off as my “workshop” time, where I can focus on doing the deep work: writing, researching, planning, etc.
  • Meet and Greet Blocks – I’m going to block off a couple afternoons a week for the kind of meetings that would otherwise get interspersed throughout my schedule: Intro meetings, interviews, sales calls, regroups, etc.
  • Office Hours – I’m going to leave my schedule open for a 2-3 hours each week for random, drive-by talks. If folks call or want to video conference, these would be the time slots to do it.
  • No Meeting Fridays – I’m going to try (really hard) to not schedule meetings on Fridays if I can help it. If a client wants to meet, I’ll do it, but I won’t schedule it. In general, Fridays’ don’t seem like the most productive days and, at least in the summer, not much gets done after 1 PM anyway.

I’m going to try this for the 3rd quarter of 2020 and see how it goes. I’ll make adjustments at the end of September. If you’ve cracked the code on this balance, please let me know how you did it. I’m all ears.

Kevin Bauer: Learning To Lead When Plans Meet Reality

Kevin Bauer is, in some ways, a modern marketing unicorn. He’s got deep e-commerce experience, deep data & analytics experience, and general management/P&L experience. Plus, he’s got intrapreneurial experience, starting up new corporate ventures internationally. And now, he’s getting his entrepreneurial merit badge as the founder of Kessel Digital. It’s safe to say he’s been around the block in more countries that most of us.

Because of the breadth and depth of Kevin’s experience, I was curious about some of his most formative experiences. You know that saying, “No business plan survives first contact with the customer”? Well, Kevin lived it as key part of a team launching a European subsidiary.

“We were the huge dominant company in the US and so sure all we’re going to do is you know right click copy and paste”. Of course, there were surprises and hurdles and, as you might imagine, things didn’t go exactly according to plan. Most importantly, one of the key consumer behaviors that drove the business in the US didn’t exist in Europe. The team had to start over after trying for months to get established.

The key leadership lesson: You have to support a team through the various stages of frustration (even when you’re feeling it too!), and support them through the pivots. All without decreasing the level of effort or intensity.

Pivots are hard in any situation, but especially when the urgency for results is mixed with the real pressures of a business closure if those results aren’t met. Leaders like Kevin have to make a tough ask of their team members who might be battling fear: “I need you to embrace that fear”.

Kevin’s insight: If you’re the leader, and you’re asking your team to embrace their fear, you have your own special obligation: Radical Transparency. “I had to be radically transparent about the plans, and how we were going to achieve it. And who was going to have to do what and what the risk was. ”

This sounds pretty straightforward, but there’s a critical piece woven through the commitment to radical transparency. You better have a really good plan. “If you’re radically transparent but you have no plan and if you’re not organized in your communication… Yeah, then it’s…we’re all just running off the cliff.”

As Kevin and I wrapped our conversation, I was looking at the concept of transparency differently than I had. Transparency is obviously a clarifier. But it’s really the way to be the most respectful to the people you’re working with and to keep the focus on the action plan, not the anxiety your team might be feeling. It’s a key tool to keeping the energy and effort up through the pivots.

Craig Pladson: Put Yourself in A Position to Learn

Craig Pladson is a marketer and leader I’ve been following for years. I met him after he heckled me (in a good natured way!) at a MiMA talk years ago and we’ve been in an ongoing discussion about brands, digital, marketing and business ever since. The conversations spanned times when we worked together, times when I needed advice, and most recently when i was trying to get smarter about what’s coming next for brands.

He’s on a new adventure now, building his own consulting practice based on his experience at Digital River, Colle McVoy, General Mills, GoKart Labs, and Ovative.

While we talked at length about brands and what’s going to happen to marketing over the next couple years, I really enjoyed hearing him talk about his growth as a leader. I asked him about the experiences where he learned the most, the ones that created the environment for accelerated development. I was expecting it would have been his first job out of school (as part of the Digital River mafia), but it was his most recent role that generated the most discussion. It became clear that one of the drivers to accepting the role was specifically because it would stretch him, an opportunity to, as he said, “put myself in a position where I was intensely learning. I thrive in that type of environment… it keeps me dusted off and pushes me to take a modern approach in how I solve marketing problems.”

