I ran across this article this morning on the Harvard Business Publishing website (if you are not already a member, you should be, they have loads of hugely valuable articles and information on the site) and thought that it really hit the nail on the head. This is some extremely sage advice from someone with 25+ years as a high level executive. I think you’re going to find some truly valuable ideas in this wonderful interview…
Anthony Tjan Upstarts and Titans
Harvard Business Publishing
Lessons Learned from 30 Years of Leadership
8:20 AM Tuesday August 11, 2009
Recently, I had dinner with Dick Harrington, former CEO of Thomson Reuters and now my partner at Cue Ball, a Boston-based venture firm. We talked about his three most significant lessons learned over his very successful 25+ year career as a Fortune 250 executive.
Tony Tjan (TT): Dick- attempt the impossible and give us the top three business lessons learned over three decades!
Dick Harrington (DH): First, you have to have an “approximately correct” strategy — you have to know where you are going, but directionally correct is the key. Two, you have to be highly focused and intensely execute that strategy by motivating and aligning the troops you have. And three, it always comes back to the customers and the fact that you have to manically know your customers and drive everything from that.
TT: Nicely done. So let’s start with the first point. People often worry about architecting a perfect business plan or strategy and then get lost in the minutia. How do you know when you are “approximately correct,” as you say?
DH: You want to be approximately correct instead of precisely incorrect. There is a point at which additional information or research will not change the basics of your strategy. When you get your strategy there, you have to “Nike it” – you just do it. If you continue to refine and refine, you’ll never get into action, and the incremental value of research just won’t be worth the time and money. Schedule time frames and be religious about them to launch, get feedback, and see if the strategy is acceptable to the customer or if you need to adjust.
TT: Your second point is about execution focus. What’s the best way to rally people and spread that intensity?
DH: First, you have to communicate what you are trying to accomplish. And you need to know the team members who are going to make it happen and those who are going to keep it from happening. It’s important to have time with them so they have an opportunity to discuss and debate what’s critical.
At the same time, you have to draw the line at some point and say “Okay, we have everyone’s input. These are the five most important things we need to accomplish and they are the only things we are going to work on.” You want everyone – probably 4-5 key people, maybe 10-15 at larger organizations — in the same boat so you can accomplish those things on a timely basis.
TT: Can you use operating metrics or dashboards to help imbue people with a sense of ownership?
DH: Absolutely. When you think about executing a strategy, you need operating metrics to see how you are doing. But keep them simple, so folks can easily see if they are being successful and adjust along the way as needed. This is the key, the dashboards or metrics a company uses should be simple and frequent enough so that all key members on the team can use them to keep score and see how their actions translate into performance (or not). Most companies don’t internally communicate their metrics frequent enough, or if they do they are often measuring too many things or, even worse, the wrong things.
TT: The third big lesson from you is your “golden rule,” which is that ultimately it just comes back to the customer. But how can people possibly forget this?
DH: It’s an ego thing. The biggest reason people don’t do this, and we’ve seen it a lot, is that they think working in an industry a long time means they know everything about the customers’ needs.
What I’ve been able to do over the years is make sure we have appropriate customer intimacy and research – not a billion dollars worth, but enough — to prove to others that they don’t know their customers as well as they think they do or as well as they ought to.
TT: What is a simple first step someone can take for big impact customer research, particularly for the budget constrained firms that may be reading this?
DH: Find your smartest 10 customers and talk to them; those are the ones who can actually give you valuable information. It’s about spending time with them and going over 10-15 questions to learn about how they use the product and what you can do to make their lives easier. From those questions you’ll probably get another 15-20. That’s a great start and you can use that information to consider other more structured methodologies for more specific feedback.
When I was tasked early in my career with running an auto repair manual business that had the leading market share, I first wanted to go talk to customers. I found out right away that customers didn’t even like our product–they just hated our competitors’ more! After some rounds of feedback, we were able to start producing what people wanted, not just what would suffice, and things took off from there.
I should also add that these days a lot of your customer feedback and research might already be out there – there are at least three of our portfolio businesses where we can just go to Twitter or Yelp to see what customers think. The web is an amazing customer research forum and more people should use it not just to search all the good things people are saying but more important to identify early possible areas of customer frustration and product improvement opportunities.
Here is a direct link to the article: http://blogs.harvardbusiness.org/tjan/2009/08/lessons-learned-from-30-years.html
Also, if you have not had the opportunity to look at it yet, CNBC has chosen my new book “Awesomely Simple” to be reviewed on the Bullish on Books section of their website. Here is a link to see that review: http://www.cnbc.com/id/32125433
Hope you found the Harvard article helpful and enjoyed reading the CNBC spotlight — and please be sure to pass a link to this blog on to anyone you feel might find value in this article.
Thanks so much – I look forward to your comments and feedback – take good care — John Spence