Category Archives: Steve Blue

The Product Pivot: The Gift That Keeps On Ticking

By Steve Blue

Steve BlueWhether you know it or not, your business is a time bomb. The seconds are counting down until it explodes into a million pieces, littering the marketplace like a war-zone.

And it’s not just you. Every company is on a going-out-of-business curve unless it constantly reinvents itself. Examples abound of businesses that clung wistfully their old products and decried anything new. Kodak failed to reinvent itself even though it clearly saw the move toward digital film. Netflix assassinated Blockbuster. Uber is destroying the entire taxi business. And what is the taxi industry’s response? Cling to the old model and ask the government to protect it. These are all examples of companies that chose to cling to the tried-and-true but destined-to-fail old ways. All because of a failure to execute what is called “the product pivot.”

The product pivot is shedding the old skin of dying product lines and weathered technology and reinventing new ones to fit the times and the changing market conditions. It’s taking an old-line company and transforming it to a digital dynamo.

If you haven’t solidly positioned your company for the digital world, you soon will. Or you’ll soon be joining Kodak. Beware the transition from not digital to digital is as tricky and perilous as careening off an icy highway. It’s a high wire juggling act that requires the CEO’s constant attention to make mid-course corrections along the way. Many mid-course corrections.

But imagine this. You have picked a new technology with high margins. It has a solid market need and very little competition. You’ve retained a killer product development company that delivers the product to you on time and on budget. What a dream! But then it fails miserably. In fact, it never gets off the ground. Why? Your “new idea assassins killed it.”

Launching a new technology is never about the technology. That’s easy. Launching a new technology is all about the organization. That’s the hard part. Arguably, in the case of Kodak or Blockbuster, the impossible part. Kodak and Blockbuster had, or certainly could have procured the technology, but the organization refused to use it. Their “new idea assassins” killed it before it even gets started. And the CEO’s never even knew what happened.

Choosing the technology or product will be simple, compared to the organizational challenges you will face. Choosing the technology is just an exercise in good old-fashioned product marketing and development. But, do not underestimate the resistance you will encounter when you start your product pivot. Spend all your time and attention on how the organization is reacting to the change. Here are seven things you should do:

  1. Do an Organization Checkup: How ready is it to accept a new technology? In large organizations, conduct an online survey to determine the comfort level of your employees with the technology you have chosen.
  2. Address Concerns Directly: The most important issue will be to deal with employee’s fears about what the new technology will mean to them. When people don’t understand something, they will resist it and sabotage it. People will naturally be fearful that the new technology will displace them. Make a commitment that this won’t happen. Put a plan in place to train people on the new technology, and communicate it widely.
  3. Communication is the Key: Remember the Cs of effective communication: Clear, convincing, and compelling. Clearly communicate the importance of the new technology. Paint a convincing picture of what will happen to the company if it is not successful in the endeavor. That means lost jobs so don’t sugar coat it. At the same time talk about the compelling and exciting future everyone will have if it is successful.
  4. Make it Clear This is Not an Optional Transformation: Anyone who doesn’t support it can’t stay. It’s just that simple. And then you need to back that up with personnel changes, including termination if necessary. Don’t hesitate to make these changes because employees who are against it will find nefarious ways to scuttle it. And you won’t even know it until it is too late.
  5. Stay Close to the Project: Don’t delegate it. If you delegate it, you will soon discover it is stuck in the mud and no one knows why. Hold the team accountable to commit to action plans and dates. And question them intensely when they miss them. Expect missed commitments, after all it is all new to the organization. Just be sure the misses aren’t because of resistance. When you do discover the reason for the misses you will find they were caused by a lack of talent (which you can fix with new hires), a lack of resources (which you should also fix), or a lack of a clear product development plan.
  6. Celebrate Small Successes: Recognize, reward, and promote the people who are making it happen. These people are your new technology heroes.
  7. Don’t Forget to Pay Attention to the Rest of the Business: You still have to maintain the old while you are creating the new. Don’t let the people in the old products feel like they are not important. You need them to keep performing well.

A product pivot is essential to ensure the prosperity of the company. The challenge of a product pivot is never in deciding what product to develop or the technology in developing it. The challenge is always organizational. Remember that the organization is likely to be against it because it represents a threat. Stay close to the project and communicate constantly with the employees affected. And always remember to mind the store in the meantime.

Steve Blue is president and CEO of Miller Ingenuity and author of American Manufacturing 2.0: What Went Wrong and How to Make It Right. As a nationally recognized business transformation expert and speaker, Steve has been featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur, and The Wall Street Journal. He is founder and contributor to American City Business Journal’s “League of Extraordinary CEOs” series. To learn more about Steve Blue, please visit www.milleringenuity.com.

Is Your Company the Next Blockbuster?

