It’s not the thing you fling, it’s the fling itself

Creativity, improvisation and great customer experience.

One of the first pieces of advice I recall being given, upon starting a new role with broad expectations and few resources, was, “Don’t try to boil the ocean.” It is the standout piece of bad advice that I have ever received. When you have nothing, it’s much more effective to be strategic than tactical. Think big and keep thinking. Keep lighting fires.

My non-ocean boiling adviser was really saying, “keep it small;” “don’t be creative;” “be pragmatic;” “don’t question where this is going.” Essentially, they were married to the internal structure and behavior that prevailed at the time and was carving out a path of survival between tactical lines that became irrelevant once the strategy evolved.

This story is relevant to customer experience because essentially the intentions and objectives of internal process are what define the eventual quality of the end product or service. (Badly hacked from Frank Chimero’s wonderful, The Shape of Design). Empathic customer relationships are real. We try hard to predict the next sale through big data and analytics, but let’s face it — we all like to be wowed, energized, sated by great design and the art of the possible; by open questions not closed ones. We have to attempt to boil oceans to connect dots that spark the broader imagination and keep us relevant. Ocean boiling teaches us to listen and create. Through it, we perceive the previously unknown and improvise to create new value.

People buy from people. People buy into an ideal or an essential value. Every single person making a purchasing choice cares about something on some level. Our role in Customer Experience is to make it easy to define that transaction and keep it simple; then go forth and empathize with our customers to find what other value they seek, that they might at some time source it from us. Whatever motivations brought the customer across the digital realm to our door, let’s hope we have some data that supports us making an authentic impression that motivates that customer to stay a little longer, browse among our partners at least and always seek to renew.

Creative confidence should be championed. Creativity and design generate more value. They are pro-active, assertive and lead to personal growth in any practice where user consideration is required before the product or service is deployed. Everyone has a sense of his or her ideal place in mind. Why not help them get there? We are literally talking about art and creativity and the challenge we often see in companies is too big a focus on “how” and “what” and not enough focus on “why” or “what if?”

In the episode, ‘Burning Down the House’, the ever-brilliant 1990s TV show Northern Exposure deals head on with the challenge of art and creativity.

I’ve been here now for some days,” says radio DJ, Chris in the Morning, the town’s de-facto explorer-in-chief, “groping my way along, trying to realize my vision here. I started concentrating so hard on my vision that I lost sight. I’ve come to find out that it’s not the vision, it’s not the vision at all. It’s the groping. It’s the groping, it’s the yearning, it’s the moving forward… I think Kierkegaard said it oh so well, “The self is only that which is in the process of becoming.” Art? Same thing. James Joyce had something to say about it too. “Welcome, Oh Life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience, and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscious of my race.” We’re here today to fling something that bubbled up from the collective unconsciousness of our community. The thing I learned folks, this is absolutely key: It’s not the thing you fling. It’s the fling itself. Let’s fling something, Cicely.”

Having pilfered the entire episode of its final scene, I’ll guide you here to see what Chris flung and how he got to that point. But amid all the creativity and philosophical musing, there’s something else really important in that passage: the thing he flung “bubbled up from the collective unconsciousness of the community.” Most of the time our customers will look at our offerings, our ‘community’, and assess for themselves the value they can derive from some quality that we create. Our intention and our brand should be to always design to that eventual objective and always be open to that improvisation. After all, our value’s often not the ‘fixed’ thing we fling; it’s the fling itself.

2015: another fresh start; another program built (and building)

During 2012 and 2013 I had a great run through the modern marketing technology tools available at EMC.  For several years I had run a flagship Customer Engagement program at EMC and now we were embedding our program into Customer Journey and simultaneous funnel analysis through the Marketing Sciences program which we had established and hosted inside the Executive Briefing Center in Silicon Valley.

At EMC I learned many skills to build a highly productive internal program that touched over $2bn in revenue at some point along the customer journey.  Apparently, nearly 10% of all EMC’s revenue touched our office and staff of just five people based in Santa Clara at sometime during the year.  We had great fun, great exposure and it was exciting.  But we didn’t own any of it.

So this time last year I got the opportunity to build my own program, carrying my own targets for an EMC partner, Kovarus, based in the San Francisco Bay Area with regional offices in Sacramento, Seattle and Denver.  We knuckled down with a small team to bootstrap a new marketing function for a business that doubled in size in 2012, grew a further 50% 2013 and added almost 40% in 2014.  My job was to bring together the bit parts and build a sustainable marketing program for one of the fastest growing private businesses in the United States.

We’ve had some great early successes and we’ve also learned a lot along the way.  The experience got me thinking about some of the things we did well not just at Kovarus, but also in previous roles and how previous experience gave me somewhat of an ‘Outlier’ advantage in tackling new challenges in this role.  For some of the things that tripped us up, having to carry a marketing-generated revenue goal for the company allowed us to generate proposals, fail or succeed rapidly and drive change with determination where needed.

In general the experience has lead me to focus – personally – on two areas of particular interest:

  1. Connected Thinking (always a favorite of mine)
  2. Learning what we’re good at, what that means and how we supplement our skills.  (I’m not a big believer in us all heroically conquering the things we’re just not great at.  That’s the stuff of heroes, not teams).