The role was in a fast-growth, high performing organization staffed by great talent. Smart people moving at digital speed. So, how do you lead a team, keep them moving fast, when you’re learning, too? How does a leader strike the balance between fast and frantic, especially when the leader is learning alongside the team? Craig reminded me that a good leader has to make sure “there’s clarity and a forecasted roadmap of where we’re going and why” but that leader must also support a team that’s learning through the inevitable adjustments and pivots. By getting work into market, the team can watch and adjust based on the results, knowing “feedback will start to direct you in a way that continues to lessen the subjectivity of it. “

I’m someone that takes pride in my ability to stay curious and open to new ideas, but I was inspired by Craig’s intentional, focused effort to create the hard situations where experience transforms into insight. He made it hard on purpose! I’m generally kind of lazy, but when I consider my own history, I know Craig’s instinct is right: Good stuff inevitably comes out of those “crucible” moments, where pressure, curiosity, opportunity and experience get blended and good ideas come out as a result. If we want to keep open, keep growing, we have to seek out and embrace those hard moments, the ones that test us, but put us in a position to learn.

Week X: The Hump Week, Together

I’m no longer sure of what week we’re in of the “Quarantine Times” era but it feels like we’ve been at this for a looong time. As I’ve been talking with people for work and for life, I’m sensing a rising sense of fatigue inside all the energy that carried us through the first part of this time. It’s not anger, it’s not outright frustration, but it feels like we are (or at least I am) stuck in the mud. Seth Levine is right to call it the Week Six Slump.

This is going to be a time in our lives when we look back with a strange brew of emotions and questions, but right now, in this particular week, I’m in a funk of sorts. I realize how good my family has got it, relatively speaking and i am aware of the privilege that affords me the opportunity to keep working in these times, from home. Work at Fahren is going better than we expected during quarantine. My sons are holding up really well, despite very significant impacts in their schooling and social lives. My family is safe. There are (probably temporary) signs of a comeback in the stock market. Folks want to get on with it, but I’m feeling, well, blah. Funky, not in a good way. Blue.

Here’s my plan to get out of it:

  • Connect with new folks – Keep reconnecting with folks that aren’t part of my normal routine. Not just for networking, though. I’ve got enough Linkedin contacts. It’s become clear to me that I get energy when I’m listening and learning from people. If i go into conversations with the goal of deep listening, I find an energy there that i really enjoy. If networking is candy, real conversations are whole foods. I want more whole foods.
  • Create more – I’m starting a little writing project that’s just for me, and I love the work so far. I may launch it eventually, but right now, it’s a hobby that’s helping me get my mornings started well.
  • Morning routine – I’ve recommitted to a regular morning routine. It’s a commitment, but it makes the rest of the day so much better.
  • Slow Down – Time is going so fast, it really feels like its slipping away sometimes. I’ve been trying hard to enjoy the moments of each day, and feel gratitude for the chance to work on hard problems, in the moment. Call it mindfulness, call it being present. But, it helps.
  • Give Back – My little company just wrapped up a small project for a non-profit we love and it was a great, tiny project. They’ve got some cool ambitions, but tight resources. We could help at the right time, with the right skills. We covered the costs of the team that delivered the work for the non-profit, and they were thrilled. It could point them in a bold new direction, and it felt great to be able to help with the oddball set of skills i’ve accumulated over the years.
  • Contemplating – I’ve spent the last 14 years of my career focused on “work like a startup”, go faster, etc. But, i wonder if the best strategy is to actually slow it all down and get great at a few things and build upon that excellence? Are we done with the “first mover”, startup era? I’ve been reading Built to Last and Small Giants and it’s been refreshing.

I know we’ll all get through this and we’ll get over this hump. But, in the meantime, you might get a call or an email from me asking for a chat or to let me bounce an idea off you.

Maybe the Most Useful Podcast Episode Ever (For Leaders)

I’ve listened to this episode of The Knowledge Project 3 times now and I’m pretty sure I’ll listen to it once a quarter going forward.

This is probably the most useful work-related podcast I’ve listened to (and I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts). This is highly relevant for you if:

  • You’re leading in a highly complex (even chaotic) environment
  • You’re leading a team that is growing
  • If you’re responsible for hiring great talent
  • If you’re committed to building a great culture in your company
  • If you’re trying to get better as a leader

The key insight is really kind of obvious, but comes across clearly here: We’re not actually rationale beings, that what we’re experiencing may be driven more by what we *feel* vs what is actually happening. Our own brains make up stories about what’s happening and why and these stories – the narratives we fit our experiences into so they make sense to us – get in the way of true clarity about what’s really occurring and how we interpret the experience.

