Wednesday, October 20, 2021

8 Keys To Innovation And Responding To Market Change

changing-innovationAs I “grew up” in business in big companies, including IBM, I always wondered why the real innovations seemed to come from startups, while we had more resources and more experience. Later, in my second career as an entrepreneur with startups, I realized that limited resources and fresh insights actually created the mindset that relied on market change and innovation to survive.

For example, IBM was the industry leader in mainframe computers for business, and we knew thousands of ways they could be linearly enhanced for business applications. Yet we never even dreamed of a new potential for personal use of computers, until startups like Apple and Microsoft stepped into the fray. We didn’t notice as technology advances had opened a whole new market.

Now, as a business advisor to large companies, as well as small ones, my objective is to foster those activities and ways of thinking that broaden the potential for high creativity and recognizing new market opportunities, before resource constraints are applied. If you see yourself or your company ignoring any of these, now is the time to take action:

  1. Invest in a new market, as well as new features. I find that non-startups spend most of their resources linearly enhancing existing products, rather than monitoring change in the marketplace and catching the next wave. Employee and customer input are good for fixing bugs, but not good leading indicators. Look outside for future trends and potential.

  2. Use brainstorming for more creative solutions. Effective brainstorming is all about defining and executing a process for creative ideas to create a big impact. Most mature companies have unfortunately replaced it long ago with product management groups to fix problems. You can make it work right with short, open-ended sessions, and a leader.

  3. Don’t wait for innovation ideas from top management. Front-line people who deal directly with the market are much more likely to see needed changes, and they need to be rewarded for speaking up, rather than penalized for being the messenger. Of course, you have to propose solutions, request funding, and marshal peer support for credibility.

  4. Balance the focus on productivity versus creativity. Every business needs a focus on productivity as it scales, but an exclusive focus on faster and cheaper processes minimizes the search for really new opportunities, and long-term growth. In addition, team member engagement and loyalty depend largely on the satisfaction of creativity.

  5. Foster a work culture of fun, creativity, and new ideas. People see a work culture of solving problems and repeating fixed processes as just work and drudgery. You will actually get more productivity, as well as innovative new opportunities, from your team by making the work fun through rewarding creativity, and giving them time to think ahead.

  6. Don’t make innovation a function of the business plan. Business plans should be outlines of your strategy, milestones, and finances, but not the required source for change timelines and innovation steps. The need for market and technology changes is unpredictable in any timeframe today. Make your innovations frequent and dynamic.

  7. Celebrate change failures as learning opportunities. If people fear that failed innovations will bring blame and retribution, they quickly learn to wait for edicts from above before getting creative. Promoting new changes as experiments reduces the stigma of failure, since everyone understands that experiments have a high failure rate.

  8. Create and nurture a team dedicated to change. Critical production organizations don’t have the time, mindset, or skills to focus on change, or look far ahead. Build a small dedicated team, sometimes called strategic planning, or change incubator. Choose team members who have been there, or think like entrepreneurs, and reward them on results.

In your business, if you don’t proactively take overt actions like these to foster creativity and innovation, both will likely be lost trying to satisfy existing customers, and trying to keep up with the daily operational challenges that we all have to deal with. Don’t count on your competitors and startups to wait for you to respond. Your ability to survive and thrive in the long-term depend on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 10/06/2021 ***

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Monday, October 18, 2021

How To Incent Your Team To Find More Innovative Ideas

team-innovative-ideasMost entrepreneurs I know are individually very innovative, but a successful startup can’t be a one-man show (for long). That means they need to build an innovative team, which is not a skill that most people are born with. In fact, some very innovative individuals, known as ‘idea people’ or inventors, often end up creating the most dysfunctional teams.

A typical approach to dealing with team dysfunction or no innovation process is to work around it, which normally leads to startup failure. The only way to build productive, collaborative, innovative, and cohesive teams is by resolving core dysfunction issues and implementing a structured process for innovation.

There are many resources out there to help you address team dysfunction, but very few provide much insight on a process for maximizing startup team innovation once you have the motivated people. Chris Grivas and Gerard Puccio published a classic book, “The Innovative Team,” which seems to hit the issue directly, with stories to illustrate key points.

