No one eventually becomes a CEO who has not already demonstrated the ability to think and act the part. My favorite analogy here is with baseball. Has anyone ever been sent to the big leagues without first demonstrating the ability to excel at the game at a lower level? Imagine the conversation with the manager: “Look here, Jones, we think you could really learn the game if we put you at third base with the big club. And batting practice is much better up there, you’ll learn to hit in no time.”
So while no company can run effectively with more than one CEO, a company with many people thinking along the same path can achieve great things.
But what is the path? These days, business is tough. There are lots of challenges from competition, the economic environment, demanding customers, technology innovation threatening to outrun us—in other words, it’s business as usual. It would be a mistake, though, to take all this for granted and to apply yesterday’s solutions to what may appear to be perennial problems. Today’s challenges are unique to today. Here are some things to ponder.
Customers and markets are different. It’s no illusion that today’s consumers—you and I—are richer and better educated. And we have different opinions of ourselves and our needs than our predecessors. After all, they didn’t call us the “Me” generation for nothing. It’s the last point that is causing upheaval in business. We have been taught from an early age to be independent and to think of our needs as unique, often requiring unique solutions. That means we don’t respond well to mass marketing and we certainly don’t want products that seem as though they were mass produced. For a business selling to that kind of customer, the road looks like a vast collection of speed bumps.
They didn’t call us the ‘Me’ generation for nothing.
It also doesn’t help that we have reached the end of a secular trend, a moment in time when a transition state ends and a new reality begins. The trend was the high-technology boom when everything, it seemed, was becoming automated and computer chips were becoming embedded in most everyday products. The products and services we bought changed, and so did the work we do. It has been a tumultuous time, and now it’s largely over and we are left with a business landscape with two distinctive features.
First, there are few, if any, really new products, but there are a lot of improved products on the market. Often these improvements represent next generations of earlier innovations that we saw establish niches in recent decades. Truth be told, many of us are exhausted from technology innovation, and it is not going to be the same economic driver it has been. There is no laptop computer boom on the horizon, no network revolution, no brand-new Internet to disrupt our lives.
There will be plenty of iPod-like things that will change our personal lives but nothing major to reset the landscape. The next revolution will be in how we think about innovation and markets, which brings me to my second point. The customer is the economic driver, and savvy companies will do everything they can to cozy up to the customer to build new products and services and to figure out how to more effectively market to the customer.
Into that mix comes the idea of the customer experience. In my non-scientific survey of the markets it seems vendors are falling all over themselves to supply a “customer experience”—whatever that is. Too often, customer experience is taken to mean something akin to a visit to a theme park.
In reality, though, I think what we ought to be looking at is how we innovate in an era when blockbuster new products are not coming out every 15 minutes. In his latest book, Dealing With Darwin, Geoffrey Moore suggests there are at least four ways for established companies to innovate under today’s conditions—at the product level, extending product lines, through marketing and through the customer experience.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
The common denominator in all of those areas is in getting inside of the customer’s head. How else do you know what to add to a product or a product line? How else can you figure out which messages will resonate? How else can you be sure that you are engineering an experience that the customer will find valuable?
This is where thinking like a CEO comes in. Anyone senior enough in an organization can decide to spend a lot of money in a research-and-development project designed to innovate first and ask questions later. But if you put your CEO hat on, you quickly figure out that in today’s market you can easily over shoot the target by not first asking the customer, and the result? Your innovation fails to generate enough revenue to cover the research expense. Ouch!
So my advice to everyone is to think like a CEO and, if you do, you will quickly discover that you need to invest in ways to capture the voice of the customer. The raw data you collect will do a lot to ensure that, however you innovate, you will be innovating in ways that matter to the people who make the purchase decisions.