Because we all think differently, I think it serves a purpose to highlight the three sides of my thought process as I look at building successful programs and achieving our goals.  They are:

  1. Lay out a mind-map of everything we need to do, build a process that supports it and declare the time line for achieving it.  We won’t get everything built in natural order, but we’ll build the program to comfortably incorporate the parts we develop later:  Plan for the future.
  2. Quickly determine what are the roadblocks along the way and how to move beyond them.
  3. Collaborate, partner, be open: don’t be a roadblock.

There’s no rocket science here – I do think if you look after these three, the complex parts of work will become simpler to manage because you have a process, you’re vigilant and you’re open to ideas from other sources.

Five Design Considerations for Every Program

Common Sense Design Basics

I’m currently interested in how to design a Customer Engagement Platform across sales, services and marketing outlets.

Simple Graphic

We’ll build upon several existing projects and work streams to give a better understanding of our value to a customer on a global level, as depicted in this highly simplified view.   It’s a converged, account-based view, forming a reference point for every customer interaction.  The goal is to create a simple, converged interface for the customer, that gives us better understanding of the state of the entire relationship.

Of course, nothing is quite so simple.  There’s a lot going on here and a project like this has a very wide scope.  In this post I want to consider common sense design basics that should be applied to this and, in fact, any initiative.  It starts with an old question and answer: 

Q. How do you eat an elephant?

A. One chunk at a time.


Planning to eat the Elephant – Three Basic Design Considerations

In his book, Change by DesignIDEO design consultancy CEO Tim Brown describes a filter for evaluating whether a project is fit to be developed .  It’s a simple, three-step filter:

  1. Is the concept Desirable?
  2. Is it Feasible?
  3. Is it Viable?

Two out of three won’t do.  You’ll need all three, a strong value proposition and alliances across multiple company functions to plan how to eat this particular elephant.  It may be a simple filter, but simplicity isn’t simple – simplicity is a thoroughly designed, collaborative process whose output is a meticulously conceived, functionally fit for purpose package that meets or predicts the customer need.  That’s how Apple’s design guru Jony Ive describes Simplicity in this interview.


Five Steps Needed for a Shot at Success 

“Designing and developing anything of consequence is incredibly challenging,” says Ive.  Jony Ive didn’t walk me through his process for leading a design team, but Andy Lewis, CIO at Kovarus, a San Francisco Bay Area-based IT Consultancy and EMC Velocity Partner, did.  Andy is a twenty-year IT veteran with experience on Wall St and Silicon Valley at some of the world’s largest companies.

Andy shared with me five distinct steps that should feature in every project plan and I’ve used them successfully on every initiative I’ve lead since.  They need to be applied at every phase.


1. Define and Measure.

Clearly define the scope of what you are trying to achieve and how it can be measured.

  • What are the benefits?
  • What are the costs?
  • What needs to happen to realize the value?

Speaking of value, how will you measure the value?

  • Is it a numeric value, such as revenue, leads generated etc.?
  • Is it a complex value, such as influence, multiplier etc.?

There are multiple different types of value and multiple ways of measuring it.  Define clearly what you are doing including where and how it’s benefit will be realized.  Understand what kind of influence you can generate if your value is not an ROI number. 

Douglas Hubbard’s How To Measure Anything is a fantastic resource for researching and understanding value and how to measure it.


2. Simplify and Converge

The diagram above represents several initiatives that have been grouped together to show what might be possible if all these individual work packages were designed to work together.  In reality, each started as its own idea with its own, viable value proposition.  What we are looking to do is to design a simpler ‘platform’ with a consolidated set of functions that deliver those multiple requirements or services.

As a rule of thumb, the fewer the moving parts, the more reliable the functionality.  It’s important to group similar or compatible tasks or phases together to simplify things and help speed them up.  Bring like-minded people together in a virtual team or matrix, and align multiple initiatives to support converged goals.


3. Align and Partner > The Co-Ideation Phase 

Someone, somewhere in the wider organization has similar goals to you or at least goals that are very compatible to yours.  Find them and find away to support each other.  It has the effect of multiplying your capability without adding headcount, resources or even budget.  A branding project may find support in the Facilities or Sustainability Offices rather than marketing;  a technology initiative might find support in Sales or Business Ops rather than IT.

IDEO design methodology begins at the Co-Inspiration phase, the phase before Ideas.  This allows all parties to share what their inspirations are so that the inspirations – on Post-It notes – can be grouped together to form emerging ideas.  We’re building bigger picture concepts based on existing functions or ideas that compliment each other.  This does four things:

  • It builds partnership and alignment around shared goals;
  • It incorporates the goals of each Tactical function into a bigger Strategy;
  • It delivers a converged, simplified expression of joint goals;
  • It encourages functional groups to see themselves as part of a larger ‘Whole’.

From a business perspective, we now have the impetus to build a shared framework, collaborate across teams and crowd-source skills, significantly reduce overhead, streamline delivery times and increase productivity – not to mention the feel good factor of having everyone feel part of something bigger.