They outline a simple process or framework for fostering team innovation, called FourSight, which is composed of four steps, capitalizing on the leader’s and other team member’s strengths and interests, that is consistent with my own experience in big companies as well as small:

  1. Clarify the situation. Innovation is not all about coming up with new ideas. It really is first figuring out which challenges are the most important. Clarifying means sorting out the real problem from the symptoms or distractions, and focusing all team energies there to change things for the better.
  1. Generate ideas. This requires divergent thinking, with the strengths of every team member, to generate as many ideas as possible. Then it requires convergent thinking when there are enough ideas to choose from. Look for that sparkling new idea or “eureka” moment to develop into a workable solution.
  1. Develop the best solution. No idea is born perfect. Here the goal is to transform a novel idea into one that can be implemented successfully, with tinkering, adjusting, and polishing. True creativity brings novelty and usefulness together. This step includes verification will the solution will actually work, and the improvement can be measured.
  1. Implement plans. This is the stage where project plans are created and implemented. Now it’s all about action, and in many ways, about managing change. People who prefer this stage of the process tend to be drivers, known for making quick decisions and getting results. It always helps to temper their preference with patience and sensitivity to others.

In business today, it takes a team to get work done, whether we are talking about a startup or a large conglomerate. The potential of any team is defined by its members, not just individually, but collectively. Then the right process is required for innovative thinking that is greater than the sum of their individual talents and skills.

Although most startups say they want to create a culture of innovation, they should realize that there are implications. Leaders have to focus on open and honest communication to maintain trust. Founders have to be willing and able to reject ideas that won’t work, in a way that still encourages more creativity.

Entrepreneurs have to remain open to creativity and change, despite high-pressured investors driving more toward “making it through the day” and “timeline deliverables” than producing well-developed and novel products, improvements, or new directions.

By becoming more consciously and deliberately creative, entrepreneurs can enjoy their lifestyle with more satisfaction, enabling their team to do the same, and together produce results that no one has yet dreamed of. Are you building a team yet which fits this mold?

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, October 17, 2021

11 Keys To Being The Best In Your Chosen Profession

business-team-the-bestAt some point in their life, hopefully everyone strives to be the best in their chosen profession. Most people think that being the best requires more intelligence, more training, and more experience. In reality, in business or even in sports, the evidence is conclusive that it is as much about how you think, as what you do.

I saw this illustrated a while back in the classic sports book, “Training Camp: What the Best Do Better Than Everyone Else”, by Jon Gordon. His evidence and real life stories conclude that top performers in all professions have the same key traits listed below. I agree they certainly apply to the great entrepreneurs I have known. You need to think about how they apply to you.

  1. The best know what they truly want. At some point in their lives, the best have a "Eureka!" moment when their vision becomes clear. Suddenly they realize what they really, truly want to achieve. They find their passion. When that happens they are ready to strive for greatness. They are ready to pay the price.
  1. The best want it more. We all want to be great. The best don't just think about their desire for greatness; they act on it. They have a high capacity for work. They do the things that others won't do, and they spend more time doing it. When everyone else is sleeping, the best are practicing and thinking and improving.
  1. The best are always striving to get better. They are always looking for ways to learn, apply, improve, and grow. They stay humble and hungry. They are lifelong learners. They never think they have "arrived"—because they know that once they think that, they'll start sliding back to the place from which they came.
  1. The best do ordinary things better than everyone else. For all their greatness, the best aren't that much better than the others. They are simply a little better at a lot of things. Everyone thinks that success is complicated, but it's really simple. In fact, the best don't do anything different. They just do the ordinary things better.
  1. The best zoom focus. Success is all about the fundamentals, and the fundamentals are little and ordinary and often boring. It's not just about practice, but focused practice. It's not just about taking action, but taking zoom-focused action. It's about practicing and perfecting the fundamentals.
  1. The best are mentally stronger. Today's world is no longer a sprint or a marathon. You're not just running; you are getting hit along the way. The best are able to respond to and overcome all of this with mental and emotional toughness. They are able to tune out the distractions and stay calm, focused, and energized when it counts.
  1. The best overcome their fear. Everyone has fears. The best of the best all have fear, but they overcome it. To beat your enemy, you must know your enemy. Average people shy away from their fears. They either ignore them or hide from them. However, the best seek them out and face them with the intent of conquering them.
  1. The best seize the moment. When the best are in the middle of their performance, they are not thinking "What if I win?" or "What if I lose?" They are not interested in what the moment produces but are concerned only with what they produce in the moment. As a result, the best define the moment rather than letting the moment define them.
  1. The best tap into a power greater than themselves. The best are conductors, not resistors. They don't generate their own power, but act as conduits for the greatest power source in the world. You can't talk about greatness without talking about a higher force. It would be like talking about breathing without mentioning the importance of air.
  1. The best leave a legacy. The best live and work with a bigger purpose. They leave a legacy by making their lives about more than them. This larger purpose is what inspires them to be the best and strive for greatness over the long term. It helps them move from success to significance.
  1. The best make everyone around them better. They do this through their own pursuit of excellence and in the excellence they inspire in others. One person in pursuit of excellence raises the standards of everyone around them. It's in the striving where you find greatness, not in the outcome.