Jeff Hunter (of Talentism) is a guy that’s been talking to, hiring and coaching top leaders for years. He’s got deep experience making hard choices and he, in a way, unloads a lot of it in this talk. I’m specifically interested in his experiences at Bridgewater, Ray Dalio’s investment firm.

Hunter makes a persuasive case that we should embrace the confusion we feel when things get don’t go as planned and we should see confusion as a sign that we’re in a position to learn. We should be examining the gap between what we expected to happen vs what actually happened and seek to understand our assumptions and our knowledge gaps.

Finally, this whole podcast is worth it for three things:

  • How to avoid telling yourself the wrong story about performance (beyond avoiding negative self talk)
  • How to give better constructive feedback
  • How to get smarter about the hires you make

Background: Shane Parish has been inspiring me via his Farnham Street platform where he focuses on tools that help you make decisions, better. I love the mission, and for years he’s been providing a ton of great resources for leaders. His curiosity is on display in every interview and he might be the perfect guy for this interview.

Interim Talent: “Test and Learn” Comes to Your Talent Mix

We’re building Fahren to be a leadership solutions company. We want to become a key partner for organizations that are differentiating themselves by investing in  and – yes – innovating in the ways they deploy their leadership talent.

One of the planks of our business plan is to focus on Interim roles in key leadership positions: Director/VP of Marketing, Product Leadership, Analytics, and User Experience.

We think “Interim Leader of X” is a tool that most organizations haven’t fully embraced yet. We’re advocates for the idea of using interim roles as a way to test & learn with your talent. You’re already using a test & learn approach in your marketing, your technology, and your product development efforts, why not approach your leadership team with the same model?

It Can’t Be Business as Usual

When most organizations are faced with an opening, they move quickly to refill the same seat with a standard leadership profile. It’s the “business as usual” approach, because everyone is busy and there are plans to deliver, right? So, they default to standard roles, generic job descriptions, templated profiles.

But, we believe most organizations are missing an opportunity to evolve either the “seat” (i.e. the role that’s being played in the organization) or the player profile (i.e. the mix of skills/experience/potential that the person brings to the seat). Most organizations would benefit a lot from taking the time to ask themselves: Is this still the right “seat”? And, do we still want to fill it with the same kind of player?

Why the rethink? Without a doubt, the business context will have changed in the months or years since the seat was designed. We believe organizations need to be as responsive, fluid and adaptive as their products these days, so it’s wise to rethink aspects of the role:

  • Responsibilities: What objectives are we pursuing with this role? Are we pointing the role at the right business problems? Are we being aggressive enough?
  • Level: Is it still a Director level role? Should it be a VP role? Could it be a manager?
  • Commitment: Is it really full-time?
  • Span of Control: Do we have the right teams reporting to this role? Could we expand the span of control?

And, at the same time, it’s wise to rethink the player profile:

  • Skill mix – What leadership competencies are they bringing to the role?
  • Developmental Experiences – What kinds of experiences should the player have? Startup experience? Big company? Turnaround? “Good to Great”?
  • Culture Impact – How will you use the role to add to the culture (vs merely being a “fit”)

The Interim Opportunity: Test and Learn for Talent

As the pace of business accelerates, we’re seeing a lot of organizations embrace an agile (and Agile), iterative, test/learn approach to driving better results. We’re seeing it marketing, in product development, in technology teams, etc. But, we’re not yet seeing it on the talent side.

