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Thinking Like a Designer

Posted By Ron Sidman, Thursday, October 27, 2016

Turns out we would all be better off if we could adopt the mindset that comes naturally to people who design things for a living. So-called “design thinking” is now pervading every aspect of not only business management but life management as well.

 

In their best-selling new book, Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life, Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans describe how thinking like a designer can enable you to take a broad view of your life as a whole and create an optimized balance between your work life and personal life. Interestingly, the methodology they advocate follows the same principles that I’ve talked about in previous blog posts about the development of new products in your company and the design of your business itself. In other words, design thinking is kind of the all-purpose philosophy for creating or improving anything.

 

Taking a holistic view of your life rather than making work life and personal life decisions in isolation is highly desirable but too rarely practiced. I’ve seen so many situations where people jump into a new job or start a new company only to find that they’re day to day lives consist of more pain than gain. So, I highly recommend the book to you because it provides some helpful life-planning tools and insights. The overall message is that life is a process not an outcome. And that you can systematically evolve your life in a direction that will optimize satisfaction and fulfillment no matter what your starting point is.

 

Here are some thoughts about how the core principles of design thinking can be applied to help you create products, new businesses or business improvements, and even a better life:

 

Designing is Best Done by a Team

We’re all used to the fact that you need a multi-disciplined team to develop a new product. In fact there’s no way to create products without successfully integrating the talents of marketers, designers, engineers, QC specialists, and production people. Same is true for business design and development. It takes a diverse senior management team to move a company forward. Interestingly, Burnett and Evans feel the same applies to life development. In one of the most novel aspects of their approach, they believe “live design is a communal effort” and recommend that you put together your own personal life development team to help you generate the best possible result.

It’s Never Too Early or Too Late to Start

Life design is a life skill and the earlier you learn it the better but it’s never too late. It’s something equally beneficial to high school and college students as it is to recent retirees looking for a meaningful way to spend their remaining years. Similarly designing your business properly from the outset would be ideal but it’s never too late to start getting it on a better track.

It’s a Lifelong Process

Designing is not a one and done proposition. If you want to maintain market share in the juvenile industry, you need to keep improving the performance of your products and your company over time. Life design too is a process of continuous evolution. There are always new problems to solve and new opportunities to address. And just like with products and businesses, it’s best done via a repeating process cycle.

It Always Starts with Truly Understanding How Things Are Going

The first step in any improvement effort is a thorough understanding of current reality. For product development, that’s done by talking to and observing customers to try to identify an unsatisfied need. For a business, you conduct an environmental scan or SWOT analysis. To improve your life, Burnett and Evans recommend assessing your current satisfaction with work, your health, what you do for fun, and your relationships as well as creating a “Good Time Journal” to help you identify what kinds of activities truly engage and excite you.

Then You Dream about the Way Things Could Be

In product development at my company, we used to call this a “Design Goal Definition” which outlined the requirements the new concept had to meet to be acceptable. For business development it’s your ambitious 3 year and 10 year objectives. In Designing Your Life, the authors ask you to create multiple hypothetical job descriptions that incorporate the fulfilling activities you identified in your journal.

Next You Develop the Best Way to Make Your Dream a Reality

In all realms, this involves creating prototypes that can be reviewed with little risk or investment to identify what resonates and what doesn’t. For products, you would be showing prototypes to consumers. For business models, you would test concepts in the real world via small scale simulations. For your life design, the authors suggest you create alternative 5 year “Odyssey Plans” and, with the help of your development team, imagine what it would be like to live those life styles.

Finally You Implement and Move On

Tool up, produce, and ship the product. Start up the new or improved business. Start down your new life path. But in all cases, don’t agonize over whether you made the right decision. Recognize you made the best decision you could with the information you had at the time. And realize that if it doesn’t work the way you hoped, you can learn from it and repeat the cycle again.

 

As self-development guru Jim Rohn once said, “If you don’t design your own life plan, chances are you’ll fall into someone else’s plan. And guess what they have planned for you. Not much!” If you’d like me to be part of your life or business development team, take advantage of JPMA’s CEO Mentor Program. Contact Kyle Schaller at kschaller@jpma.org for more information.

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Don’t Be Afraid to Set Objectives

Posted By Ron Sidman, Sunday, September 11, 2016

 

Having the courage to be specific about what you want to accomplish and in what period of time is a highly underrated characteristic of high performing companies and people. Too often managers think it’s safer to be vague and noncommittal.


At some level, we all are reluctant to set targets for future results. After all, it’s impossible to accurately predict the future, no one wants to fall short of expectations, and some things are difficult to measure. However, the very act of setting targets can enable us to accomplish more than we ever thought possible. It can have almost a magical positive effect on our behavior and results.

 

The Benefits of Objective Setting

Without specific, reasonable but aggressive, measurable objectives, we tend to slip into a generalized “best efforts” mentality. It would be like going bowling without keeping score. At the end of the game, you’d have little sense of whether you did well or not—whether you’re getting better or getting worse. In business, there would be a tendency to just react to immediate events with performance that gradually drifts backwards over time. Think about trying to maintain a healthy weight as an example. What would happen to most of us if we never stepped on a scale or didn’t have a healthy weight level in mind? On the other hand, watch what happens when you really commit to losing 10 pounds over the next three months and weigh yourself regularly. You are forced to understand why you’re overweight and exactly what you need to do day by day to accomplish your objective. Plus you have something to celebrate if you succeed.


Objective setting in business also plays another critical role. It aligns the efforts of everyone in the company. Without common clear objectives, people tend to focus on their own personal interests. On the other hand, corporate objectives can be trickled down level by level so that everyone is moving in the same direction with the same intensity.

   

The Importance of Corporate Culture

The key to making it work lies in your company’s culture. Let’s compare two companies. Company A is a company where mistakes or failures usually lead to negative personal consequences. Employees tell newcomers about so and so who was fired for promoting a new program that didn’t pan out. Non-conforming job applicants are rejected as too weird. Critics of the status quo quickly find themselves being penalized or ushered to the door. Little financial information is shared with the workforce in an effort to avoid poor morale in bad times or requests for raises in good times. Challenging tasks are avoided in favor of easy projects where success is ensured.