Jon is convinced that people are not born with these traits, they must be learned by everyone. He talks about staying mentally strong, and maintaining a big-picture vision while taking focused action. So if you aspire to be the next Elon Musk or Steve Jobs, focus on your attitude as much as your business plan.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, October 16, 2021

7 Ways For Do-It-Yourself Entrepreneurs To Get Ahead

micro-business-successIn the last few years, I’ve heard more and more about a new type of small business, called a “micro-business” (or micro-enterprise). These are usually characterized as owner-operated, with five employees or less, and less than $250,000 in sales. With the low cost of e-commence entry, and powerful Internet technologies, they require minimal capital to start, perhaps as little as $500.

I see the potential for these to become big business in this entrepreneurial economy. According to the Voice of Microenterprise (AEO) website, if one in three micro-enterprises in the United States hired an additional employee, the US would soon be at full employment. These businesses are usually run out of the home, and cover the gamut from consulting services to e-commerce.

Dal LaMagna, in his humorous classic “Raising Eyebrows: A Failed Entrepreneur Finally Gets It Right,” leads with the foundational principle of micro-businesses, which is to start small. This allowed him to learn enough from all his early mistakes to hit it big ($10 million revenue) with a global beauty tools company called Tweezerman. He and I offer seven key additional practices to reduce the risk:

  1. Tailor the business to you. Do you love antiquing? Fishing? Cars? Cooking? Now, think about what pursuing this passion might mean for your lifestyle. Think how you want to spend your day; where you want to live; whether you want to work with people or alone; in the morning or at night, and so on. Eliminate any aspect of your business that doesn't create your preferred lifestyle -- and will work against you.

  2. Be frugal. Don't spend money you don't have. Don't invest in anything you don't need. If this means baking cupcakes in the local church basement and delivering your signature pas Ttries by bicycle to local stores -- two dozen at a time -- do it. Take the money you make and put it right back into the business.

  3. Record every expense. From the dollar you gave to the homeless guy on the way to meet a prospective client, to the new tie you bought to look professional, write down every single penny. The key to launching a micro-business is to keep expenses under control and fully accounted for.

  4. Keep a monthly profit-loss. For the first two years of your business, complete a monthly profit-loss statement. This helps you stay on top of where your business is going, where it could do better, and why it fluctuates.

  5. Find free stuff. Many items needed to start and run your small business are available for free or next to nothing. Be creative. Use freecycle.com; ask friends if they have an old computer or printer; or visit a thrift shop for office furniture or office supplies.

  6. Write down agreements. With a very small business, your clients sometimes make the assumption that they don't have to sign an agreement. Wrong. Get in the habit of thinking like a company founder and get promises in writing. And while you're at it, keep your side of agreements.

  7. Keep it simple. When Dal first started Tweezerman, he did nothing but focus on tweezers and selling them to cosmetic counters, one store at a time, which he did very well. If you can do one thing well, don't dilute your efforts until you have been turning a large profit over a consistent stretch of time.

My net recommendation is that if you consider yourself a do-it-yourself entrepreneur, preferring to do things yourself rather than forking over money to consultants, then definitely the micro-business approach is for you. The down side is that your business will probably grow slowly and more organically.

If you prefer to rely on others for most things, or want to get there fast, the investor approach may be the best answer, but the price is higher in time, dollars, and control. It’s your choice, but remember that the wrong choice probably won’t get you there at all.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, October 15, 2021

8 Keys To The Winning Mix Of Full-Time and Gig Talent

home-officeWith the pace of change ever escalating, entrepreneurs today can’t afford to acquire talent through traditional hiring alone, and need to revise the perception that “talent” is only full-time office employees. In addition, more people in the workforce don’t want to be resident employees. More than 40% of U.S. workers now say they would start looking for another job if they aren’t offered remote options.

The answer to both is a new fast and flexible talent strategy based on freelancers, consultants, experts, and specialists, who are part of the new “1099 economy” including Baby Boomers and Millennials. For the full picture, see the classic book, “Navigating the Talent Shift,” with convincing arguments by Lisa Hufford, Founder of Simplicity Consulting talent solutions.

