In the last few months, I had travelled extensively and the memories I have are those of my connections with the people I met. I’m very lucky to have met entrepreneurs, executives, designers, thinkers, friends, family and many of those who were part of my journeys. Manifestations of my thoughts on meeting these people would be in the form of several notes, blogs and articles (published and unpublished). This is one such manifestation.
People. I cannot stress on the importance of people in this world enough! When I meet people and converse with them, I gain a lot of learning that is tremendously useful. I grew up reading very few books and even today, a book puts me to sleep at best. Someone was asking me how much do I read that I’m able to write a lot… my reply was, “I hardly read books… but I do read people, an awful lot of them”! With this background, let me get to the topic.
I encountered a lot of successful, failed and mediocre companies. I would say that it is extremely difficult to be mediocre, I’m sure, the wise people among you would understand why I say this. Anyway, I’ll discuss this concept at a later time. Let me focus this time on failure or the lack of it… and since the world has begun seeing failure in a very different light recently, let me rephrase what I said earlier: I’ll focus on death or the lack of it. I find death as a more appropriate substitute to the word failure in the context in which I’m speaking. Failure comes with learning and it seems imperative that we fail in order that we succeed… whereas death is something different. If you die, you die (unless otherwise proven). Here, I’m talking about death of businesses in their various stages.
In my career as a designer spanning 15+ years, I came across many businesses… from early stage startups to fortune companies; and I had the chance of working with people from both ends of the spectrum and in between. And I was also lucky to witnesses many deaths and at different life stages of businesses. I see some patterns and I’ll discuss them here. I want to share my understanding so that some one of you could benefit from avoiding the causes of death. Let’s begin…
|Idea death||Product death||Organization death||Brand death|
Many businesses die prematurely, in the idea stage itself and I had seen thousands of such deaths. I myself would have seeded and killed hundreds of ideas. Ever wondered why, when people have brilliant ideas, they still don’t take them forward? What could be inhibiting them from building an idea into a successful enterprise? Let’s talk about three common causes that I have witnessed.
Over thinking: A sure shot way to kill an idea is to think too much about it. If you have an idea and you think about how to make it into a product, how to price it, sell it, sustain it, how much would you earn from it, how are competitors doing, how to handle legal issues, how to handle technology and so many other things while at the ideation stage itself, you are sure to kill it prematurely. Keeping from thinking too much and focusing on the idea itself goes a long way in taking it much further. If this is of any solace, let me tell you with conviction that any idea can be commercialized, so don’t hold your horses at this stage!
Execution capabilities: Sometimes, you just don’t have it in you. Some people are good at thinking and bad at doing whereas some people are reasonably good at both. If you belong in the latter, you don’t have to worry but if you belong in the former, do get a design thinker on board. They are good at both (atleast, they are supposed to be!)
Decision making: This is the time you need to hold your horses! Decision making comes in handy when you need to choose what to do and what not to. Simple as it may sound, it is a tough ordeal for many. What does lack of decision making lead to? It leads to a directionless product or at times, infinite ideation loop (where ideation never stops and stays in suspension for ever). Well, technically, it’s coma!
How many of us have come across an excellent idea, executed terribly wrong? Tell me about it! It is also not uncommon to witness excellent products fail miserably. What could have led to the death of a seemingly good product or an excellent idea in the first place? Read on.
Revenue/ Funding: You can have either or both. But if you don’t have either, it is a recipe for disaster! Now that you have advanced from Idea to Product, lets start overthinking (a little). Because, it is not easy to figure a revenue model that works right for you and it is certainly no easy task to raise money when you are not successful as yet. Keep thinking and doing; and at some time, you’ll reach a sweet spot. On the contrary, if you do not have this in your mindspace, prepare for your product’s funeral!
Technology: 20 years back, I wouldn’t have written this. We are now living in a different reality! Without technology backing your product, you have very weak chances of success ahead. Good technology will help in preventing death and bad technology can be corrected at some time. But if you do not have orientation towards technology or the people who can handle it (more about this in the next point), please don’t waste any more of your time.
Team: An idea is not everything! I’d go to the extent of saying that an idea is only worth its execution… and to do this, you need a team. I’m very specific in my vocabulary here: Team instead of People. A team is a unit that works together to a common end. If you haven’t built your team yet, do so immediately or face imminent product death.