Company B on the other hand believes that the more employees know about current reality, the more aligned they will be in the pursuit of company goals. Problems are accepted as being inevitable. Uncovering problems and weaknesses is encouraged and rewarded as the way for the company to keep improving. When things go wrong, managers first look to the process as the reason rather than the people. Job applicants are rated based on character and what results they’ll be able to produce rather than how they appear or what they appear to know. Trying new things and failing is looked at as a necessary part of learning. Good failures are celebrated and rewarded.


I don’t have to tell you which company is more likely to successfully embrace objective setting and in turn is more likely to improve and grow. It’s also a given which company is more likely to be able to retain their best employees. Company culture is created by the company’s leaders by what they do (not so much by what they say should be done). You get what you reward and what you tolerate. You’ll stop getting what you punish. Very simple! A company’s culture is one of the most powerful determinants of a company’s performance. So design it consciously and wisely and then maintain it. 

 

Objective Setting Systems

There many options available for implementing objective setting in your company but one of the best I’ve seen is the one used by Intel, Google, LinkedIn, and many other companies. It’s called Objectives and Key Results or OKRs. It’s both very easy to implement and very effective. The objectives are descriptions of expected accomplishments within a specific time frame (for example, “Improve our customer service”) and for each objective you set numerical targets called key results (for example, “Minimum 9.0 customer survey rating”). You start by setting company-wide 3 year OKRs which are then broken down and rolled out to every department and every employee to the extent that you ultimately end up with current quarter OKRs for each individual. Here’s a link to a video that explains the concept in detail very well.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mJB83EZtAjc  

     

Next Steps

If you don’t already have an effective objective setting process in place, watch the video and see what you think. Take the plunge and start getting in the habit of setting some ambitious objectives. You’ll be surprised by how much more you’ll accomplish. And if you don’t meet some of your objectives, the process of reviewing what didn’t go as planned is how you learn and improve. As always, I’m available to assist you through JPMA’s CEO Mentor program. Contact Kyle Schaller (kschaller@jpma.org) if you’d like to set up a session. 

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How Technology Will Continue to Impact the JP Industry

Posted By AH, Wednesday, August 17, 2016

By Ron Sidman

 

For many reasons, juvenile product companies have historically tended to be conservative when it comes to adopting product-related technologies. However, as technological innovation impacts more aspects of our everyday lives, traditional JP companies will need to keep pace with the new realities.

 

 

On June 30, this year, Google filed a broadly worded patent application for a “crib with embedded smart sensors.” The application describes a truly smart crib capable among other things of detecting and reacting to abnormal crying patterns or movement, airborne toxins like carbon monoxide, dirty diapers, room and baby body temperature, and intruders. At the same time it would have interactive entertainment features.


While this is but one of many technologically advanced juvenile product concepts to come along in the last few years, its scope as well as its origin does raise some interesting new questions about both infant childcare in the future and how that will impact the industry.

How is technology changing parenting?

Infant care is obviously not immune to the technological advances that are affecting all aspects of our lives. The internet long ago changed the way parents select and obtain products. But now so-called “smart home” products are also adding new levels of information, convenience, and remote monitoring. Smartphone accessible wearable or fixed sensors can already monitor every aspect of a baby’s environment, activity, and health. Baby care products can either be voice-activated or react based on baby activity. Pediatricians will soon be able to monitor health vital signs and even diagnose illnesses without office visits. Formula feeding will soon likely be customized based on DNA testing. Apps could monitor your child’s development and recommend activities or interventions. High tech fabrics and other new materials will continue to add new features and benefits to infant clothing and accessories.  

Will you be dealing with new types of competition?

The answer is clearly yes. While the relatively small juvenile product market size and regulatory complications may act as a barrier to some degree, big name high tech companies like Google/Nest are apparently finding the revenue potential to be attractive. Collaboration with mega high tech firms may also be advisable. For some new products that JP companies create, there will be some sticky issues relative to partnerships or compatibility with related products or established platforms. Speed to market and to establishment of inter-company business relationships may become more important than it has in the past.

How can you keep up with the pace of change?

The times have always been “a changin”, but they are clearly “a changin” at a faster and faster rate. Not only will your products need to change but your processes—especially business evolution and product development—will need to speed up. It’s getting increasingly important for the overall business process you utilize from idea generation to order delivery and customer service to be assessed and updated regularly. High speed, low cost, Silicon Valley product development concepts like the “agile” methodology are already making their way into the consumer product world.

Next Steps

At your next senior staff meeting, consider putting on your agenda a discussion about the impact new technologies could have on your business processes and product line over the next few years. Make sure you have in place mechanisms to stay up to date with relevant innovations and competitive activity. Also consider whether you have the necessary in-house technical skill to identify and apply applicable technology.

It’s not about applying technology for technology’s sake. It’s a question of whether there are new technologies that can enable you to increase value for consumer customers in your product categories. When considering this, don’t forget to take into account the privacy concerns that parents may have about data being collected or unknown sources accessing in-home cameras.

I encourage you to tap into the resources that JPMA provides to its members including the CEO Mentor Program. Contact Kyle Schaller, kschaller@jpma.org if you’d like to set up a Skype or phone session on this or any other leadership or management related topic.

 

  

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It Takes a Team to Manage a Company

Posted By Ron Sidman, Monday, July 25, 2016

 

The world is changing and getting more complex at an accelerating rate. As a result, it’s highly unlikely that one person at the top has the skill or the time to handle all the required senior leadership and management responsibilities—even in a small company.


In his book The Ideal Executive: Why You Can’t Be One and What To Do About It, Ichak Adizes addresses everything a corporate leader today is theoretically supposed to be able to do.

"According to the classic management textbooks and best-selling guides, the ideal manager is knowledgeable, achievement-oriented, detail-oriented, systematic, and efficiency-oriented; organized, a logical and linear thinker; charismatic, visionary, a risk-taker, and change oriented; and sensitive to people and their needs."

