To succeed in business, give an ear to customer needs

To succeed in business, give an ear to customer needs
Businesses achieve success because of a differentiated value proposition they offer to a set of customers with their own unique value chain to deliver the same. This is what strategy gurus call competitive advantage to succeed in the marketplace. My friend and partner, Rita McGrath of Columbia Business School and the author of The End of Competitive Adva-ntage, has made a monumental contribution to the art and science of strategy with her frameworks on transient competitive advantage of current times where there is no long-term sustainability.

For any company to develop and deliver on the strategy, they need to understand their customer needs well. In order to succeed with a new product or service, it is critical to have end-user research. However, not many companies are really that close to the end users. Training for innovation or new product management should also respect the end user needs before launching the same.

Most innovation management training programmes miss the mark and fail to reap their desired end results of faster cycle times and increased new product effectiveness mainly because of the lack of user understanding. When developing training programmes for internal new product participants, companies should use an “outside-in” approach to identify training needs and use this input to craft tailored training programmes. Internal research should answer the following questions: what are the internally perceived stren­gths and weaknesses of the current innovation processes, approach and organisation?; what internal barriers affect innovation success and effectiveness?; who, if anyone, would benefit from the training?; what perceived and real training needs exist?; how can innovation training best bridge the differences, if any, between perceived and real training needs?; what format is most appropriate for innovation training (for example, on or off site, number of days, level and type of interaction)?; what methodologies are most effective given our culture — Medici effect, reverse innovation or disruptive?

To collect this information, you can conduct individual interviews (focus groups if you have a big business group), attend innovation team and/or council meetings, and review relevant internal information including team meeting notes and new product process/performance documents. In addition to securing internal customer perceptions of training requirements, test-marketing the resulting programme with a pilot group of innovation programme participants can help gauge effectiveness and fine-tune the programme before full scale roll-out.

Some companies that I have consulted believe that only team leaders need training. This is absolutely incorrect. New product development barriers cannot be overcome with team leader training alone. Broadly I have noticed three areas of barriers:

Team leader barriers: sub-optimal communications, unrealistic expectations, and new people with little training/experience.

Team barriers: inconsistent understanding of the new product development process, inconsistency among projects — no two projects conducted the same way, inadequate team motivation, and unclear expectations.

Interdepartmental barriers: insufficient resources, low new-products visibility, and interdepartmental conflicts.

Within teams and across departments, communications and expectations need fortifying. One route to do this would be to train team leaders on project management and motivation skills. Another way is to help jumpstart a team with a two-day kick-off meeting with every “new” team. We work with teams on Medici Effect, floated by the guru of practical innovation, Frans Johansson. Medici Effect ensures diversity to drive team members to intersections and discovering multiple solutions to any problem.

The objectives of any training must be decided from the beginning. It could be developing a team mission and team success criteria; establishing a common language among team members along with team norms, values and “ground rules”; building team spirit; increasing each team member’s (along with the team leader’s) ability to manage and motivate team members; clarifying the roles and responsibilities of each team member; and providing actionable and practical guidelines for managing new product development.

To identify workshop expectations and gain a better understanding of each participant’s frame of reference, all participants must be surveyed before the session to learn their experience in new product development and innovation. You should ask them what they believe their roles are for the team and what they want to accomplish in the team workshop.

Then use this input to fine-tune the workshop materials, but more importantly, to build ownership. Post-session reviews must be done to further refine additional-day sessions. Such training sessions help innovation team members solidify their sense of commitment and belonging to the team instead of their respective departments.

From the management’s perspective, team identity and cohesiveness are expected to reduce cycle time by pre-empting interdepartmental barriers and conflicts — the original goal of such training. As obvious as it sounds, few innovation heads follow a “customer-driven” process for developing and conducting internal training sessions. Yet, giving participants what they want is a great starting point for ensuring your innovation training investments bear fruit.

(The writer is CEO and MD of CustomerLab)

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