The author outlines eight necessary steps for every business and entrepreneur to capitalize on this movement to on-demand project teams, versus permanent hires. These steps are the new keys to driving business innovation, controlling costs, staying nimble, and getting better results:

  1. Build teams to meet goals rather than organization charts. Too many entrepreneurs, as they grow their business, are focused on hiring to fill a traditional organization chart, rather than acquiring skills and talents to meet their current goals and needs. They use generic job descriptions and plan for long-term business stability, which rarely happens.
  1. Focus on deliverables and skills required right now. Conventional hiring strategies usually follow a vanilla approach to talent acquisition. It’s a numbers game of filling positions, without clarity on the expertise needed to deliver now. With contract players, you assume a project duration, with easy transition to new players for the next campaign.
  1. Prioritize objectives and seek expert talent to match. For example, if your first scaling effort is a global one, you should be prioritizing “global launch experience.” The notion of holding out for the “expert in all domains” wastes too much time, effort, and money. In fact, you will never predict required pivots, and generalists rarely outperform specialists.
  1. Build an on-demand team of strategic do-ers. The most effective people to execute strategic initiatives are likely ones who have recently led similar activities in multiple related environments, not ones who have been grown and trained inside. This team of specialist consultants is then easily tuned as your strategy evolves based on the market.
  1. Think in terms of projects to keep up with an evolving strategy. Each strategic priority should be managed as a project. Some projects are big and long-term, while others are small and more tactical. Projects need not be constrained by organizational boundaries, long-term budgeting, or conventional staffing and training practices.
  1. Stay nimble by quickly filling gaps in the existing team. When you identify a skills gap or feel you need additional expertise or insight, signing up on-demand help is the only timely solution. Assigning an existing team member who isn’t qualified, or is already overloaded, will likely delay both projects, and kill existing team member motivation.
  1. Leverage the broadest possible network. The on-demand specialized talent pool already includes nearly 100 million people not interested in being full-time employees. By leveraging this broader network, you will improve your probabilities of finding the right skills and experience for your current project, and bring fresh ideas and solutions into your team.
  1. Maintain budget flexibility as the business changes. By leveraging on-demand experts, you pay only for the vital work you need immediately, not the overhead and ongoing costs (development, training, severance, benefits) that go along with hiring full-time employees. It’s the best way to handle budgetary restrictions and cuts.

This on-demand talent model, dubbed SPEED by the author (Success, Plan, Execute, Evaluate, Decide), is good for the company, and good for all specialized, dedicated, and high performing people in the workforce today. Your company gets the flexibility to adapt quickly to the needs of a rapidly changing marketplace, and workers get to broaden their experience in the work they love.

We are living in an on-demand world and an on-demand economy, ranging from the movies we watch, to manufacturing and delivery, to the computer resources we need. Welcome now to the on-demand workplace. It’s here to stay.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, October 13, 2021

7 Short-Term Business Mistakes Can Limit Your Impact

business-maladiesAs a long-time business consultant and investor, especially to entrepreneurs, I recognize your sparkle of vision, to build the ultimate world-changing product. Every one of you sees yourself as the next Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, or maybe even Steve Jobs. Yet most of us succumb after a time to the short-term pressures of growing a business, and the long-term vision gets pushed aside.

Of course, it takes both short and long-term focus to survive, but I see too many businesses fall into some common product maladies, which ultimately keep them from becoming a unicorn, or achieving the level of disruptive change they initially envisioned. I found these maladies summarized well in a new book, “Radical Product Thinking,” by entrepreneur Radhika Dutt.

Radhika teaches entrepreneurship and innovation, and advises organizations around the world on how to build radical products that create a fundamental change instead of optimizing the status quo. I agree with her seven “product diseases,” where the business execution challenges steal the focus away from that grand vision and holy grail that you all started out pursuing:

  1. Hero syndrome – focusing on scale versus impact. Everyone, especially your investors, wants high-growth, higher-return decisions, to make them a hero sooner. The trouble is that disruptive change usually takes more time, and scales slower than most people expect. Thus you are driven to short-term growth fixes versus radical change.

    For example, a few years ago, the company Beepi had a vision to build a new market for buying and selling used cars, but became overly focused on fundraising to grow fast, and ignored many customer complaints. While the idea was great, they failed on execution.

  2. Strategic swelling – more features than any other. It’s easy to say “yes” to one more feature request after another, until the potential for real impact gets diluted. You spread yourself so thin across many areas, and don’t achieve any one goal at a breakthrough level. The solution is never to forget that initial clear purpose that translates into priorities.

    Yahoo has been an example of a company which expanded in all directions through 53 acquisitions, to the point where most customers were confused, and it was overtaken by Google as your main search engine. Make sure your vision is clear and communicated.

  3. Obsessive sales – must meet revenue goals. As your startup starts to generate returns, you will recognize the pressure of quarterly revenue goals, with qualified big customer prospects needing just one more small change to close. It suddenly and consistently seems reasonable to trade off long-term goals for survival in the short term.