As Adizes goes on to point out, no one person has the skill or the time to do all those things equally well.  We all have strengths and weaknesses. And, if you do try to bear the full brunt of leadership/management responsibility on your own, the resulting stress can be unbearable.

Even startups benefit from a co-founder with complimentary skill approach. Think of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, or Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. The JP industry has had its share of successful two person led companies—sometimes even a husband/wife combination, where the one might be an engineer, for example, and another the marketing specialist. 


As a company grows, the leadership team necessarily expands. As Adizes points out though, sustaining the effectiveness of a diverse team of people is not easy. While at its best, blending differing skills and perspectives leads to better decisions, it can also lead to conflict. So how do you best make leadership/management into a productive team effort?

 

1. Accept the reality that change is part of life.

Never think that all you have to do is create a well-designed business system and maintain it. Whatever system you build will at some point be obsolete. Whatever you think is going to happen in the marketplace in the future won’t pan out completely as expected. People on your staff who are the right person in the job now will not be the right person at some point down the road. You never get to a point where things stay “all good” for very long. Try not to get frustrated and discouraged. Accept this as inevitable and recognize you will have to make sure your company keeps evolving to cope with change.

2. Realize that change inevitably brings both problems and opportunities.
As your company grows and as the world around you changes, systems, beliefs, and expectations in place are no longer valid. Things that used to work don’t anymore. At the same time new opportunities appear from nowhere. For example, the internet made it easier for companies to communicate with consumers, but it also changed how consumers exchange information, good or bad, about products and companies. And with the pace of change accelerating, you need even more skill and speed of response to make necessary changes in a timely manner to fix problems and capitalize on opportunities.  

3. Cover all the leadership/management bases.
Acknowledge that you can’t do it all. Because of the demands, it’s going to take multiple people with different skills, working styles, mindsets, and interests working well together. No matter how small or big your company, all the management tasks need to be handled by somebody. You can’t leave any gaps. In my Evolutionary Success™ program, I detail six necessary ongoing leadership/management functions:
a. Defining the company’s purpose
b. Discovering current reality
c. Dreaming what things could be like in the future
d. Developing improvements to the business system
e. Deploying the improvements
f.  Directing the business system from day to day

 

Make it as clear as you can—in writing—what each member of the management team is responsible for. Some responsibilities will be shared but one person should always have the lead role. You’ll also need a mechanism to establish and follow up on performance objectives for each team member, including yourself, preferably by quarter.

 

4. Understand your own weaknesses.
Decide which of these leadership/management functions you like and can do well and what needs to be ceded to others. Then make sure you have the right people on your team to cede things to.

5. Agree on a shared purpose
In any kind of team activity, it is absolutely critical for all the players to share a common purpose—preferably in writing. By purpose, I mean the answers to these questions:
a. Who’s the customer?
b. How will we improve their lives (products/services)?
c. What will be our competitive advantage?
d. What’s our long-term vision of success?

6. Create a culture of mutual trust and respect.
Adizes talks about the difference between constructive and destructive conflict among members of a diverse team. Constructive conflict produces optimum decision-making because it promotes healthy exploration of all alternatives. Destructive conflict leads to team disintegration. The key to avoiding destructive conflict is to create and preserve a culture of mutual trust and respect (we certainly could use more of that in the world today.). 

7. Make every team member feel like an owner.
If you want your fellow leadership/management team members to be as motivated and dedicated as you, there needs to be a payoff for their hard work and not just a lot of “attaboys” or “attagirls.” Since profitability is the ultimate measure of a business’s performance, some significant portion of all team members’ compensation should be profit-related.

 

Next Steps

Review the list of leadership/management functions in #3 above. Are all the functions being handled well? If so, great! If not, review the other suggestions in this post to see what might be the cure. Even if everything’s fine now, if you’re doing it all yourself, do you need to start considering delegating some of the leadership/management functions to someone else? As always, I’m here to help you if you need someone to bounce things off of or could use some encouragement. Contact Kyle Schaller (kschaller@jpma.org) to set up an appointment.

 

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Why is it So Hard to Make Things Easy?

Posted By Ron Sidman, Monday, June 20, 2016

Ron Sidman has spent most of his adult life in the juvenile products industry. Motivated by his interest in parenting and child development, he created the parenting lifestyle oriented brand, The First Years, and was Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer until the company was sold in September of 2004 to the RC2 Corporation for $162 million. Ron is now acting as a business consultant to industry CEO’s through JPMA’s CEO Mentor Program, and executive blog, the CEO Play Yard.



 

 

 

In an effort to make improvements to our businesses and our products, we often end up making them more complex. But that complexity can be a major obstacle to success. It pays to work hard to make things as simple as possible.

 

Successful leader-managers recognize the enormous value of simplicity. The human brain is not designed to store or analyze large amounts of information quickly. And for you, your customers, and your employees, complexity leads to confusion, frustration, and inaction as well as inefficiency.


Unfortunately, making things simple is not easy. It’s contrary to human nature. What is easy is adding stuff—long mission statements that promise all things to all people and destroy focus, vague and all-inclusive job descriptions, more features on products than customers would ever use, more product offerings than customers could ever want, more steps in processes than are really necessary, pricing schedules too convoluted for customers and employees to understand, (and more examples of complexity than a blog reader needs to see--sorry).


So, what can you do to keep things simple and focused? As always it starts at the top of the hierarchy.


1. Make simplicity a company core value and live it.

I’m a firm believer in the “top to bottom” principle. If you want everyone in your company to behave in a certain way, you have to set the example first. Unless you have the self-discipline to be clear and simple in your communication and decision-making, no one else will either. Explain to everyone what the benefits are and then set the pace. You’ve got to stick with it too over the long haul.


2. Work hard to make your mission and vision clear, simple, and focused.

If your company’s mission statement is fuzzy and too broad, it won’t be able to do what a good mission statement does which is both to act as a source of motivation and define the boundaries within which the company will operate. Please don’t make the mistake of treating the mission statement as something unimportant or letting it be forgotten. You can’t be all things to all people. The clearer you are as to, what value you are going to provide, to what customer segment, and with, what sustainable competitive advantage, the clearer you and your staff will be about what needs to be done to grow the company.


