At my strategic management firm, we specialize in leading workshops and client engagements that help companies “see, feel and think” with fresh eyes—so they can step out of their current mindset and see new opportunities.
Recently, we presented the workshop “Who will be your customer in 3 years? Maybe they are all around you?” to a group of mid-market CEOs who are members of a Vistage International group led by Ozzie Gontag. A terrific, inspiring coach (and marathon runner), Ozzie reminded me and his members that growing a business means engaging in a daily battle between leading and lagging indicators.
As Ozzie said in his opening remarks, "Every day you have to challenge your assumptions about what makes your business successful today and what will make it sustainable into the future. These are two different questions."
How true! Unfortunately, CEOs of growing companies all too often focus on the past and the present and forget about the future. As Blue Ocean Strategists®, our job in these workshops is to open up their minds to see what is often right in front of them.
The essence of Blue Ocean Strategy: finding and then filling unmet needs
Ozzie's Vistage members were quite amazing. They immediately opened up to the Blue Ocean process and embraced the idea of possibilities. And the stories they shared with us were spectacular...personal, moving and very honest about the business problems they were facing. It was such a joy to think through their issues with them and together, come up with some big ideas for getting their companies growing again.
I share three of those stories here. Perhaps they will trigger some ideas of your own that can help you grow your business…not by doing more, cheaper, but by re-thinking your role in the lives of your customers, Blue Ocean-style.
A Medical Device Company
The leader of a medical device firm told us that he was challenged—not by his normal clients, healthcare systems—but by a request from someone in Mexico who needed to get medical device parts to his hospital clients faster. The current process was taking too long because the parts had to go through customs and then get sent by air. Patients who were beholden to machines to help diagnose or treat their condition were desperately waiting for parts to arrive from the U.S. to get the non-working devices operational again. As we took this CEO through our process of discovery, he began to think beyond the current challenges he was facing with his typical healthcare clients (outdated medical systems software needing a complete overhaul).
While that seemed like a big problem to focus on, the emotional request from Mexico really got him thinking about unmet needs. The person making the inquiry wanted to find a way to inventory parts at a delivery center to be built in Mexico. That way, the parts would be available in-country immediately, not having to be sent from America. It sounded like a good idea but maybe a bit risky. What were some alternatives? We all put out heads together and came up with the following solutions:
- Create vending machines at Mexican hospitals where parts would be available on demand, like a soda machine
- Create a 3D printing center where parts could be made when needed
- Use a drone to deliver parts, similar to blood delivery in Africa
- Add sensors to the medical devices so parts could be monitored more closely and could be replaced before they broke
Each idea, of course, required further exploration to see which ones could be executed right now and which needed more research. We urged the CEO to have a testing mindset and not worry about failing. We reminded him that his clients didn’t simply need a revved-up version of the same process (a faster path through customs) but an entirely new and better way to solve the problem. If this new solution worked, he could roll it out globally wherever the same issues were occurring. Looking with fresh eyes to find possibilities led to solutions to unmet needs in innovative ways. This CEO was amazed at what big ideas were right there in front of him, waiting to be discovered.
A Marketing and Advertising Agency
We had a very exciting discussion with a CEO of a traditional but yet innovative marketing and advertising agency. He was troubled by a recurring pattern that was emerging with a number of his former clients. Time and again, they were taking their marketing jobs in-house, bringing in staff rather than hiring the CEO’s agency. To make matters worse, the former clients would then call the CEO and tell him how they could help his marketing team do their jobs better.
The challenges facing this CEO are not unique. Far too many CMOs have very short life spans these days. In fact, a March 2017 Wall Street Journal article states that “the average tenure for chief marketing officers working for the county’s biggest brands has fallen for the second year in a row,” from 44 months to 42 months.
Could this CEO come up with better solutions other than the traditional path of having firms hire him for their marketing services?
As we guided him through our exploration exercises and helped him rethink the problem, possible solutions started bubbling up—new ways of working that could be offered to a wide array of companies to support their marketing teams, not replace them.
Some of the ideas that emerged:
- What if the CEO’s marketing people teamed up with the former client’s in-house team and become their collaborators, not their competitors?
- What if his agency set up a think tank, both in person and online, to add creative value to his marketing team on an on-demand basis?
- What if they became a Google for marketers—a trusted advisor that could find answers and test models for building businesses, while not replacing in-house marketing teams?
The ideas kept coming as we dug deeper with him into the “real problem,” which turned out to be not replacing one set of marketing people with another set, but working with them. If they thought of themselves as collaborators, not competitors or substitutes, what great things might happen? And if his agency designed it right, who else could use this model innovatively? That CEO went home with his mind swirling with big possibilities that could, indeed, open new market space.
A Company That Restores Property
The CEO of a successful property restoration company told a very touching story during the workshop. He had come to the realization that he really had two clients: one was insurance companies that were his major referral source; the other was the end user, the home or property owner, who needed to restore their damaged home or facility.
While he thought he knew what each one needed, he really didn’t understand the pain felt by someone who had a fire or flood…until he lost his own home in a fire.
What emerged from his personal tragedy was the realization that his business was far less functional that he had thought. His own experience made him understand that his heart had been broken. While he and his family were safe, his broken heart needed help in ways he hadn't expected .
The conversation then turned into a discussion about how to mend his customers’ broken hearts. His company needed to better understand its role in his clients’ lives. For this CEO, he now knew what it felt like to use his own services. He thus had to rethink and redesign the process so he could help others get over the emotional devastation, at the same time that he was rebuilding their homes.
The way forward for this CEO was not immediately clear but one thing was certain: he would no longer be competing just like another property restoration company.
Are you facing a stall point? Maybe it’s a great opportunity.
Are you being hammered by challenges while trying to grow your business in these fast-changing times?
You might want to pause, step back and think about the real problems you need to solve. Each time you get asked if your company “does" something, don’t say “no we don’t.” Think about “how you can.” As John Seely Brown said, “The way forward is all around you.” Whether you can see it is really up to you.