User orientation: Not everyone gets this but what constitutes a good product is its orientation to its users. A product that is insensitive to its users’ needs is sure to die at a very early stage… and in order to prevent it, start focusing on user orientation early on. To reach there, you need to have empathy and a research mindset (in your team, of course!)
So you have a great product that was born out of a great idea and you have an ecosystem of customers who are paying or investors who are investing and a team to keep your product alive. Do you think you have a sure shot recipe for success in the future? Certainly no. I have seen enough organisational deaths and I have noticed the common patterns that caused them. Here’s the list…
Culture: Your organization is not a mere functional unit, like machinery. When you have people, you better expect the unexpected… you have ideologies, conflicts, perceptions, dynamics and complications. In order that these do not come in the way of your success, you need to put in place, an organisational culture. It is culture that in the longer run will hold your people together and provides answers to a lot of tricky questions (that means you will need to focus on integrity, transparency, empathy and many facets that will define your culture). If you are not focusing on your organisational culture at this stage, your product success can end in organizational death.
Structure: Who does what? Who calls the shots? Whose head should roll in case of a problem? As you are growing from a team to an organization, it is important that you focus on its structure to avoid massive inefficiencies in the future. A growing organization that doesn’t have a structure in place is for sure, headed to organisational death.
Leadership: Rings a bell? I’m sure all of you would have heard about it. What I’m adding here is that, leadership is the most critical component in this stage more than any… so critical that the lack of it ensures organisational death. So well, pull up your socks and focus on building your leadership if you already aren’t doing it.
Now that you are running an organization or a few of them that are part of your brand, your challenges are different. Once you have figured your organisational success, you need them to serve the interest of your brand (which is nothing other than a manifestation of you in the context of your customers); and it’s no easy task. Ensuring a good organization with vibrant culture doesn’t still guarantee business sustenance in the long term. What you need at this point are those elements that provide you long term and continued life. What do you need to do, to ensure that?
Strategy: What are your strategic initiatives that provide fuel for your business? What is the environment you are operating in? How is competition? What is the business value of your initiatives? Yes, you got it: This is the beginning of over thinking… because, you are going to evaluate every option before you finally decide and move with one. No focus on strategy at this stage will ensure your brand’s death. So well, brace yourself!
Empathy: If you don’t have empathy and you have made it until here, you’re extremely lucky! and the thing with luck is, it doesn’t last. If empathy is not the character of your organization yet, it is high time that you inculcate this. At this level, running a business and being exposed to customers and market you will need to demonstrate empathy not only towards your users, but also towards each other in your organization, towards society, towards environment and social issues that need help from business leaders like you.
Innovation: Innovating a product is one thing; inculcating innovation as a DNA of your business is entirely another. It takes a great amount of effort to build and maintain teams that deliver innovations rapidly and continuously… and in the recent past, may of the global fortune companies have invested in such efforts. According to a report by DMI (Design Management Institute, Boston MA), companies that invested in innovative design outperformed the S&P 500 by 228% from 2004-2014. So well, if you do not have a culture of innovation in your organization yet, it is time to pull up your socks!
Learning mindset: Much has been said and written about this subject. Ever wondered why this is so important? Let’s start by looking at Nokia or more recently, H&M. When the only thing constant is change, the only thing you can do about it is, be that change yourself… and in order to do that, you need a mindset of constant learning in your organization. If this is something that comes naturally in the earlier stages (when you were a start up), it becomes more and more difficult as you grow as a brand. The reason: you now have many custodians or department heads so to say… and you have a fat middle management under them. Your learning of the situation around is more often than not, informed by how agile your senior and middle management are, and how willing they are to learning the change. As a Chief Executive or Director, you need to make sure you facilitate this learning and ensure that you have the ability to listen to them and grasp those learnings in a way you circle them back into your brand strategy.
Operational excellence: One of the most underrated competencies, Operations is going to be more important than ever, at this stage. As a large business, you need people, processes and infrastructure and ensure they support your sustenance (and ideally, your growth). It is impossible to survive this stage without achieving operational excellence and if you have already achieved this, it will propel you to the next level. You will ensure that your operational excellence supports your strategic initiatives adequately and continuously.
Ideating, starting, building and sustaining a profitable business is no easy task. It takes all-round focus and juggling of resources to make it happen. While our priorities change as we move along, so should our people and their competencies. At the end of the day, it is people who will drive your initiative and it is they who can pull you down… and that’s why, I can’t stress the importance of people in this world enough!