3. Favor quality and innovativeness of product features over quantity.

Be ruthless when it comes to simplicity of product design. The temptation is to simply add more and more features to a product in a vain effort to make it more appealing to customers. It’s the easy way out. But, one great feature trumps 10 marginal ones. And the product will cost less, will have fewer things that can go wrong, and will be easier to explain to consumers. Instead of adding multiple marginal features to try to unseat a competitor, work to come up with one great innovation.

 

4. Limit the number of company and individual objectives.

Whatever system you use for strategic planning, limit the number of corporate objectives you are working on to no more than 5 and preferably fewer. The same applies to the objectives that trickle down to individuals. People just can’t juggle more than 5 major projects at one time and 3 is even better. If you have quantitative measures for each objective, limit those similarly. We all know the Pareto 80/20 principle but often forget to live it. There are perfectionist tendencies in many top performers that push them to try to do too much. What you can gain in work quality, output, and job satisfaction by focusing on the “vital few” is enormous.


5. Use technology to simplify not complicate.

If your new IT systems are not simplifying processes, than someone is missing the point. Just like there’s a tendency to add too many features to new products, there’s a tendency to add too many bells and whistles to new systems. Doesn’t do you any good if only a few people in your company can understand how to use the darn thing.


6. Look at every communication from the point of view of the recipient.

There are ways to communicate that cause misinterpretation and confusion and there are ways that result in clarity of understanding. There are information formats that are organized and easy to understand and other formats that are intimidating. We also all have a tendency to assume the recipient knows what we know when that’s not the case so we tend to leave out crucial bits. Establishing standard formats and lexicons for common communications like procedures can be very helpful. But you’ll probably benefit from investing in some basic communication training for everyone in the company. Imagine how many mistakes can be prevented.

 

7. Be a people and property minimalist.

Maintaining a culture of frugality is a great way to drive simplification. Live within your means. Don’t add anything—people or property—until you absolutely have to. And while some people will wince at the thought, there’s a time that a shrub needs to be pruned to encourage new growth. This certainly applies to unprofitable products and customers and no longer necessary processes or process steps. But it also applies to people at times as well. Just make sure that you treat people in that situation the way you would like to be treated if you were in their shoes. Also, don’t expect your employees to behave in a frugal manner if you drive to work in a Ferrari.

 

8. Evolve your company in small steps.

You should absolutely be bold and relentless in coming up with new ways to improve your company and add more value for customers. But you can test new initiatives on a small scale before committing to implementation and you can stage the implementation so it isn’t overwhelming. Also, be as transparent as you can with change so people know what’s happening and why.


Next Steps

In the spirit of simplicity, I’m not suggesting you try to implement these 8 suggestions all at once. Use the 80/20 principle to select a few of them that might be worthwhile to consider for your company. If you think it would be helpful, I’m available via JPMA’s Executive Mentor program to assist you or any members of your senior team on any aspect of business management. Contact Kyle Schaller, kschaller@jpma.org if you’d like to set up a Skype or phone session. 

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Does Your New Product Have Enough “WOW”?

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Ron Sidman has spent most of his adult life in the juvenile products industry. Motivated by his interest in parenting and child development, he created the parenting lifestyle oriented brand, The First Years, and was Chairman, President, and Chief Executive Officer until the company was sold in September of 2004 to the RC2 Corporation for $162 million. Ron is now acting as a business consultant to industry CEO’s through JPMA’s CEO Mentor Program, and executive blog, the CEO Play Yard.

 

 

When you come up with a new product idea, you can’t help but fall in love with it. But before you start investing real money, it’s wise to make sure that your target customers are as excited about it as you are.

 
In my role as business adviser to companies inside and outside of JPMA, I’m exposed to a lot of new product ideas. In some cases, I might be working with a start-up with just one product and in other cases it’s an established company trying to expand their existing line or enter a new category. I love it most when I get brought in early before a lot of time and money has been invested in the new concept. Unfortunately, too often what I see are products that are well along the development path or even tooled up and in stock but just not unique or “wow” enough to be successful. The client is still hoping I can give them the magic solution that will enable them to be successful. The problem is it’s usually too late.

 
Whether your company is well-established or a startup, there is no reason not  to optimize the likelihood of new product success. Here’s some of the advice I give to my clients:

 

1. Do your background homework up front.
Product development is not for the faint-hearted or weak-disciplined. You really ought to become as much of an expert in the product category as you can before you get too far down the road. Think of yourself as a detective diligently looking for information and clues. Your early development checklist should include questions like:

  • What consumer problem are we solving and is it a serious enough problem that customers are really desperate for a solution?
  • Who are the targeted “users”, “payers”, and “influencers” including age, income level, lifestyle, geographical location, etc.?
  • How do the “payers” make their buying decisions? Ask them directly and also go to stores and watch them shop.
  • What are all the key competitive products, which are the big sellers, and why?
  • What’s the revenue potential for your product?

 

2. Make sure you have a significant competitive advantage and that it’s easily communicable and sustainable.
It’s not enough for your new product to be slightly better than the competition, slightly cheaper, or slightly anything. You need a “Wow, when can I get one of those?” kind of reaction from potential consumers that see your sketch, sell sheet, or prototype. Unless and until you get that, go back to the drawing board and figure out how you can add more value.

 
Test to make sure customers “get it” quickly and easily. Make a sell sheet that contains the information that would be on your package as well as the retail price. If potential purchasers don’t understand the benefits and superiority right away just by looking at the sell sheet, you’ve got a problem to solve. You could test using a video as well as long as you think you’ll get wide consumer exposure to your video when you go to market.

 

If your product is successful and can be readily “knocked off” by competitors, it will be—fast! It’s a tough world out there. What’s your protection? Create as many obstacles to imitation as you can—patents, copyrights, trademarks, secret sauce, etc. And, once you’ve launched the product, don’t ever stop trying to come up with added value improvements or cost reductions that will keep competitors in a chasing your tail mode.

