The Meyer Group - Blog
Friday, 10 November 2017 02:36

How to Grow and Not to Be Ahead of Your Time

Making the Unknown Safe for Your
Customers and for You

By Peter Meyer, September 12, 2017

How often have you looked at a great business idea that failed and said: "They were ahead of their time." Or worse: "We were ahead of our time."

Was it luck or something that you can manage? Are you subject to the vagaries of the times or can you act to make your changes succeed? This article is about doing the latter. Instead of "We were ahead of our time" lets try a different quote, from Willam Gibson:

"The future is already here. It's just not widely distributed yet."

What does that mean? That you may already have the future in your current business plan. If so, the challenge is to find the right way to distribute it.

The good news? You understand the future view.

The bad news? Your customers and team members see it as the unknown.

The worse news? The more pressure that we, our customers, and team members feel, the more likely we are to avoid the unknown. It just seems too dangerous and time consuming. And what is increasing these days for both us and our customers? Pressure.

Is it any wonder that your customers and your own team tend to avoid the unknown? And doesn't that slow their growth. And your growth?

You know my axiom:

"Change is good when you do it to yourself. Change is bad when someone does it to you."

It does not have to be bad news. Consider this example of letting customers distribute their own future and then feel ownership for it.

Bringing the Unknown Into the
Business Via Information Technology

If you want to grow successfully, you will eventually need to lead your customers into the unknown. You know that the landscape is littered with failed attempts to make change safe. Lets take one of the hardest examples in almost any enterprise. Which team often has the best sense of the future? The Information Technology (IT) team. Which team is most often stiff armed when it suggests the future? The same IT team. Whether it is right or wrong, it's clear that much of what a good IT team would distribute never gets to the team's customers.

For many general business executives IT is near the top of the list of unknowns to avoid. But who is the customer for most IT departments? These same general business leaders and their teams. Let's get even more difficult: Where might be the hardest place for IT to gain traction? Health care or academia, where the professional practitioners are highly independent of the administration.

So let's take this hardest case and use an example that works: Sutter Health, a large health care chain headquartered in Northern California.

"More than half my job is exposing the unknown and making it known." To do that, "We are making the unknown safe" comments Sutter's fairly new Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is Wes Wright.

His team is thinking about more than ease of access to the new. They are also focused on helping the user feel rewarded by self-enablement. "The idea is to make it easier for our clinical and business partners to behave just like they are downloading Netflix on their iPad. . . When you load an application on your iPad there is a personal reward for it, it gratifies you in some shape of form. At work, that personal reward has to be clear, and has to be implemented at least a bit by the user. In IT we can't make the connection to your personal reward. Making that connection possible is about enabling people to take up self-service at work."

This is not just about ease, it is about the user feeling rewarded by self-enablement.

How Sutter Builds Customer
Engagement With the Unknown

To build this, Wes' technology team follows a process where they go into the clinic and listen. And only then do they develop and offer enablement/empowerment tools. The practice is that the tools are designed from the lessons of working next to the clinical staff. The IT team then offers the advantages, and visibly make clear that they have listened and understand. "We do it *with* the clinicians, not *to* them."

Finally, the team is taking the potential rewards to the clinicians and allowing them to enable these by themselves. Wes uses the example of Netflix, but this is also similar to how the care team would develop and implement a new treatment plan.

"Historically health IT has sat back and said we need the requirements from the business. That's not the new health IT. The new health IT will be at the clinical and business partners' shoulder and since we know their work, figure out better and more rewarding ways."

"We don't sit here and wait for requirements anymore. Instead, we should be in the clinic with our clinical partners and know what their real requirements are." With that, the team develops and delivers. "Our goal is to make technology transparent to our clinical and business partners."

Another way of framing the way the IT team wants to work with the business and the doctors is to increase the clinicians' ability to treat IT like they treat medical technology. Or home technology. The principle is to look for ways to let them guide their own deployment of key information technologies.

Sutter's team makes the unknown safe by starting with their customer's work. If having to choose between technically elegant answers and ones with which the clinician can personally connect, the team only suggests change for the user when it can feel personally rewarding. It may mean giving up elegance for acceptance, this is a pretty reasonable trade.

Then instead of implementing the change to the user, the team makes it easy for each professional to self-enable. This step is key. It is how the users can make the unknown safe.

What Does That Mean For
Leading Growth?