We see “interim” roles as being the way organizations can take a test & learn approach to their organizational efforts. An interim role that last 6-12 months gives organizations a chance to explore how key roles can evolve and how teams can work differently. The cycle looks similar to a market-test:

  • Develop a hypothesis – How either the seat can evolve or the different leadership mix you need from the player
  • Define a test – Redefine the seat or the player and create the test period (usually 6-12 months)
  • Run the test – Put the new player into the role for 6-12 months
  • Analyze the results – Review in-market results and team performance. Talk with the team, the leader, the rest of the leadership team, customers, vendors, partners, etc.
  • Apply – Use the learnings to finalize the new role or the new leadership profile and then fill the role permanently

At Fahren, we expect to see more and more organizations using Interim roles as a way to test and learn their way to a more effective leadership mix. We’re setting up our business to help our partners get there via:

  • Strategy & Advisory services – We’ll help you map out a new strategy and define the roles you need to get there
  • Interim Talent – We’ll help you find and onboard the Interim leadership you need to keep driving results while learning about the talent mix that can take you to the next level
  • Executive Search – When you know what you need and you want to fill the role permanently, we can help you conduct an efficient, effective search

Why I’m Starting My Own Company

Every entrepreneur who starts their own venture better have a clear idea of why they’re doing it. With a clear “why”, it will be easier to navigate when the inevitable obstacles pile up.  If for no other reason than to get my own thoughts straight, here goes:

I’ve got Some Personal Motivation

I’m a small business guy by birth – I grew up the son of a second generation entrepreneur. My grandfather took a huge risk in 1916 and started a car business. He never made it to college, but i benefitted because he had the right combination of courage, vision, perseverance and a super supportive wife. He sent his two boys (my dad and uncle) to college, gave a ton back to his church and community, and sold the boys a successful business. They managed it well and grew it so that their combined 11 kids could go to college and grad school. I can’t count how many of their employees sent their own kids to college, or bought their first homes or a cottage on a lake or were able to retire because they were paid well by dad’s small business. It’s in the hundreds. So, i’m a believer in main street. I think the world needs more successful small businesses. We probably have enough Facebooks, Googles, and Twitters.

I want to build a great culture – I was having coffee with Amol Dixit, the brains behind Hot Indian Foods and he told me that his goal wasn’t to get into the restaurant business. His goal was to build a great company and a great brand, first. The restaurant business was just the fastest way in. When he wakes up in the morning, he’s thinking about how to keep the business growing so the people that work there can get where they’re trying to go, professionally. I hope that, in my small way, the little company i create can be a place where others can get their start on a new career or at least a new phase in their career.

Create More, Consume Less – I try, everyday, to focus on creating. Whether it’s words on a page, music, or even a dumb sketch, it’s critical to me to put something good out into the world to balance out all the consumption i’m doing. Business is the medium where i think i can be the most creative (should have practiced my guitar more) and this is a time where creativity in business will be rewarded. I hope when i’m done working someday, i’ll be able to look back and feel proud of what we all created together at my little company.

Put it into Practice – I’ve been blessed to have worked with some amazing leaders. Whether it was learning how to manage through rapid change at Ameriprise, or learning how to build excellent brands at General Mills, or how to build an amazing professional services business like Ciceron or GoKart, i’ve been around inspirational folks my whole career. I owe it to those leaders to try to do something special. I want to see if i can put it into practice.

It’s time – I started out as a small business guy, but then found my way – through luck and being in the right place at the right time with the right knowledge –  into corporate America. My whole rationale for going corporate was to learn enough to sell some digital marketing into big companies. My longterm plan was to go start my own business; i just needed a little corporate experience first. As i look ahead and make my plan for the next 10 years, this is the best way to get where i want to end up.

Why this Particular Business?

We’re starting a company that will make it easier for companies to find the talent they need to innovate and change. It’s a professional services business, but not an agency. We’re going to have a pool of talented consultants who can provide interim leadership and support for your most strategic digital initiatives. They’ll have experience at the senior levels inside big corporations and agencies and could step into your VP and Director level roles.  I’ll save the particulars for another post, but the general reasons for this business are going to be pretty familiar:

  • The market size is huge
  • There’s a gap in the marketplace
  • There is long term opportunity
  • I’ve got a unique way to help address some market needs

More on that later…

But, beyond the financial and business rationale, there’s a deeper reason. The transformational change that most companies are pursuing will come about through hard work and courageous leadership. That change will be driven by technology, but it will ultimately be a cultural change, where the company vision, mission, values, incentives, ways of work, tools, leadership behaviors, communications and customer experience will all be challenged.

It’s going to come down to great leadership.  It’s going to take vision, courage, resilience and persistence. And – we think –  partners that work like we do.

