Having worked for a 15 person company, a 65,000 person company and now a 140 person (soon to be 600 person) company, I have built my expertise and career around understanding the organization for whom I am working, the organizations with whom I seek to partner and using that collective knowledge to act as a catalyst for innovation and value creation. While I did this kind of work for over 13 years at American Express, partnering with global corporations and NY-based startups, building new products, testing early-stage concepts and creating new distribution channels, my most recent chapter started over a year ago here at Control Group.
Control Group partners with our clients to help them envision how they can innovate in the marketplace and then we design and develop the solutions for them. Our end goal is to make the world in which we live better by creating experiences that are enabled by well-designed, human-centered technology. Our work includes retail, the workplace, cultural institutions, public transit, and now the streets in your city.
Having worked with companies of all sizes, I see the common stigma of people questioning the practices of big companies and their actions in the marketplace. They speak of missed product opportunities, experiences that don’t focus on the user in an impactful, thoughtful way, poor marketing communications, bad service interactions and timeframes that seem outrageously long. The list is infinite.
I focus my energy and attention on understanding why a company is making certain choices, or at least giving the market the impression that they have made that choice. There usually is a reason, whether it be spoken, inferred or inherent in the structure, policies, politics, leadership, decision making process, capital position and/or investment priorities.
I seek to understand the people, motivations, politics and “unspokens” and then use that understanding to enable market-leading innovation. I learn the language, understand organizational goals and appetite, develop relationships, build trust and use all of that to identify areas of opportunity and value creation. I then act as a coach, interpreter, translator and catalyst to make it real. My end goal is to build bridges between and amongst people doing work that makes the places we live, work, travel, play and learn infinitely better.
In the remainder of this post, I want to share what I’ve learned thus far in the hopes that it adds dimension to your perspective and gives you new strategies and tools to accomplish impactful work in the world. These learnings reflect what motivates me — envisioning, building and delivering products and experiences that are great, not just “good enough”. My perspective is most informed by how to enable innovation with and for big companies, but I hope you can find a nugget in all of this that applies to any of the work you are doing.
What I’ve Learned:
- Understand Their Culture – Effectively engaging with a client requires learning their business and culture. It’s not unlike traveling to a foreign country where you need to educate yourself and learn to speak the language. What are their priorities and goals? If they are publicly held, what are they messaging to the street through their earnings reports? What kind of regulation are they subject to? What major policy decisions are under debate that impact their business? What language do they use? Are there acronyms that everyone uses? (RGU was one on my last project — it stands for Revenue Generating Unit). Are there Operating Principles that all work ladders up to? Speak in their language so that they can understand you.
- Observe The Organizational Structure – Investing the time to understand the players, their respective priorities and areas of responsibility is critical. Take in all of the signals available to you, from business cards to the way people introduce themselves in meetings, to body language to organizational charts if they are willing to share. Observe how individuals in the company work together (or don’t). The reality is that as companies get larger, more territory lines are drawn, more jockeying happens and more attention is placed on how to effectively carve out one’s world. While it can seem ridiculous, it’s a reality. And it’s not limited to Fortune 100 companies. This kind of understanding takes months and years to accomplish, not just days and weeks. And it needs to be continuously honed.
- Consider These Factors Before Pursuing – Finding the right audience for the kind of work we do is worth the hunt and the wait. Having that sponsor set of stakeholders who have demonstrated the will, political and relationship capital, fortitude and budget is critical for a successful engagement. Establishing a trusting, transparent and consistent rapport with this individual or team of individuals is one of the most important roles for the collective team. If the audience isn’t the right fit or doesn’t have the appetite and fortitude to see it through, carefully assess if your firm should pursue the project.
- Never Stop Nurturing – Regardless of if you have a paying engagement with the client or not, never stop building and nurturing the relationships and establishing new relationships. They will return value to your firm over time and they make the work that much more satisfying thanks to deeper connections and understanding.
