Throughout my career as an engineer, particularly when bid-managing multimillion-dollar design and construction contracts, innovation was always something clients wanted, but rarely accepted, and was somewhat feared by service providers, as both struggled to align on what innovation really meant. Clients often wanted risk free, low cost innovation - "we want innovative solutions but don't want to be bleeding edge" was often the catch-cry. At the same time highly left-brain, risk averse problem solvers found it difficult to get outside of their highly structured boxes to generated truly different ideas.
Part of the problem was a lack of understanding of what innovation meant in the client's context, and why it was being sought. Was it for cost reduction, greater efficiency, improved usability, corporate image, or something else entirely? Who would benefit from the innovation and why? What would be the impacts or consequences, and how would change be managed?
In fact, if these questions couldn't be answered then there was actually another issue - what was the actual problem, the real problem, that needed to be solved. Perhaps solving the wrong problem was one of the reasons leading edge quickly became bleeding edge...
Leading global design consultancy, IDEO, defines innovation as "the ability to generate and execute new ideas - incrementally, evolutionary or revolutionary - and it starts with creativity."
Going further, IDEO defines creativity as "the ability to look past the obvious - to transcend traditional ways of seeing the world to create something new."
So the good news is innovation can be incremental or evolutionary. Whether physical design, process design, systems design or any other problem that needs to be solved, innovative solutions can be prototyped, tested, improved incrementally, and in a low cost manner, to ensure risk is minimised rather than adopting a big bang, all-in approach.
And the even better news, particularly for left-brained thinkers who don't believe they can be "creative types", is that we can apply an iterative process that not only allows us to become more creative and innovative, but ensures we're solving the right problem and reducing the implementation risk.
That process is Design Thinking.
If you lead people, you're a problem solver.
If you are in sales, you're a problem solver.
In fact there are very few roles where an ability to solve problems is not essential.
Your ability to lead, sell and solve creatively will be your differentiator in this ever-changing world.
The word pivot, in a business sense, has been around for some years now. It was, perhaps, management consulting jargon that became one of the most popular and over-used words of the 2020 pandemic. Businesses were busy pivoting to online, virtual, takeaway, or click and collect, as normal operations were impacted by the external force that was COVID-19.
Having been involved in an apparent business pivot a few years ago, it is clear to me that the pivot, as a metaphor for change, has its limits and as we navigate our way out of the pandemic, leaders should be aware of these limitations in order to better manage and communicate change.
The needle stays on the fixed point but rotates left or right due to the force applied by your finger. (Disclaimer – this is an electrical engineer’s description!)
As a business metaphor in 2020, so far so good. COVID-19 applied a hefty external force to many businesses causing them to change direction – perhaps a little, perhaps a lot. It had to happen quickly and was largely reactive. For some it was successful, for some it was not.
Pivot Limit 1 – Pivoting is Reactive
Whilst the pandemic was unexpected, particularly in the breadth and depth of its impacts, and forced many businesses to change their operations, it can also be argued that in some cases it accelerated changes that were already taking place. For example, retail businesses with a strong online presence were able to adjust more quickly and easily to the lockdowns that prevented customers going to shops. We may not have been able to predict the pandemic, but a shift towards shopping online had been growing for many years.
Businesses that operate in a more reactive mode can quickly become left behind by their competition or become irrelevant. Waiting to see what happens next in 2021, to determine the next pivot, is clearly not an option. Now is the time to take proactive action that creates business and economic growth as we gradually and eventually find a way out of the pandemic.
Which leads us to the second limitation…
Pivot Limit 2 – Rotation is not Enough
Strictly speaking, pivoting is purely rotational, so businesses that continue to just pivot run the risk of facing backwards, or eventually arrive back at their starting point, gracefully pirouetting on the spot and into a death spiral.
Pivoting without creating forward motion is just spinning your wheels, which means we must consider moving the pivot point as well. Whether it’s COVID-19, industry disruptors, or technology changes, we must read the play, anticipate customer needs and move to that point ahead of the pack.