By Steve Blue

Steve BlueNot a blockbuster hit. Rather, Blockbuster, the company that owned the video rental market until it was upended by an innovative competitor, Netflix.

One thing is for certain: If your company isn’t innovating, all of its products or services eventually become commodities. Or they’re toppled by the next Netflix.

When that happens, you have no margin left to spend on research and development, new product initiatives, or anything else that could provide a competitive advantage. Then, your customers will start playing you against the competition, and it’s just a race to the bottom for further price concessions.

By that point, you’re left with reducing costs, overhead, or profit—you’re now in a death spiral toward that going-out-of-business curve.

So how, exactly, do you spark new innovation at a company? What’s more, how do you do it at an already established business?

Make Innovation Part of Everyone’s Job Description: The first line item on every job description should state that a primary duty is to introduce innovative ideas into the company. Job descriptions of all employees—not just a select few. From the plant floor to the executive door, mandate that the entire organization offer ideas to improve products and services.

Innovation must be one of the company’s core values, so much so that it is tied to performance appraisals. Determine a means to best measure innovation in your company, and incentivize innovative thought by making it part of the performance review process. By doing so, not only do you give kudos and raises to the employees that innovate, but you also say goodbye to the ones that don’t. Pretty harsh isn’t it? So is what happened to Blockbuster. Or Polaroid. Or Woolworths. Or dozens of other industry icons that bit the dust.

Invest in Innovation: Contrary to popular belief, everyone is creative. The key is to understand how to unlock that creativity, Train every single employee in the principles of brainstorming and innovation. Hold “innovation fairs,” similar to a science fair. Take your employees on field trips to highly innovative companies outside of your industry.

Provide the Time to Innovate: It isn’t always enough to set the expectation to innovate. You must provide the time — or at least the parameters — for innovation. To really push the innovation envelope, you should encourage your employees to spend 20 percent of their time innovating and brainstorming new ideas. But if you still expect your team to accomplish the same amount of work in the remaining 80%, that would be unfair, and in the end, would never work. So you have to bite the bullet and hire more people to cover that 20%. You need to set the expectation that “thinking about things,” is really just as important as “building things.”

Provide the Space to Innovate: Asking employees to innovate and brainstorm without providing a space to do it in can squelch creativity. Once you’ve established the practice of innovation, devote a location within your organization where they can meet regularly and without interruption.

This can be as simple as an empty cube dedicated for innovative practices, or as involved as an offsite location where the round-the-clock focus in innovation. Above all else, you must make it abundantly clear that these spaces aren’t just for white-collar employees. They are for all employees. Allotting spaces serves two purposes: it provides an assigned area in which to innovate and it shows employees how serious your company is about the process. Keep in mind there is no magic in this space. The magic is in unlocking the creative genius in every one of your employees. The innovation space only facilitates this. Before you build your space, be sure you have taken the above steps in creating the culture and providing people the tools and training to innovate.

Celebrate, Recognize, and Reward Innovation: Find ways to celebrate and recognize innovation every chance you get. It has a way of changing workplace culture for the better and reinforcing positive behaviors. Potential rewards include significant cash awards for innovation, professional photos taken of the team marking the achievement, or even making the accomplishment public by taking out a half-page ad in the local newspaper detailing the innovation.

Recognize innovative efforts every chance you get in every way you can think of. Be, well, creative in how you recognize people. Send them on hot-air balloon rides. Hire a team of skydivers to land in the company parking lot. Hire an airplane sky-writer. All of these crazy ideas further the process of getting your team to be more innovative.

Fight Fear and Resistance: Do you remember Woolworth’s, the five-and-dime retailer? No? That’s because it was out-innovated by Walmart and went belly up. Likely because it stayed in its comfort zone until there was nothing left to do but close up shop.

Regardless of how long your company has been around, it’s imperative to keep the creative wheels turning and staying ahead of the innovation curve. The logistics may seem daunting, yet the biggest risk isn’t a technical one; it’s organizational. People fear what they don’t understand, and they’ll kill a project they’re afraid of. You have to get out in front of that and fight the fear and resistance early and often.

Innovation is no longer an option—it’s a necessity. As you move your business toward more innovative thought, be prepared for some pushback. Also, be ready to restructure your organization and even cut people loose if you have to. You need to surround new developments with people who believe in innovation. Otherwise, you’ll be left with those who’ll do little more than look for flaws.

Steve Blue is President and CEO of Miller Ingenuity and author of American Manufacturing 2.0: What Went Wrong and How to Make It Right. As a nationally recognized business transformation expert and speaker, Steve has been featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur, and The Wall Street Journal. He is founder and contributor to American City Business Journal’s “League of Extraordinary CEOs” series. To learn more about Steve Blue, please visit www.MillerIngenuity.com.  

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