Back to Peter's rule of change: Change is good when you do it to yourself. Change is bad when someone does it to you. If you want to make the unknown safe, don't do it to your customers. Let them do it to themselves.

This requires a form of surgery for the team that thinks they know the answers: An arrogance-ectomy. No matter how well you think that you know your customers (even if you really do) it pays to approach them in a way that your team listens and learns. Once you have done that you have earned the right to make suggestions. No matter how well immersed you are in your craft, you don't have that right until you are caught listening.

What the Sutter technical team does works. They sit with their business users and observe instead of teach. With the results the team doesn't implement solutions. The strategy is to make it easy for the customer enable them. Like the Netflix example, if the customer intuitively feels a reward might come, she will be more likely to step into the unknown on her own. Then the change is good.

If Sutter Health's IT team can make the unknown safe, why not your product or sales team? Why not apply this to your next great idea? What have you got to lose besides a few cycles of failure?

Managing uncertainty has become more and more a part of any business. This article is about growing and that always deals with uncertainty, but these days just treading water feels uncertain.

So is there a good course to manage the ever changing paths? Yes. Can we learn something from the story of the planet Vulcan? And yes, I am serious.

This is not a discussion about facts. It's about understanding how to help people manage uncertainty. You may not have been thinking much about the planet Vulcan, but it has a history that can help us.

Finding the Planet Vulcan

You may think of Vulcan as the planet where Dr. Spock (from Star Trek) was born. Vulcan actually predates Star Trek. And it really applies to managing growth.

Let's start with Sir Isaac Newton, who developed what we think of as the law of gravity. After his death in 1727 astronomers spent over a century applying the gravitational attraction model to planets. Most results fit Newton's model but there was always one problem: The planet Mercury. There is a blip in Mercury's orbit for which Newton's math doesn't allow.

But the theory does work if you have a small planet between Mercury and the sun. That fits Newton's law, but as good scientists the astronomers wanted to lay eyes on the planet. It wasn't easy with the then current telescopes, but enough scientists found the planet that it was taken as fact in 1859. The argument was settled for most when prominent astronomers such as Le Verrier and James Watson declared that Vulcan had been seen. It was real.

Losing the Planet Vulcan

Somewhat later Albert Einstein started developing a general theory of relativity. It was a lot of work, the calculations took perhaps eight years to conduct. Then he wanted to test them. Looking for some examples, he chose Mercury's orbit. The math worked, and explained the blip in the path.

Now that was a problem. Vulcan's existence and Einstein's relativity model could not both be true. Most scientists accepted relativity. With that acceptance no-one could find Vulcan in telescopes. The planet ceased to exist as quickly as it had been found.

Managing Disappearing Planets in
Your Business

In your business career, have you ever seen something that was considered an absolute certainty that was then rocked by a new theory that challenged it? If you have a smart phone near you, you've an example of certainty being challenged. Open the hood of your car, the same is true in engine design. Or maybe you won't even have a car in the near future, and isn't that the end of a certainty?

Does that mean that we should all start denying facts? Or that science is bad? Or that our business assumptions and norms don't matter? No, but it means that we have to assume that rock solid facts actually aren't.

The obvious question is: If we can't rely on what we may not know about technologies, customers, regulators, and the economy, well on what do we rely? I'm going to suggest a different question: "Is good management about what we know, or what we don't yet know?" I am going to say that good management is about what we don't yet know.

To succeed in growing a business, we have to assume that the planet we see may not really be there. Market disruption is all about removing things that have become obsolete. Land lines at home, distributor caps in your car, a volume knob on a television set were all certainties for what seemed a long time. You might have built business assumptions on those, and now have a failed business.

On what can you rely? Not on a planet or a distributor cap. You can't rely on any object or product. But you can rely on your own capability to grow and expand. Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford calls it "mindset" and has written an excellent book by that name. Look at it this way:
- You can learn.
- You can encourage the people on whom you
rely to learn.
- And you can encourage them to ask questions
and listen.
Those are the key to managing disappearing planets.

Finding the Next Planets

You always have the option to develop technologies. You always have the option to ask what the next serious problem will be. Go with the problem. The problem as the customer sees it will define the solution that stays, just as wider problems made Einstein's theory the right solution.

Solving a problem can open up new problems. Planets appear, then disappear. What is important? Your ability to ask the right questions to get to the next problem. Problems are good for growth. What we have seen over and over is that if you manage your team to find the right problem, and do it again and again, then the planets will align and your business will grow.