  4. Hypermetricemia – metrics for everything. This malady is focusing on “measurable” outcomes to determine success, rather than your goal of long-term change. To know what to measure, you need to remember what you’re actually trying to achieve. Don’t be over-reliant on measuring everything, and forget the breakthrough vision and strategy.

    My advice is to focus on a handful of high-level metrics that matter, and are simple and relevant to organizational objectives. Tune out the stuff that could be impactful but isn't actionable, as well as the stuff that's actionable but not related to your impact and vision.

  5. Locked-in syndrome – do what worked in the past. Don’t commit to a technique, technology, or approach just because you have related expertise or because it has worked in the past. Always explore alternative solutions that might work better to achieve the impact you are hoping for. Focus on the real problem, rather than a favorite solution.

  6. Pivotitis – keep pivoting till we get it right. Directional changes in the face of a problem often result in wild swings in product offerings and customer segments, causing confused, demoralized, and exhausted teams. Sometimes the right solution is to push through problems, or at least first redefining your vision, strategy, and action plan.

  7. Narcissus complex – look inward to see what helps. Don’t lose focus on the customer, or open opportunities for competitors to pass you by with your own disruptive change. When you look first inward, you tend to measure yourself by internal benefits instead of the impact on the world. You may win the near-term battle but lose the war.

These business maladies can all be cured by starting with a clear vision of where you are going, and translating it to drive your everyday activities, rather than letting business issues drive your vision. Otherwise, your most innovative and disruptive product thinking will be diluted and lost, killing your dream of a better world. Now is the time to develop a new mindset and stick to it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 09/28/2021 ***

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Monday, October 11, 2021

7 Keys To Transforming A Dream Into Business Reality

business-dreamSuccessful entrepreneurs are usually hard-driving, and highly focused on some specific goals, like being the dominant player in a given domain, or the low-priced provider of their product. Yet other entrepreneurs will talk for hours about all their ideas, and how they intend to change the world, but I don’t hear any specific goals or milestones.

Many people are very hesitant to set specific goals, due to lack of self-confidence or whatever. The result is that they don’t ever get anywhere, because they never really knew where they wanted to go. If you find yourself in this category, try the following simple steps highlighted by Brian Tracy in his classic book “No Excuses: The Power of Self-Discipline”:

  1. Decide exactly what you want. If you want to increase your income, decide on a specific amount of money, rather than just “make more money.” Without precise goals, you can’t measure progress, and you miss the real satisfaction of knowing when to declare success.

  1. Write it down. A goal that is not written down is like cigarette smoke; it drifts away and disappears. It is vague and insubstantial. It has no force, effect, or power. It’s too easy to forget or push aside when outside forces arise that you hadn’t anticipated – and they will. On the other hand, most people don’t hesitate to write down excuses.

  1. Set a deadline with specific milestones. Pick a reasonable time period and write down the date when you want to achieve it. If it is a big enough goal, set intermediate milestones for measurement reference points. The rule is “There are no unrealistic goals; there are only unrealistic deadlines.” Don’t be afraid to change the deadline – for cause.

  1. Make a list of things you need to do to achieve your goal. The biggest goal can be accomplished if you break it down into enough small steps. Make a list of obstacles and difficulties, knowledge and skills required, necessary people, and everything you will have to do to meet the goal. Add to these lists as you learn more.

  1. Organize your list by both sequence and priority. A list organized by sequence requires that you decide what you need to do in what order. A list organized by priority enables you to determine what is more important. Then develop a business plan which embodies all of the above.

  1. Take action on your plan immediately. Don’t delay. Move quickly. Procrastination is the thief of time, and it shortens your life. Winners in life take the first step now. They are willing to overcome their normal fear of failure and disappointment, and take a small step, and then other one, until they reach the goal.

  1. Do something every day that moves you in the direction of your major goal. This is the key step that will guarantee your success. Do something every day that moves you at least one step closer to the goal. In this fashion, you develop momentum, which further motivates, inspires, and energizes you. Soon it becomes automatic and easier.

You can’t control the future, and that’s not the purpose of goal setting. It’s also a recipe for failure to assume that the path to your goal will require suffering and sacrifice. In fact, the whole objective of all steps above is to allow you to avoid stress and suffering, and be more fully motivated by your progress.

As you adopt a goal-setting mindset, you will find yourself setting different kinds of goals. These are lifetime goals, not just a collection of near-term objectives. It’s these really big objectives, that seem unachievable even to you right now, that will inspire you the most, and motivate you to real success and happiness.

Marty Zwilling

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