 

3. Understand the necessary channel and roll out strategy.
Back in the 90’s, my company had what we thought was a blockbuster new product—the first ever instant-reading, digital, underarm thermometer for infants. We knew parents didn’t like taking their baby’s temperature with rectal thermometers and we got an overwhelming positive response to the concept from parents in our market research. Not only did parents like it but retail buyers went gaga. We had instant distribution in every major national chain. Just to make sure the product flew off the shelves from the get go, we even did a national advertising campaign in baby magazines to support the launch. The result? A total dud.

 
We realized too late that since the product was a totally new concept that no one had seen before, it needed time to gain traction with parents. The overnight distribution success was the worst thing that could have happened. When the product didn’t sell well in the first few weeks, every retailer dropped it. New ideas, even if they’re good ones, sometimes need time to catch on. It took five years for the Avent bottle to become a hit. We always wondered what would have happened had we started on a small scale with specialty stores where the product could have been explained and where we would have had more time to get to the “tipping point.”

 

The lesson is even a “wow” idea can fail. You need to understand which distribution channel is best to communicate the superiority of your product and you may need to be patient for a while to let word-of-mouth start to build.

 

Next Steps
Take a hard look at your product development process if you have one and make sure that the hurdle that new product ideas need to jump over is sufficiently high. As difficult as it can sometimes be, ditch the product ideas that have only a marginal competitive advantage and focus your time and money on the clear winners.

 
If you’d like more detailed information or customized guidance regarding best practices in product development or about other management issues, please set up a Skype session with me by contacting Kyle Schaller at kschaller@jpma.org or sign up on the JPMA website. Your first session is free and subsequent sessions only cost you a $150 charity donation.

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The Master Key to Success

Posted By Ron Sidman, Tuesday, April 12, 2016

 

Organizations and products that are great today were not born great. They evolved into greatness over time via experimentation and improvement.


Juvenile product company executives and new parents have one thing in common—being buried in an avalanche of information and advice. God bless the Internet but we all know it can create as much confusion as enlightenment. Well, you’ll be happy to know that in this post I’m going to lead you out of the morass of management “musts.” Yes, Virginia, there is a simple overriding key to business success.


In my post, Do You Think Like a Leader?, I briefly described the concept of “embracing evolution.”  Of all the leadership mindset components I outlined in that article, that’s the one that can have the biggest and quickest positive impact on your business life. In fact, even if you forget every other nugget of business advice you’ve ever heard, creating a culture of continuous evolution alone can have a powerful effect on your ability to drive your business forward.


You see, you are a human being. And all the other people in your company are human beings. Unfortunately, human beings aren’t perfect—even the best of them. Even you and me. People make mistakes. They sometimes make bad decisions—especially when they don’t have the information they need, which is often the case. But most human beings inherently want to be perfect—all the time. And, because they do, they get angry when they make mistakes, which leads to muddled thinking, which can lead to more mistakes. And because they don’t like to admit they’re not perfect, they sometimes feel the need to find someone to blame—which leads to poor morale. Or they get criticized by their bosses who also thinks everyone should always be perfect and they start hating their jobs. Not a pretty picture.


The cure for this potential downward spiral is simple. Create an Evolutionary Success™ (ES) culture in your company. Establish the fact that it’s continual progress you’re looking for not perfection. Perfection should be pursued but will never be totally achieved. However, adopting an ES philosophy also means never being satisfied with maintaining the status quo. It’s imperative that you continuously find ways to improve.


In practice, companies that embrace the Evolutionary Success™ approach usually evolve in increments on a consistent time schedule—most often an annual one. The ultimate “destination” is your company’s vision of perfect mission execution. You never actually get there but you keep getting closer every year. The evolution process involves, (1) thoroughly understanding true “current reality” inside and outside your business, (2) establishing goals for the desired “next level” of company performance, (3) creating and implementing strategies and projects that get you there, and then repeating the cycle again and again over time.


  

This way of thinking and operating has a number of positive benefits. 

 

1.    It makes work more interesting and rewarding.
People leave companies because their job isn’t interesting or challenging. An ES culture is exciting and stimulating. People inherently like to feel they’re learning and improving. And, to make continual progress you need to have a way to measure progress objectively. These measurements also serve a motivational purpose since they provide your staff with feedback as to how well they are doing. That’s why golfers, tennis players, and bowlers keep score. It makes the game more fun.

2.    It encourages and endorses employee development.
Since an ES company has a learning culture, employees are not expected to know everything on day 1. This can remove a lot of stress from your organization. But they are expected to know more on days 2, 3, 4 and so on. It appropriately puts a healthy focus on developing your people over time—or more accurately them developing themselves with your support. It’s no surprise that even the best professional athletes talk about striving to get better at their sport day by day.     
 

3.    It makes it okay and even necessary to take intelligent risks.
An ES company is a continual “work in progress.” It has an atmosphere that encourages constant experimentation to find out what works and what doesn’t as a way to improve and grow. This doesn’t mean it’s OK to be reckless. On the contrary, ES thinking teaches you to take chances in a way that minimizes the cost of failure. This is done through small scale tests and simulations before full-scale implementation—whether you’re developing a new product, a new process or a new business model.

4.    It converts failures into learning experiences.
If your employees are afraid to fail, they won’t be able to be innovative and they won’t admit when something’s not working and change course. You obviously need to avoid failures that are due to sloppiness or lack of discipline. Those are never acceptable. But in an ES environment, “good failures” create important knowledge that can be leveraged in the future. Recognizing that trying things that may fail in a low cost way is the way to learn, is the essence of successful entrepreneurship and high speed product development.
 

5.    It builds confidence in your ability to create your future.
We all know people who are constantly finding reasons for their lack of success. They are convinced the world is against them. People with a victim mentality create a toxic environment and drag down everyone around them. An ES mindset, on the other hand, builds on itself. Believing you can have control over your future leads to breakthrough successes which lead in turn to increased confidence and further improvement.

