The challenges that face companies today are so different than those when I was in college and preparing to start my career 15 years ago. I went to engineering school where the curriculum focused on understanding the science, coming up with a new idea, testing it in a lab, and proving to others–at least to your thesis committee–that it was viable and why. After coursework and departmental lectures I would spend hours, often into the wee hours of the morning, working in the lab. The majority of my research, and that of my fellow grad students, was solitary. In fact, to this day I am unclear what my officemate’s thesis premise was.
With respect for people who prefer to work quietly in a cave (or lab), a solitary approach will not work to solve the majority of business problems we will face this millenium:
I. The Internet of Things
With innovative products coming to market such as wearable athletic tracking devices, self-driving cars, and computing eyeglasses, companies now need to recruit and train staff to design and support products for which people didn’t specialize in college or do at a past employer. The complexity of these devices and the expectation by consumers that the products will seamlessly integrate with other devices they already own (smartphones, computers, tablets), means that we need to foster a corporate environment where specialists know individuals in other departments with whom they can cross-functionally collaborate to solve problems.
For established companies, you now need to strategize how you will handle the following differently:
- Recruit talent based on hard skills as well as an ability to demonstrate humility, foster trusted relationships, and solve problems as members of a team.
- Incent specialists to network and collaborate with people from other departments.
- Create a culture of collaboration and communication. The more individuals know about other areas and their expertise, the better able they will be to leverage the needed skill sets to anticipate and resolve complex problems.
II. Brand Management
In the past a company controlled the brand message and consumers chose whether to buy a product, or not. Brand managers planned product launches and controlled the venue, the guest list, and the media invitations. Now, consumers are their own media magnates. With immediate access to blogs, Pinterest, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, consumers are shaping their followers’ perceptions of a brand.
In 2014 it is not only critical to get new product launches right, but also to be ready to handle the messages created by people external to you:
- Monitor social media for all product-related mentions. Have brand managers note the trends, including which are consistent with the company message and which are not.
- Establish relationships with key bloggers, trendsetters, and consumers identified as thought leaders in your target demographic. Invite them to private previews of your new products to get direct feedback before you go live. These uber-consumers may identify a gotcha that you did not anticipate so you can correct it before launch.
- Develop a contingency plan. Things will not always go the way you intend them to. Create a plan to handle anything that could potentially go wrong. Invite representatives from all your impacted cross-functional business areas to participate in the planning. For each item that could go wrong, identify who will be responsible, what they will do, who will communicate when it needs to go into effect, and how everyone will be kept apprised as the contingency plan is worked.
The good news is that this new world means that we have the opportunity to develop products that we thought were impossible. As we come out of our solitary working environments and begin to leverage each others’ expertise, there is no problem we won’t be able to solve!