- Instill The Big Picture – Trying to sell process almost always fails. While we know that we have really effective methods that have driven our success over the last 14 years (UX design visioning, agile product development, project governance to name a few), the client wants to buy the outcomes of these processes. Help them see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow from early on. While the end product or experience may not yet be known, keeping the team and dialog focused on that higher purpose and North Star is critical to instilling confidence and commitment.
- Show You’re Delivering – Demonstrating progress helps to establish credibility and leads to permission. Smartly package and merchandize the value you are delivering throughout the project. The earlier in the project you can do this, the better. I saw this play out really positively on a recent project we did for Comcast. During the first sprint, our Design team established the principles that would guide the remaining 13 sprints to ensure that we delivered on the client vision for the user experience. The principles and themes really resonated with our stakeholders and were the foundation of every sprint review. As a result of them, we were able to make a compelling case by sprint 3 to gain access to data sources that would make the Customer Timeline App exponentially more valuable to the associates working in the store, and in turn provide a much more informed and user-centered customer experience. The progress we’d demonstrated from the outset was a key driver of getting this permission to do something different than had originally been planned.
- Be Transparent, But Don’t Overshare – Revealing too many of the inner-workings of your process during the project can lead to unnecessary instability with the client. I think this is a common and understandable challenge in the software development world. Good software development involves attacking risk early and clearly communicating what those risks, blockers and dependencies are. Telegraphing those things to the client, especially with the language used in software development (risk, blocker, escalate) puts the client on high alert and does not instill confidence. The message can (and should) be relayed, but it is important to be smart about where you position that in the conversation and the language you use.
- Utilize Different Degrees of Face Time – Relatedly, identifying which forms of “client facing time” are best suited for which purpose is an important filter to apply to any message. One of the things I’ve seen is people assuming that all “client facing time” is created equally, or not taking the time to consider the forum. Just because you are on a call or in a big meeting with them, don’t assume it’s the right place for a message. Sidebar conversations are a powerful tool to incorporate into the mix. If you’ve effectively invested the time in building trusting and transparent relationships with your key stakeholders (see #2), you will have access to them for these smaller group conversations and they will appreciate your preparing them for a message and/or seeking their counsel on it. Clients don’t want to be surprised, especially in a forum where the information is exposed in front of a larger group than desired.
- Enter No Meeting Unprepared – Planning and preparing for client meetings, whether they be routine weekly meetings or one-off sidebar conversations, always pays off. Yes, I know, one more thing to do! Can’t I just wing it and ping them later if I forgot something? Well, you could. But, I’ve found that I am able to help Control Group successfully build great products for our clients through planning. Taking the time to identify the items we need to address with the client, prioritizing them and strategizing about how I will frame them with the client has been incredibly valuable. Done right, this leads to deeper trust, greater transparency and most importantly, GREAT products and experiences in the world, which fulfills our team.
- Be Considerate – Bringing a generous spirit to all that you do (and certainly 1-9) leads to better outcomes. Yes, I’m a very positive, optimistic person and what I’m suggesting here needs to feel authentic to you as a person. That said, always try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and imagine what they are facing and how that impacts what you are trying to achieve. I was reminded of this recently when I walked past a watering hole near our offices and read the message they’d put on their chalkboard out front:
When working with clients and other organizations, it’s important to always remember that they are fighting battles we know nothing about. Remembering this when it seems like they are taking an unnecessary amount of time to get back to you or not responding to your email or not able to commit to a product feature that seems so obvious and valuable can help you keep perspective and remove the noise and unproductive energy from the process.
If you’ve made it to the end of this piece, have you decided that you never want to work with a big company ever again? Before you leave thinking that, let me close with why I think it’s worth it. Big companies were once small companies. They had something that the market responded to and they successfully grew that into something bigger. Growing an idea from a small company to a large corporation is a major feat. By working with a big company, you increase your ability to build a product or experience that can have a major impact in the world in which you live. These big corporations have plenty of complexity but they have also built up large customer bases, marketing channels and capital to invest in attracting new customers. If I’m going to pour myself into creating market-leading, innovative products and experiences, I want as many people as possible to start using them.