6.    It pushes you to achieve things you never thought possible.
Human nature causes us to create constraints that are not based on reality. We’ve all heard how running the mile in less than 4 minutes was considered physically impossible until Roger Bannister did it for the first time in human history in 1954. 46 days later his record was broken and hundreds have run sub 4 minute miles since. An ES attitude makes continuous improvement mandatory and breaks down any artificial constraints.

7.    It keeps you ahead of your competition.
A great white shark that stops moving will die from asphyxiation. A company that stops improving will be eaten up by superior competitors. Fortunately for you, not all your competitors are going to read this blog post.


Next Steps

At your next staff meeting, explore to what extent you have an Evolutionary Success™ culture in your company. Are your employees taking intelligent risks or are they playing it safe through fear of failure or criticism? Is it understood by all that you need to achieve improved performance in all key areas every year? Are you helping your employees develop by providing encouragement, training and support?


As always, if you’d like more detailed information or customized guidance regarding implementing ES practices or about other management issues, set up a Skype session with me by contacting Kyle Schaller at kschaller@jpma.org or sign up on the JPMA website. Your first session is free and subsequent sessions only cost you a $150 charity donation.

   

 

 

 

 

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In Business It Pays to be Fact-Based

Posted By Ron Sidman, Tuesday, March 15, 2016


While facts don’t seem to be important to political candidates, basing business decisions as much as possible on facts rather than speculation is a critical business leadership characteristic.

In my post last August entitled “Do You Think Like a Leader”, I listed 6 guiding principles of what I called a “leadership mindset.” But in retrospect, I failed to include one of the most important leadership principles—reliance on facts.

All of us humans have a tendency to want to jump right to conclusions. At every meeting you will ever attend in your lifetime, there’ll probably be people making statements as if they were facts even though they are merely unfounded opinions. We seem to inherently need to have quick explanations for things and will often latch onto the first thought that comes into our minds or the first plausible explanation we hear. What’s worse is these falsehoods can spread like wildfire and gain credibility—especially if they come from a source whose opinions are respected. The results can be disastrous. We’re all familiar with Chicken Little telling everyone the sky is falling. But we believe or conjure up similar untruths in our business lives that can lead to hiring the wrong person, missing a sales growth opportunity, launching a product doomed to failure, or overlooking a serious internal or external problem.  

Effective leaders counter these tendencies by being obsessive seekers of the truth. They know that making sound decisions is essential to the success of the enterprise and that if you want to be right you better have the facts. Granted, sometimes getting all the data you’d like is impossible. But having the discipline to get as much as you can is a valuable trait. Here’s some suggestions for how to build the search for the truth into the fabric of your organization.

1. Make 2-way honesty and transparency part of your culture and enforce it.
Put a high priority on truthfulness from the get go. To a great extent you will reap what you sow. If you’re honest and open with your employees, they’ll be more likely to be honest with you. But be prepared to enforce this core value even if it means letting offenders go. Also, you can’t have honesty without transparency. Hiding the truth is just as problematic as telling a lie. 

 

2. Pursue measurable continuous improvement.
Determine what your “success metrics” are—the key measurements that indicate the health of your company. At The First Years we used to call them “vital signs” which is an appropriate description. You then use these metrics both for setting improvement goals and for monitoring how things are going. It helps to create charts for each so that you can instantly pick up on trends. I used to review our charts with my senior team at every weekly staff meeting.

3. Get everyone in the habit of verifying assumptions.
You’ve heard the expression that “to assume makes an ass out of u and me.” Yet we assume things all the time. We can’t help it. We assume what consumers want, what our competitors strengths are, what our strategy should be, why a product isn’t selling, what our employees know or don’t know, etc. etc. Unfortunately our assumptions are dead wrong a high percentage of the time. For the important stuff, you can’t afford to just assume. It’s too costly and dangerous as well as totally unnecessary. Most beliefs can be tested with just a little cost and effort. You can interview and observe consumers, you can carry out competitive intelligence, you can prototype product, packaging, and pricing ideas and test them before investing in them. It’s a matter of always having a healthy amount of skepticism and curiosity.

4. Use behavioral interviewing for all hiring.
I’ve made my share of costly hiring mistakes in my business career and my guess is that you have as well. No way to completely avoid this but we all can do a lot better job by getting to the truth about a candidates capabilities. Some candidates are very good at marketing themselves. We’ve all been duped—both in hiring the wrong person and rejecting the right one. There are screening techniques like behavioral interviewing (e.g. Hiring 3.0 by Barry Shamis) or work simulations that can help you get to the facts about a candidate’s capabilities.

5. Insist on financial reporting accuracy and completeness.
A particularly dangerous place to play games with the truth is in the financial arena. Sometimes this is not so much faking the numbers as it is blinding yourself from reality. First and foremost you need a CFO or accountant that’s not afraid to tell you things you don’t want to hear. But then you need to make sure that you have your eyes wide open with respect to things like building in adequate profit margins, monitoring expenses, projecting cash flow, budgeting for unexpected expenses, anticipating capital replacement needs, and practicing proper internal controls.

6. Design your feedback system.
It’s up to you as CEO to put in place your own information feedback system that keeps you informed about what’s happening inside and outside the company on an ongoing basis. You need to ask yourself what you need to know, qualitatively and quantitatively, to do your job. The charts I mention in #2 above is one element. But they won’t tell you about things like new competitive threats, internal problems that haven’t surfaced yet, untapped growth opportunities, or technological innovations that might impact you positively or negatively. You’ll need other methods to keep you up to date including getting out of your office and seeing for yourself what’s really going on.

 
Next Steps    

Do your own audit of the extent to which your company operates with a fact-based mentality in day to day activities and interactions. And, see if there are assumptions built in to your mission and strategy that have yet to be confirmed? Consider how becoming more fact-based would improve company results. As always, if you need some assistance, take advantage of JPMA’s CEO Mentor program by contacting Kyle Schaller at kschaller@jpma.org or signing up on the web site.

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Preserving Your Most Precious Resource

Posted By Ron Sidman, Wednesday, February 17, 2016

 
Time is arguably a CEO’s most scarce and valuable resource. Money is a valuable resource too. But when you run low, there are ways to raise more. You can’t raise more time. The more time you have for doing real CEO work, the more successful your company will be. Yet it’s hard to avoid getting caught up in time wasting activities.

