Thriving in tough times

In these times there are opportunities to grow your business. The advantage is that you have to be able to see them without falling prey to the negative attitude which seems to dominate the media right now.

Andrew Long of Critical Pathfinders is introducing a workshop to do just that: its called “Leveraging the Power of Crisis” and will be led by noted author Gina Mollicone-Long. Gina notes,”

“People are constantly telling me that they are worried about 2009.  I’m here to tell them that more millionaires are created in times of recession than during high times.  The companies and leaders that stand out this year will be those who step up and change their mindset,” she adds.

This is crucial to keep in mind. As I have said before in numerous posts, there is a shift going on in the economy and those companies that can see beyond the current turmoil to identify trends and opportunities will be those that succeed!

You can get more information about the sessions here.

Economic stimulus packages might not work out as planned

With the rush to pass the stimulus packages in various countries, politicians are repeatedly stressing the seriousness of the recession to spur various levels of government into action.
The problem with this is that the more politicians use adjectives like grim and unprecedented and draw comparisons to the great depression the less consumers spend and the worse consumer sentiment gets. This affects how business thinks about investing how consumers shop for goods and ripples up through the economy to prolong and perhaps accelerate the situation.
So in order to push through stimulus packages to fix the economy they may actually be hurting it in the long-run. This is most evident in the consumer sentiment index, which, although marginally higher in January still reflects consumers ongoing fear about the direction of the economy. Consumers now,

” anticipate the deepest and longest recession in the post-World War II era, but consumers do not expect the economy to sink into a 1930s-style depression…”

But in the face of unsettling jobs numbers, consumers are still unsure of the direction of the economy and are looking for direction that there is hope on the horizon. That hope may come in the form of a stimulus package, but we must still keep in mind that comparisons of these current conditions with the Great Depression will not help to spur confidence that government spending will help the situation.

In an analysis of Friday’s jobs report Globe reporter Barrie McKenna cites a University of Michigan professor that notes even though the job losses are large, they more accurately compare with the early 90s recession, not even the recession of the 80s. The reason says Mark Perry is that even though the raw numbers appear unprecedented, in the 1980s there were only about 93 million Americans working in the labor force versus approximately 154 million today. So on a percentage basis there is a distinct difference and a real danger of using raw numbers out of context for other purposes.

What all this comes down to is that as Professor Perry states:

“We’re talking ourselves into a more severe recession than this really is,” he said. “A lot of this is psychological, and that plays into consumer spending.”

But with the pace of job cuts accelerating, market watchers expect that next month’s jobs report will be even worse. One final thing to keep in mind is that these stats tend to be trailing indicators of how the economy was doing. That being said, any commentary on these upcoming numbers has to be framed judiciously so as not to choke off consumers and businesses willingness to spend.

Strategic innovation counters short-term thinking

Many executives find themselves facing difficult decisions these days in light of the challenging economic conditions. Short-term results are often scrutinized closely by the market as a way of determining a company’s financial health and direction. Although this can be a viable way of judging whether corporate strategy is translating into market success, what often happens is that short-term thinking permeates the organization leading to a starvation of resources for longer-term initiatives like new products and services.

One can see this happening at large companies in different sectors as they announce cutbacks in spending on innovation to meet customer needs. As the former CTO of Cisco notes, America is facing an “Innovation Crisis,” and needs to find “new ways of funding fundamental research.”

She cites the fact that Bell Labs announced late last year that it was discontinuing basic science research to “align the research work in the Lab closer to areas that the parent company is focusing on.”

The problem is that with these expense reductions, there is a tendency to pull back customer facing programs in order to conserve cash and “reduce” risk. As in an earlier post, I maintain that this may actually be a riskier strategy over the long term as competitors who continue their innovation program will be in better shape once the economy returns to normal growth.

Arguably, innovation can be seen as an “assembly” of tools, techniques, or assets to meet those deep customer needs. But without the foundation of basic research, it is very difficult to source assets to put into a solution. Of course there are grey areas within both fields, but I believe these days it is becoming increasingly difficult to justify investments in basic research which makes partnerships with universities an interesting way to explore getting access to more fundamental work.

In my opinion, innovation (which I define as meeting stated or unstated customer needs) is different than basic research or invention. While both are important, it is harder to make the case in today’s corporate environment for basic research, which is why I believe that many corporations are reducing their investments in these areas to (hopefully) concentrate more on innovation and getting more value from their existing assets. Keep in mind that the best way to use these assets is understanding the needs and taking a simple (but not dumb) approach to serving them.

In this economic climate, we at Brandsential work towards this goal by using “Value Extraction;” to leverage what’s inside the company to satisfy deep customer needs. And as I’ve said before, now is a perfect time to develop and innovate with these existing assets to make sure the company is well positioned to lead the market once the economic climate improves.