The Middle is Where the Change Gets Real –  This kind of change will have to be supported at the “top of the house”, the C-Level folks. And, the execution has to happen everywhere, from the entry level folks on up. But, the leaders in the middle – the Directors, the VP’s – are where the real change happens. Or, I should say, where the change gets real. Those people are in the tough spot of trying to influence up (to the C-Level), across (to their peers) and around, to their teams, their vendors, their functional partners. They’ve got to bend and dismantle the old ways of working to create the space for the new ways.

While we will probably be hired by “senior management”, we think we can make the most impact by helping to lead from the middle. So, we are building this organization to to help at the Director and VP level, the ones who have to make the change actually happen. The ones taking the risks to innovate where their peers are playing the game, the ones who are trying to create something new or pioneer new techniques instead of following the path laid out by their boss.

This might be one of the best times in American history to start a new business. It’s also the best time for existing business reinvent themselves. And, it’s an amazingly interesting time to be a business leader. If we work our plan and this business evolves the way we want it to, we’ll be doing our little part to help those great companies – and the leaders inside – reinvest in their futures and reinvent themselves.

 

CEO’s & CMO’s: 2017 Strategic Planning Questions for Your Digital Team

While the rest of us are enjoying the fall weather, football and the changing seasons, most CMO’s and CEO’s and their leadership teams are elbow deep in 2017 planning and budgeting. In addition to all the normal business challenges, most leadership teams are probably spending a significant amount of time talking – one away or another – about digital and/or their digital transformation. Maybe its a question of how to allocate the capital budget for digital capabilities, or it could be a culture question (“How do we get more digital talent?”). Or, more urgently, it could be an existential question (“how do we compete against X and the disruption they are causing”).

Eventually, those boardroom conversations and plans will make their way down to strategic planning discussions with the VP’s of Digital Marketing, the Chief Digital Officer, Head of Digital, or Directors of Digital. Here’s what we hope those lucky leaders are getting asked in those strategic conversations:

  • What’s our strategy to use data to develop a competitive advantage? We see a lot of C-level leaders who are missing the strategic opportunity to plan for, collect and analyze data in unique ways (not just the obvious stuff) to give themselves a competitive advantage. We know of one company that bought a couple large Instagram handles from their owners, just so they could get the day to day data on likes and use the comments section to gain unique consumer insights that their competitors wouldn’t have
  • How are we using digital to create a unified experience over the whole  customer journey? Smart companies are moving on from digitizing their functions (Sales, Service, PR, brand Management)  to looking for ways to integrate and unify the whole consumer experience. They are going from good/great execution at the functional level to managing the whole customer journey in a holistic, integrated way even though there’s not an immediate ROI and dramatic changes in short term results are rare. Not only is it better for consumers, it positions companies to collect unique, potentially proprietary data along the way. It’s an easy concept to grasp, but it’s incredibly hard to execute internally unless there is a multi-year commitment from the top to keep investing ahead of results.
  • What capital investments and resource allocations do we need to make to get better data across the customer journey? See above. A dramatically improved customer experience will generate incredibly valuable data
  • What must we do to invest enough in both incremental and transformation innovation? No good leader says “no” to opportunities to invest in innovation, but few leadership teams are disciplined enough to balance short-term, functional innovation (i.e. incremental) with the willingness to pursue transformational opportunities.or instance, we know of one company that is generating a surprising amount of revenue from advertising on their digital platform; enough revenue to pay for a larger, more advanced digital team. It’s almost guaranteed that the directors and managers and coordinators on the digital team have ideas for both, but they may not be getting the support to pursue both due to a heavy prioritization of short term results.
  • How do we need to evolve our brand position and actions to be even more relevant to our customers? All leaders should by now understand how digital is transforming consumer expectations of brands. But even after years of watching brands like Dove drive great results by moving the brand to a higher, more aspirational space (and creating amazing digital content that’s getting shared all over the place), too many leaders are still(!) focused on the result (“get me something that goes viral”) instead of the characteristics of a soap brand that millions and millions want to connect with. In other words, you have to do the work to elevate your brand and your company in order to be relatable, digitally.
  • What do we need to do culturally to create the conditions for more agility and innovation in our marketing? Most good business leaders have read up on Agile, Lean Startup, and “working like a startup”. It’s thrilling to see courageous leaders try to change their companies actions. But, smart C-level folks will listen to the digital teams about what needs to change culturally to create the conditions for more flexibility, agility and innovation in their marketing model (or their business, overall). The behaviors are one thing, but the attitudes and beliefs and values and incentives are another. Most importantly, CMO’s and CEO’s should be asking: Have I created the right incentives to unlock true innovation (or  will my team still get penalized for taking risks)?
  • Are we being aggressive in looking at business model or product innovation opportunities? This is something that any sufficiently paranoid organization should be asking itself every six months: “what would a potential disruptor do to come take our business away?” Or, put another way, “how do we not get Blockbustered?” And, as part of the same exercise, CEO’s should be asking their digital team “what opportunities are we missing to use digital for  new revenue, new products, or serving our customers more effectively”? It’s easy to get a false sense of security that “we’re on it!”.
  • What do we need to do to help our employees work at the pace and speed of our customers? As the proliferation of tools and technology accelerates, it’s imperative for customer-focused companies to enable their front line people – the sales folks, the community managers, customer service – to work with the same tools and platforms that their customers are using. So, whether it’s instagram or Snapchat messaging, chatbots or Kik, CMO/CEO’s will make the hard policy changes to stay connected with their consumers