Businesses must be more agile, more flexible, and better at reading customer needs than ever before. If you’re not doing this already, 2021 might need to be the year you shift and pivot. It’s not enough to turn and face in a different direction, you must proactively move there as well. In the case of Twister: left foot, red circle – but damn, it’s already occupied…
And so, we find another limitation in the metaphor.
Pivot Limit 3 – “It’s just a small shift, it won’t hurt…”
Pivoting tends to be used in the context of small changes in direction and so businesses often mistakenly overlook the impacts on people.
Have you ever heard this before?
“We’re just pivoting, it’s a small shift from business as usual, we are not making wholesale changes…”
In other words, this won’t hurt a bit, there’s nothing to see here.
And the alarm bells start to ring!
Small changes can signal the start of more changes, bigger changes, and lasting changes. Even if this isn’t the intention, your team members are likely be fearing the worst. Ignoring or overlooking the human elements – the emotional elements – that are associated with any change, particularly during times of such high uncertainty, has the potential to doom your best intentions to failure.
As a leader, your role is not only to execute the shift and pivot, but to assist your team to navigate the change and willingly follow you there.
What can we conclude?
Pivoting may have been a useful, if overused, metaphor for navigating 2020 under the external force of COVID-19, but it is a reactive and unsustainable view of operating a business moving forward.
Successful businesses will read the play, understand their customers deeply, expect and anticipate change to proactively shift their position ahead of time. This requires a culture of innovation and a human centred approach to both customers and employees.
Finally, leaders must recognise that every change has impacts on people, both rational and emotional. If you are not managing the human elements of change, shifting and pivoting will at best take longer and be more painful, and at worst will sabotage your initiatives completely.
For ideas on taking a human centred approach to innovation and leading change, contact Engineering Leaders to discuss how ExperienceInnovation and ExperienceChange can help you.
I didn’t go to university to work my *!#@ off to get my degree in Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering to become a salesman! I poured scorn on sales engineer positions. Sorry, Sales Engineering wasn't offered at Monash, so how dare you even use the term. I didn’t want to be seen as someone who pushed products on others; that’s not engineering! To me there was something unsavoury about selling, and to be honest, I thought it was beneath me.
“I don’t sell, I’m an engineer!”
And now, many years later, I take calls from my professional services clients that often begin with “Can you train engineers/consultants/lawyers to sell? But please don’t call it sales training because we don’t sell here, and no one will turn up.”
Why is this? Why is there so much negativity around selling? After all, we’ve been bartering and trading goods and services since 8000BC, having decided there was more to life than hunting and gathering.
There are, I’m sure, a multitude of reasons for this. At the risk of over-simplifying however, many of us who come from technical or analytical backgrounds have never been shown how to sell. We haven’t been exposed to the art and science of sales (yes, it’s both…). We don’t care to learn about it because we don’t like it or, perhaps more accurately, we don’t like the idea of it. And that’s often because of the beliefs we have formed; the truths we have assumed.
Beliefs are formed in many ways but perhaps our dislike of selling stems back to the “snake oil salesmen” of the 1800s in America’s West. They introduced the high pressure, hard selling techniques, often associated with dubious products, to line their pockets. Now, we all have stories to tell of how we’ve been pressured to buy things we don’t need, or we’ve paid too much for and ended up with a lemon.
No one likes the feeling of being sold to. At best it’s completely transactional, and at worst it’s manipulation, screaming self-interest and leaving customers feeling used.
If you want to grow your business, if you want to retain your clients and have a sustainable business, the answer is simple. Stop selling.
Instead, genuinely and authentically care about helping your clients’ businesses to succeed. Seek to understand what they do, how they do it, why they do it. Analyse the information, diagnose potential areas for improvement, growth, savings, innovation etc and share your insights. Then help them to think outside the box and collaborate to develop solutions that work for them, rather than pushing a preconceived idea that works for you.
Now you’re not a salesperson, you’re a problem solver.
Oh, hang on, isn’t that what engineers/consultants/lawyers and other analytical professionals love to do?
And the even better news is that we already have the skills to do this – we just need to apply them in a different context, commercially, with a greater level of understanding of people rather than things.
If you want to win more business, stop selling. Start solving.