How not to conduct a Social Media campaign

Here is a great parody (really?) of a conversation between an advertiser and a consumer. Its not about the goals of the advertiser, but understanding the needs of the consumer.

I love the part where the advertiser says, “Did you miss the billboard in Times Square? That was like a 200 ft tall declaration of love.” Not exactly a “dialogue.”

Innovation in the Auto sector?

With all the talk lately around how to bail out the Big 3 automakers, there have been many comments on how to administer / police the firms that receive government bailouts. Which is all well and good: many of these firms have been less than successful in adapting to the needs and realities of the current market. As a condition of a bailout, the taxpayers should have some measures to ensure that their “investment” is being properly used to rebuild a stronger more responsive industry.

But in talking to a colleague with a long history in the automotive industry, they mentioned that this has been coming for a long time based on the structure and bureaucracy rampant in the firms. One example they recalled was that resources were not allocated to the projects with the best chances of success, but those which were championed by persuasive leaders in each silo of the company. So one has to ask; will this bailout give the firms a chance to re-organize for success or just continue along the same path? I believe that what can tip the balance towards the former is a belief from the top down in product/service innovation.

Looking back to the late 1979 and Chrysler’s last brush with insolvency we can see fundamental differences between today’s market conditions, industry players and other elements that make direct comparison difficult. But there are a few notable items to highlight that point toward why they were successful in making it through their earlier crisis.

At the same time as the company asked the U. S. government for $1.5B in loan guarantees former Ford executive (and “car guy”) Lee Iacocca was brought in to lead the company. A persuasive leader, he was able to rally the public behind the comeback and by to some extent, bashing the Japanese imports that were selling in greater numbers in the U.S. (It also helped the company’s cause that the U.S. Military bought thousands of Dodge pickups to bring into service.) Iacocca also brought in quality improvements on the assembly line which made the vehicles more reliable and the factories more efficient.

However what I believe gave the company its most significant boost was the development of the (at the time) innovative models, the K-car and the Minivan. As Iacocca believed in the products, the entire company could see that from the top down, product innovation was being given the support it needed to flourish. (What was interesting is that both of these concepts had been initially investigated at Ford and rejected.) Coming after the oil crisis of the late 70’s, the front-wheel drive K-car platform sold extremely well paving the way for the introduction of the Minivan.

Introduced in late 1983 (a three-year development cycle, which was unprecedented in the U.S. auto industry at the time), the minivan concept met customer needs for a vehicle with the space of a van, but could fit in a residential garage and have a low step-in height for small children. It continues to be the best selling minivan in the industry with over 12 MM units sold to date.

So although there are few direct comparisons that can be made between the two situations, I fear that unless the companies start to do a better job of really listening and responding to deep customer needs, we may be extending the automakers a few more months or years of struggling sales and poor performance.

Business Innovation in a recession drives profit

As we become more entrenched in recession, many companies are thinking that any spending is risky to the health of their companies and are battening down the hatches to cut expenses wherever they can. However, this behavior may actually be contributing to a long-term decline in competitiveness in their industries compared to companies that actually spend strategically during a recession on Innovation to accelerate growth.

An article by McKinsey suggests that companies that invest during a recession actually do significantly better than their peers who choose to cut back. They studied about 1,000 mainly US  corporations from 1982-1999 and identified attributes that industry leaders (top quartile performers) or challengers (those that moved into the top quartile) possessed. Including a contrarian approach to M&A (top performers actually increased M&A during periods of uncertainty), they had quite a different strategy when it came to spending.

Successful challengers actually spent significantly more cash than their more conservative peers during a recession. But what is most striking is their approach to expense spending: with greater focus, these challengers spent more on selling, general and administrative (SG&A) than those competitors that lost market share. In addition, relative to their competitors these successful companies more than doubled their spending on R&D during the recession.

The reward for this approach showed as market conditions improved after the recession as the successful companies’ market-to-book ratios were 25% higher than their unsuccessful competitors.

As part of responsibly managing a company, leaders have to look beyond current conditions
and see that a careful scrutiny of expenses is necessary to assess if all parts of the organization are moving in the right direction. But leaders have to be sure that they are not taking on more risk by failing to invest in the right areas now, to pay benefits later.

Innovation – The time is now!

I have been talking with several business owners about prospects given the uncertainty in the current marketplace. The instinctual reaction is to cut back on spending on Innovation, customer needs investigation and product development. However we feel that now is the best time to Innovate and this can actually decrease risk. Why?

  • the cost is relatively low, given that there very talented people on the market to lead these initiatives
  • it is easier to get teams to focus on one or two very important Innovation initiatives (after companies re-commit to their strategy, making sure they are well positioned for the conditions)
  • customer needs analysis when the market conditions are tough will unearth needs that are more core to customer’s lives and this insight will help define more enduring products
  • when the market picks up, concepts are ready to be fast-tracked to development. Those products and service are those that differentiate companies and customers will pay a premium for them.