It will also allow us to further define the scope of the project, deliver better insight into composite metrics – not every function has the luxury of being able to generate simple ROI or TCO – and leverage expertise and spare capacity in other organizations to deliver goals.


4. Business Process Management, People, Processes and Tools

Definition, measurement, simplification, convergence, alignment and partnership occur because there is structure.  Structure supports the scope and the deliverables, it is the foundation for repeatability and scalability and it gives a basis for verifying results.  Structure = Business Process, so each project requires a strong Desirability/ Feasibility/ Viability value proposition and a plan for proving it out.

At the same time, even the very best plan will fail if we don’t have the right people or mindsets involved.  People are the most important element of all.  Understand the MOs and goals of every individual involved, how they should be aligned – or even kept apart – and how value should be represented to them, often in different ways to meet their requirements.

Additionally, the very best business idea is often a convergence of several inspirations.  The feasibility of the process and the viability of the plan can only be measured when the best-fit tools are considered.  I once worked for an organization that had tremendous customer engagement ideas, but refused to invest in any web-based tools or automation to enable them.  They didn’t consider the impacts that new plans would have on the people in the organization, nor they did they consider career paths for existing staff as part of a transition.  The net result was that nothing changed, the program couldn’t scale and staff churn was a constant issue that further compounded the problem.

It’s critical to understand the domino or multiplier effects of change – even if you don’t plan to eat the entire elephant in one sitting, it’s important for everyone to know that we are indeed eating an elephant and that as we progress, various changes in process, roles and tools will take place.  Design your platform for at least 4x growth.  (Plan to go big or go home!)

Get your buy-ins and opt-outs out of the way before the real stuff gets going.


5. Market & Communicate 

Each phase is critical, but this might be the post critical of all.  Perception really IS reality.  If you don’t share – across every available channel – the objectives and successes of your programs, directly with those who gain the most from them, nobody else will.  It’s not good enough to paint a masterpiece and then stick it in the basement where no one will see it.  You must be pro-active and assertive about marketing and communicating the value of your work.  If you’re not the best spokesperson, find that Rock Star and give them the megaphone.

If you need to bring in this expertise from outside, do.  My favorite example of this is around IT Transformation.  As IT organizations seek to reign in spending, switching from expensive, custom-built IT stacks to more flexible, agile Cloud infrastructures, many have employed external marketing professionals to promote their success to customers from the customers’ viewpoint, not IT’s.  In many cases, the marketing plan is the difference between success and failure for multi-million dollar programs.  See one great example here. 

To recap:

  1. Define and Measure
  2. Simplify and Converge
  3. Align and Partner
  4. Business Process, People and Tools
  5. Market and Communicate

These common sense design basics will form the basis for upcoming posts on reviewing projects, converging them with other cross-functional initiatives and seeing if and how we can start to build a Customer Engagement Platform (CEP).

Thanks to Andy Lewis for the failsafe planning insight!

I like to see how things fit together

I like to consider how things fit together.  (Spatially) Separate No More refers to a geographical theory from the 1960’s called Spatial Separatism.   I like to call it the “Isolated Theory,” because it was “possible to identify, separate and evaluate the spatial as an independent phenomenon or a property of events examined through spatial analysis.” (Sack, 1974)  Geographers posited that there was merit in trying to understand a phenomenon in its own right without understanding any of the wider social structure within which it operated or that which brings influence upon it.  It’s a super tempting idea, and one that I think drives much of our behaviors at work.  But it ignores all the sticky tissue between silos that makes things happen.

I studied politics, sociology and law and today I work in the arena Customer Engagement for EMC, industry leader in all things Cloud Computing and Big Data.  I find the urge to connect things always interesting and endlessly relevant.  As a student, I constantly sought out patterns to construct new perspectives on well-covered topics. I may not always have been right, but my data and research argued that I was no more wrong than the perceived wisdoms.  Thanks to a lot of patience and great teaching (Prof. J.J. Lee) I learned to search for common patterns in history, policy and data that satisfied my urge to show that everything could be connected and to help make my case.  I’ve been looking for patterns and trying to fit things together ever since.  It satisfies my sense that I’ve got something creative to bring.

Through marketing and Customer Engagement, I’m able to meet interesting characters from all around the world in different industries and with different backgrounds.  Because I love technology, it’s just great to be able to apply gut instinct and raw data to Cloud Computing and Big Data in Silicon Valley.

At EMC we talk about the intersection of the Cloud and Big Data as a Space that interrelates the spatial patterns of the Business and IT and is in fact the ultimate expression of their confluence:  the place where IT investment directly yields higher revenue.  (My colleagues in EMC Sales and Consulting will gladly guide you there.)

I am drawn to things that seek or scream connection, influence and relevance.  Whether it’s technology, or government policy, business processes or social events, media, cultural or sporting.  I’m going to try and explore some patterns here.  And I’m always going to try and and prove that they’re connected.

One other thing about that blog title:  I spent most of the summer of 1996 trying out my spatially separate thesis  on my college friends and suffered them stuffing peanuts in my beer every time I mentioned it. Happy Days.