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Fri, Apr

That was what the ghostly voice told Kevin Costner in the inspirational baseball fantasy ‘Field Of Dreams’. It works in the movie but the surprising thing, as Steve Blank points out in his book ‘The Four Steps To Epiphany’, is that many companies operate under this very belief.

Companies have various methods for developing new products but often the last people who are considered in this process are those who matter most: the customers. In too many companies, the voice of the customer is refracted through someone with a vested interest - typically the sales or marketing director - and, for everyone else involved in product development, the success or failure of a product seems entirely mysterious. As one engineer who bought this book put it, if a product didn't succeed we just tried again.

Blank suggests that companies stop focusing purely on product development and think about customer development. What does he mean by this? For a start, he means get out and engage with customers, arguing that: "Inside your building there are no facts, only opinions." Listening to customers isn't the same as making a list of what each one wants and then trying to tick them off but it should give you a clearer idea of whether your views about your products and services are realistic or delusional. It's much cheaper to find this out before you launch something than afterwards.

 

Managed properly, this process can encourage your staff to see customers more clearly. Too many managing directors curse employees for not understanding the marketplace while doing their utmost to prevent their staff from interacting with customers. Sometimes, this reaction is driven by fear - what if they say something inappropriate? - but too many organisations just fail to make time for this crucial activity.

 

Blank's book is turgidly written at times but it is essential reading for anyone running a business who isn't sure why product a worked and product b didn't. In other words, for almost anyone who is running a business.

 

Have you ever read that business bestseller about the seven habits of highly effective people? 

There is no such thing as a domestic market. 

In 2006, Disney paid £4.1bn to buy Pixar, the animation studio that had created such gems as ‘Toy Story’, ‘Finding Nemo’ and ‘The Incredibles’. As it turned out, that price was probably a bargain but Disney could have saved billions if its management hadn’t made the wrong call in the 1980s.

The irony is that a studio founded by master animator Walt Disney, that had been responsible for such marvels as ‘Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs’, had to pay so much to get back into a market it had once dominated. That’s because in the early 1980s – with the studio’s founding genius long dead – the company’s traditional values led it astray. Because traditional 2D animation required so much skill and resource, Disney had come to focus on blockbusters. So in 1982, when it delved into computer graphics to produce ‘Tron’, it looked at what it considered so-so grosses for the sci-fi feature and made the logical, but stupid, decision not to venture any further into computer graphics. Four years later, Pixar was founded when Steve Jobs bought the computer graphics of Lucasfilm. Within eight years, the new company was cooperating with Disney. The dissolution of that partnership in 2004 convinced Walt’s old firm it had to act – and it made a £4.1bn offer Pixar’s owners could not refuse.

If Disney had taken a longer, broader view of ‘Tron’, seeing the movie not just as a one-off item on a profit and loss account but as an investment in the cutting edge technology of computer graphics, Pixar might never have happened. Although this blunder gave the world ‘Toy Story’, it is a salutary reminder that merely by applying the conventional wisdom – or judging every project according to its traditional values – every company can get it spectacularly, expensively wrong.

 

 

 

Technology must always be useful, the British scientist Sir Patrick Linstead once observed, whereas science need not be. In the wide-format industry, too many technologies have proved not be as useful as the printing companies who bought them had hoped. So it is easy to understand why, despite all the hype, many companies have been reluctant to embrace Web2Print.

Yet those helpful folks at OnPrint Shop (www.onprintshop.com/eight-steps-for-sme-printers-to-choose-right-web2print-solution.html) have chipped in with a handy eight-step guide to making the most of this new technology which sums up the challenges in plain English, raising such basic questions as why do you need to go online before ending with a cautious analysis of the investment options – from renting to sharing and licensing. The best single piece of advice? “Companies usually give only ‘how to do’ support, which is not that helpful if you’re not IT savvy. Look for a company that helps you set up your online store and makes you functional in a short time.”

 

 

Are you on Flickr, Twitter or YouTube? Octink, the London wide-format printer which has twice been listed as one of the Sunday Times’s Best Green companies, certainly is. There’s a nice environmentally sound poster on Flickr, a tweet about a new director and eight videos on YouTube (none of which, it has to be said, have become a viral sensation).

In a small way, Octink is participating in a revolution which David Armano, a senior vice-president at communications agency Edelmann, calls the cult of influence (http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/01/the_six_pillars_of_the_new_inf.html). Armano urges companies to use digital tools to increase their reach, get closer to customers, seem more relevant, build credibility in a community of influence and become more trusted. These are not small goals but collectively they can help you engage with the people you want to influence – be they customers or opinion-formers – to help your business.

It’s easy to lose sight of the over-arching goal when you’re struggling to know what to tweet – or think you’re too busy to bother – but it could help you reposition your company. One of the problems printers have marketing themselves is that they don’t have the budget to sustain a big brand-enhancing campaign. But if they reach out to the right niches, they might be rewarded with new business.

 

In Simon Raven’s novel ‘Alms For Oblivion’, one character says of another: “He’s never seen anything he doesn’t want to see in his life.” We can all be like that – no matter how observant or open-minded we like to think we are.

But Rock LaManna says, in a Fespa blog with the exaggerated title of ‘The Two-Part Process For Unstoppable Growth’ that strategic growth often starts with a reality check by seeing what their team think. “The most successful CEOs are not always the ones who are most knowledgeable or decisive,” says LaManna. “They are often the leaders who create the best teams, inspire peers and set a coherent vision to align the team’s mission.”

Once you look at the business as a team, he suggests that growth can come from some prosaic sources, such as a decision to focus on – and generate added value from – your big accounts. This might sound obvious but many of the options he recommends – aligning yourself with key suppliers, creating a joint venture or developing a new market – might make more difference to the bottom line than half-baked reorganisations, a fancy new website or a new mission statement.

If you’ve got mission statements on your mind, tale some advice from an expert like the Orion Consultancy (http://www.orion-consultancy.com/1/post/2012/08/mission-vision-values-and-strategy-how-to-untangle-them.html/). They recommend that every quest to redefine your mission statement should start with one question: “Why do we exist?”

An easy question to ask, but can you succinctly answer it?

The first step in the journey of innovation is usually said to be a brainstorm. But is it? As Jeffrey Baumgartner says in his newsletter ‘Report 103’ (http://www.jpb.com/report103/index.php) many of these sessions generate “best ideas” that look good but are pretty safe.

Take the rise of digital cameras. The first prototypes produced very low quality images and, Baumgartner notes,  “If people in the film industry were asked ten years ago, which is better – improved film or digital images, they would have said “improved film”.” And they would, of course, have been wrong. Breakthrough ideas, he says, “cannot be directly compared to existing notions”. And it is these ideas – from the Model T Ford to the iPod – that transform their company’s performance.

The other drawback, Baumgartner suggests, is that brainstorming sessions can generate so many ideas it is hard to decide which ones to pursue. In an approach Baumgartner calls “anti-conventional thinking”, he proposes that companies focus on one really big idea and, by questioning, debating, criticising and improving that proposal, develop it in such detail that the “meeting can produce a step-by-step action plan, defining what needs to be done to implement the idea”.

Sounds simple – when it obviously isn’t. But this, Baumgartner suggests, is what scientists do. They gather a lot of information, formulate a single thesis and test it. If that doesn’t work, they revise that hypothesis and try again.

This process is obviously more unpredictable – and may seem initially more costly and time-consuming – but it might generate the big idea that drives your revenue up.