I try to always practice what I preach. It can be embarrassing if you don’t. So after my last post, Feeling Your Customers’ Pains, I decided to call some of my customers, JPMA CEOs, to see if I could get a better understanding of their pain points. It was absolutely fascinating and I’m making this activity a part of my personal CEO Mentor job process going forward. My heartfelt thanks to those of you who participated.

I talked to CEOs from companies who were just getting started in the industry all the way up to global  industry-leading brands with 100’s of millions in annual sales. What was intriguing to me was how similar many of their issues were. I’ll be addressing some of the common concerns in future posts. But the challenge of time management for CEOs was definitely almost a universal worry. How do you have the time to do the critical CEO jobs like regularly talking directly to customers that I encouraged in my last blog post when you’re up to your neck in alligators? Here’s my take on some of the things you can do to get the absolute most productivity from the time you have available.

1. Know when to say no.
As you get bombarded with requests for your time every day, you have to have a way to know what to say NO to. It’s hard to turn things down because you’re probably a doer by nature and you know you’re ultimately responsible for making sure the company does well. But, as requests or opportunities come along, the first question you need to ask yourself is, is this something that’s 

going to further our Mission by taking us from where we are now up the path to our Vision? Your 

Mission describes how you improve your customers’ lives and your Vision describes what things will be like when your company fulfills its Mission. Everything you spend your precious time on should somehow be moving you along this path. 

2. Only do what only you can do. 
There are two kinds of what I call real CEO work—(1) turning continuous learning into designing and continuously improving the business model and, (2) and ensuring the efficient and effective operation of the overall business model. These are the two things you can’t delegate to lower level employees. You can split these roles up among two head honchos if you like and that’s often the case. Could be a co-CEO structure or a CEO/COO approach.  

Now, I fully understand that in smaller companies the CEO does not have the luxury of delegating all the non-CEO work because you just can’t yet afford to hire enough staff. But at least understand you have to schedule the real CEO work first before filling in your calendar with other things. And keep striving to get to a point where you can delegate more and more of the non-CEO work. 

Of course to do that you need people reporting to you who are capable of doing what you’re delegating to them without coming to you for help. Ideally you should hire direct reports who can do the work better than you can. Weak links are enormous time drains. If you’ve got one, fix it fast. 

3. Leverage the power of technology.
Have you explored productivity improving apps or programs that can improve your “CEO process?” Are you taking full advantage of their capabilities?

a. Time Scheduling--I can’t begin to tell you how much time I’ve saved and how much more I’ve accomplished by effectively using tools like Google Calendar to ensure that I’m focusing on what’s most important first and not overscheduling myself. It’s not just about using a calendar app, it’s about applying the best practices to fully utilize them. 

b.Staying Current--Staying up to date with “current reality” is a critical CEO responsibility. To reduce the amount of time you spend staying up to date with news about customers, competitors, relevant technologies, or anything else you need to be on top of, use one of the customizable news feeds like Google News, Flipboard, News360, etc.

c.Minimizing Travel--How much time-gobbling travel could you eliminate by using Skype, Face Time, Go To Meeting, etc.

 

4. Practice crisis avoidance.

Nothing will wastefully eat up your time more than an unexpected crisis. Suddenly everyone’s attention is dragged off the important building and running the business work and sucked up by firefighting tasks. Crises in the JP industry can be product recalls, negative product publicity, employee law suits, bankruptcy of a major customer, loss of a key employee, and so on. I’m not trying to depress you but sh_t happens. I would suggest that as part of your strategic planning process, you include in your SWOT analysis all the possible internal or external crises and list them in priority order by the degree of likelihood and negative impact on your company. Then create strategies to minimize the likelihood of the highest ranking ones happening. There’s no excuse not to do this.

5. Organize and simplify your office.
One simple but useful tool in the Lean Six Sigma process improvement toolkit is called “5S.” It’s aimed at creating a more efficient and visual workplace and can be applied just as successfully in your own office as it can throughout your company. It really will save you time.

a. Sort—Make sure you have the right materials in your office available for your daily work. Eliminate anything not used.

b. Set in Order—A place for everything and everything in its place. Set up a system so that you can find whatever documents or information you need quickly and easily. Have a simple, visual, easy to access dashboard that shows you the key performance indicator status and trends.

c. Shine—Keep everything clean and in working order.

d. Standardize—Establish guidelines for daily routines, checklists, and logs where useful so important activities aren’t overlooked.

e. Sustain—Regularly audit whether you are sustaining the other 4S’s.

 

6.Never again hold or attend a poorly managed meeting.
How much of your time is wasted by:

a. Meetings you didn’t have to be at in the first place—solution: know when to say no (see #1).

b. Lack of a well-thought out agenda—solution: make agendas with a specified time span an absolute requirement that must be sent with the invitation.

c. People showing up late or unprepared—solution: make attendance and active participation part of your culture and enforce it.

d. Meetings that could have been replaced by emails—solution: question the need for a meeting when invited.

e. A/V equipment not working properly—solution: should be checked in advance.

f. Poor meeting facilitation—solution: facilitators should be trained.

 

7.Don’t neglect your own physical and emotional health. 
It’s easy to forget that poor health can jeopardize both the amount of time you can devote to your role as CEO and the quality of that time. Make sure health related activity is baked into your schedule with high priority. And, don’t overload yourself. A CEO health issue is another potential company crisis that you definitely want to avoid.

Next Steps

It could be very revealing to keep an accurate log for a week of where your time actually goes. Then see if any of these 8 recommendations could help you eliminate wasted time. I have one more time-saving recommendation. Don’t be reluctant to take advantage of resources outside of your company (like the JPMA CEO Mentor Program) that could help you quickly put some of these ideas into action. Contact Kyle Schaller at kschaller@jpma.org or sign up on the web site. Your first session is free and subsequent sessions only cost you a $150 charity donation. It could be one of the best investments you’ll make this year. 