If you’re the VP or Sr Director of Digital, the Head of Digital or the Digital Transformation leader and these questions aren’t coming up in the annual operating plan discussions, you should set up time with your CMO and CEO and push these issues forward. It’s your chance to lead “up” and push the thinking of your organization and, ultimately, position your team to drive even greater impact in the organization. And, to make life a little better for your customers in 2017.

From “Labs” to “Core”: Transitioning from Digital Experiment to Core Business

It’s pretty clear by now that smart CMO’s are seeking ways to accelerate growth by looking at digital products and platforms to energize their product mix and boost their marketing. As they ask their team to explore faster, both CMO’s and CTO’s need to be ready for the bumps ahead as the innovations go from “experiments” to “core business”.

Often, the leaders who are being asked to lead innovation are explicitly tasked with finding new ways to work in addition to defining new product/service offerings. They might be leading Innovation, New Products, New Ventures or Business Development. So, they are expected to explore new tools, new technology, new partners or new methods for working with a goal of injecting innovation into the organization while defining new revenue streams.

But, while there is a growing set of best practices on how to invent and launch new products inside the enterprise, there aren’t as many best practices for the transition period when those products go from “innovation” into “run the core business”. Worse, few innovation leaders have a clear plan for enlisting the support of the functional leaders (IT, Product management, sales, etc.) who have to maintain and manage an innovative product once it’s launched and proven.

As a result, one of the biggest threats to capturing the benefit from innovation activities is the slow death that comes when the original strategic intent is second guessed, re-thought, and challenged by the core business.

For example, imagine a scenario where the VP of Innovation for Enormicon Inc saw a legitimate market opportunity for a new product with a different business model. Over the course of a year, his “Enormicom Labs” team moved quickly, working like an agile startup to create the first iteration of the product including customer growth, market traction, press awareness and lots of insights into how the product could succeed. But, to scale the product, Enormicon would have to move the product from the “Labs” team into the core business.

As the product moves from the “Labs” team to the mainline business, the strategic intent of the innovation project will probably clash with the functional strategies that support the business. The tech choices that were made to enable speed and quality in the “innovation” phase will probably run counter to tech strategies that guide the main business (i.e. repeatability, cost reduction, leverage core technologies, scale efficiencies). The marketing approach used to quickly gain new customers for the innovative product will probably not be supportable by the “core” marketing team’s strategies.

To successfully grow businesses via innovation, Enormicon will need support in launching innovative products, but also in re-integrating those products into the business once the new product is proven.

Innovation leaders will need strong support as they think through the start up process AND the phase of introducing their new products and services into the main business. Change leaders will need to develop stronger support for:

  • Tech Strategy – Choosing tech (the software, the programming language, the development methodology, the support model) that will work for both the start up phase (agile, fast, easy and cheap to build and support) and the re-entry phase (software that’s scaleable, supportable by the corporation, bullet-proof and fits into the rest of the company’s architecture)
  • Maintaining Strategic Support – Building the strategic rationale and the  business case for doing things differently, so functional leaders will invest the extra effort and time and money to support the experimental efforts (tech, marketing, etc.