Perhaps not all companies would benefit from a concentrated effort on Innovation, but for those companies who do not just want to compete on price, it is key to maintain focus on Innovation. Investment, not cuts are necessary to keep this focus because cutting talent fosters a bunker mentality. This turns the rest of the company inward concentrating on cutting in all areas to “follow the leader” instead of focusing on growth opportunities.

Proctor and Gamble has put Innovation at the heart of their strategy, focusing on the consumer and the CEO A.G. Lafley even going so far as to call Innovation a “team sport” because “Innovation doesn’t spring fully formed out of the head of one man or woman.” Keeping the right social climate for an innovative culture is part of how they are re-inventing the company.

Apple certainly understands this and as Steve Jobs said in an interview with Fortune:

“We’ve had one of these before, when the dot-com bubble burst. What I told our company was that we were just going to invest our way through the downturn, that we weren’t going to lay off people, that we’d taken a tremendous amount of effort to get them into Apple in the first place — the last thing we were going to do is lay them off. And we were going to keep funding. In fact we were going to up our R&D budget so that we would be ahead of our competitors when the downturn was over. And that’s exactly what we did. And it worked. And that’s exactly what we’ll do this time.”

Not only can Innovation help with growth opportunities, because it is centered around customer needs, it can actually help retain customers through difficult times. In fact you could argue that Innovation decreases risk as a company that retains customers can maintain cash flow on the one side and develop new ideas for increasing growth without see-sawing back and forth between inward and outward focus.

Just as financial discipline is part of the way leading companies operate, Innovation should be part of a company’s strategy not only in good times but also in challenging times.

Print3D- How will you use it?

There is a great post on the Ponoko blog, that talks about a disruptive shift in the way consumers will represent everything from maps to parts. Its called 3D printing and could be as important a change in the way we think about form as the shift from dot-matrix printers (remember those?) to laser printers.

The reason is because a company called Desktop Factory has dropped the price of the individual units to below $5000. While not exactly a staple on everyones Christmas list, they have gotten to the range that the Apple LaserWriter was in about 1985. I remember using one of these around that time and apart from the outrageous price per page (I was using it in school or at Kinkos) I knew after I saw the output that there was no going back to dot-matrix. It was like seeing a movie in colour, then again in black and white; there was no comparison.

Although dot-matrix printers continued to improve in quality and speed, the flexibility of laser printing quickly changed the way that people thought about putting graphics and text on the page. In theory consumers were able to compete with publishers with the availability of these new tools. But the reality was not quite as profound.

What I remember was that there were quite a few newsletters, posters etc. that looked like they had been assembled from a whole bunch of different sources and thrown down on paper. (Which reminds me of what is currently happening with interactive applications and Web 2.0, but that’s a whole other post.) What struck me at the time was that there still needed to be some design involved to make sense not only of the detail but of the overall picture.

You could see this about a decade later when the first html pages were created. (Anyone remember rainbow lines and scrolling status bar text?) Even though the palette of choices and tools was limited, those skilled web designers could make great looking pages even in those early days.

So maybe 3D printing will bring a new way of envisaging information to the masses. But it will still take talented designers to really make the information usuable to the masses.

(An interesting sideline to this discussion, RepRap makes a printer that (although not as esthetically nice as other commercially available machines) has successfully replicated (or cloned) itself by making its parts. Available under GNU, there are documents online so you can make one yourself.)

Design in use

We are considering getting some work done on our house and in order to help us make any work run smoothly, we brought in a pro; an Interior Designer. What was interesting is that the first thing she did was asked us what we liked and disliked about the current situation. She also had a long questionnaire that she went through with us in detail to get a feeling for how we live in the space. She also saw how we demonstrated a few problems with the layouts. After that exercise, she gave us magazines to go through to identify ideas, and prototypes that we found interesting.

It seems to me that this is an interesting way to approach product development in other fields: there is a process to understand how customers are using products; and there is then some building blocks brought in to help ground the discussion as well as show what is possible. This is something that we at Brandsential also try to do.

To really bring value to the area of product development in organizations we bring in the best and brightest in an organization to determine what is possible then mash that up with what we find with customer discovery sessions. What is does is allow a company to use its existing assets to better address the deep customer needs that drive successful products.

Customers and willingness to pay

In order to launch successful products a basic requirement is to know what your customers want and how much they are willing to pay to get your product.

Some products have a very low value to a set of customers; some have a high value to a set of customers but without talking to your customers, it becomes very hard to understand what they want to do and why they should buy your product over others… This is where Brandsential can help.