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Feeling Your Customers’ Pains

Posted By Ron Sidman, Monday, January 11, 2016

 

Since your business’s success depends heavily on the extent to which you improve your customers’ lives, finding out where your customers are “hurting” is a critical skill—but how best to do it may surprise you! 

I remember facilitating a focus group of new parents in the early days of my company. My goal was to get some new product ideas from the assembled moms so I took the direct approach. I asked them what products they needed that weren’t available. The answer was frightening. “Everything we need is on the market right now,” they told me. Yikes! What do I do with that? Maybe going to law school was not such a bad idea after all.

 

The mistake I made was to think that my customers could come up with innovative product ideas. They can’t—simply because they don’t have any idea what’s possible. As Henry Ford famously observed, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

 

Every business (and non-profit too) exists or should exist for the same purpose—to improve the lives of some segment of the population. The way you improve people’s lives is always by eliminating pains or fulfilling aspirations of one sort or another. So, being able to determine how well your current products and services are doing that job and identifying opportunities for new customer pain-killers or dream-fulfillers is a critical skill for the leader of any organization.

 

So how do you proactively identify opportunities for customer life improvement? While your customers can’t tell you what they would buy, what they can tell you is where it “hurts” and how much it “hurts”. In other words, through conversation or observation you can detect their frustrations and unsatisfied needs. Then it’s your job to come up with the solutions. As another American icon, Thomas Edison said, “I find out what the world needs. Then, I go ahead and invent it.”


Here’s how to make sure you have an accurate picture of “what the world needs”:

 

1. Remember you have multiple types of customers.
Most juvenile product companies sell to end users primarily through retailers and etailers and maybe to some extent directly via their own web site. The result is you are likely to have multiple customers in the broad sense of the word—all of whose behaviors you need to understand:

  • Users—the people that use your products (parents, grandparents, other caregivers, babies)
  • Payers—the people who buy the products (some, like gift-givers, are not “users”)
  • Intermediaries—wholesale, retail, and e-tail buyers and executives
      

2. Personally conduct 1:1 interviews and observation sessions with existing and potential customers on a regular basis.
There is no substitute for you as the CEO periodically conducting one-on-one discussions with customers as well as actually observing their behavior at least to some degree. While others in your company will have direct customer contact and may be conducting surveys and focus group sessions, much is lost if you are only reading reports or listening to someone else’s account. You simply can’t afford to be even slightly out of touch with your “users”, “payers”, and “intermediaries.” As the founder or leader, you are going to pick up on things that no one else in your company would recognize. You need to hear and see the unadulterated truth if you really want to make sure you have a firm grasp of reality.

While there’s certainly also value to be gained from surveys and focus groups, there’s no substitute for a face to face discussion or observation of behavior. The way someone says or does something and their body language can tell you things you’d never pick up over the phone or in a survey. And you can’t do a good job of following up on survey answers in a probing way. Also one-on-one’s trump focus groups in terms of feedback validity. In a focus group, people will say the politically correct things and will be influenced or intimidated by what others are saying.

3. The goal is to thoroughly understand your customers’ relevant processes.
You will want to explore the processes your customers employ to buy and use your current products and those you may wish to develop in the future. For example, from “users”, you may want to know how they perform a particular parenting process like bottle feeding or traveling with their baby. From the “payers”, you’d want to learn what their process is for making buying decisions including to what extent they are influenced by the “users” or other advocates and influencers. In particular, if you’re not observing and talking to your customers as they shop the retail infant department, you’re missing out on a wealth of valuable information.

Interviewing intermediary (wholesale, retail, or e-tail) buyers poses some special challenges. It can be difficult to get an appointment with them especially if they are not current customers, their time is limited, and you will need to be sensitive with your questioning regarding what they may feel is proprietary information. But nonetheless, you need to know their pain points. My experience has been that if you make it clear up front that your purpose is to identify ways to make their lives easier, they will be more likely to cooperate. You could explore with them things like what concerns they have about trends in the industry, how they stay up to date with new products entering the marketplace, what their department-wide priorities are, or what their experience has been with your salespeople or customer service staff. I had my best meetings with buyers or retail executives when I could get them out of their office in a more relaxed setting but that won’t always be possible.

4. Focus on what they have actually done, not what they might do.
You’re looking for the facts not speculation from them or you. Don’t go into these sessions with a preconceived notion regarding what your customers’ problems are or what solutions you’d like to offer. And for heaven’s sake don’t try to sell them anything. If you’re a natural salesperson, that will be really difficult. Just ask open-ended questions that get them to describe how and why they do what they do. Get them to talk about themselves and listen to what they’re saying. Make believe you’re a detective or psychiatrist trying to get to the truth. And don’t be satisfied with surface level responses. Probe like a detective (in a nice way) with follow up questions like:

  • “And then what did you do?”
  • “Why did you do it that way?”
  • “How did you feel about that?”
  • “What worries keep you up at night?”
  • “Did anyone help you make that decision?”
  • “What did you enjoy most about that?”
  • “What was an example of an ideal day for you?”

5. Look for the significant, common “pain points” or unfulfilled aspirations.
The whole idea is to be alert for things multiple customers say that you know you can fix or provide. You don’t have to offer a solution on the spot but your expertise and gut will be telling you it’s fixable. In my company, we used to call these “customer insights.” Obviously if only a few customers have the problem it may not be worth fixing. But if you hear it over and over again from many interviewees, you know you’re on to something. It’s those insights that will be the seeds of the “new” and “improved” products, services, or even an entire new business model that you’ll be able to develop.

 

Next Steps

If you’re not already talking to customers in this way, give it a try on a small scale. Pick just a few “users”, “payers”, and intermediaries” and conduct in depth one-on-one interviews as described. Visit some stores and watch your customers in action buying yours and competitive products. Then ask them what their selection process was. Hopefully you’ll get at least a few magical “aha moments” which will encourage you to make this technique part of the way you run your business.

 

As always, if you would like more information on this or any management subject, take advantage of JPMA’s CEO Mentor program. Just contact Kyle Schaller at kschaller@jpma.org or sign up on the web site to set up a free introductory Skype or Face Time session.

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