Mar 13, 2019

Following All The Way Through

By: Polly Yakovich

Strategy Sales

In 1979, the year I was born, Steve Jobs visited Xerox Parc - the innovation arm of the Xerox Corporation - where Xerox housed the best and brightest innovators, engineers, and programmers. There Jobs saw the first personal computer and mouse in action.
"An engineer named Larry Tesler conducted the demonstration. He moved the cursor across the screen with the aid of a “mouse.” Directing a conventional computer, in those days, meant typing in a command on the keyboard. Tesler just clicked on one of the icons on the screen. He opened and closed “windows,” deftly moving from one task to another. He wrote on an elegant word-processing program, and exchanged e-mails with other people at Parc on the world's first Ethernet network."    - Creation Myth by Malcom Gladwell for The New Yorker

The rest is history. Xerox attempted and failed to bring their personal computer to market in 1981.  Steve Jobs was enamored with the idea of a mouse and ... well ... no explanation is really necessary.

Thomas Steenburgh, a marketing professor at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, was inspired by his early career at Xerox to discover why innovative firms with innovative products struggle to bring them to market. He and Michael Ahearne, a professor and the C.T. Bauer Chair in Marketing at the University of Houston, recently published their study How To Sell New Products in the Harvard Business Review.

In his subsequent appearance on the HBR Ideacast podcast, Steenburgh said "When it goes to thinking about support that the sales organization is given for selling new products, there’s virtually none. When I go and speak publicly, a common question that I’ll ask is 'How long does your product development team stay on after the product is launched and available for sale in the field?'  The median answer to that question is 0 months.  They just don’t stay, they go and transition to something else."

"The interesting observation for me ... is that if we think that creating innovation is hard and we're willing to invest in trial and error, and we go through these stage gates and different trial and error processes to get the product right, then why aren't we doing the same thing once selling starts? Why do we imagine in a process where there's going to be tons of change, somehow we won't need the same trial and error to figure out how to sell the thing in the field. They think once they’ve created a great product it will self itself."    - Thomas Steenburgh

 For me this brings up so many thoughts I've had over the years about follow through, and why it's so hard for companies and people to bring their energy all the way through to completion. I've seen it so many times. The project that took substantial savings and investment scrapped after the first month in the market. The product that took years in R&D doesn't sell initially and is shelved. 

I think we fundamentally struggle with when to give up. And our culture has emphasized cutting our losses and moving on. We all learned in business school that our costs are sunk and we're better off leaving them behind. And while that's still true in many cases, I think that many projects don't get the same energy, creative thinking, or support all the way through to the end. And so projects that could be huge successes land in the garbage. 

So how do we follow things all the way through? When we're hitting the wall and tempted to scrap things, try asking these questions:

  1. Am I being honest about why this isn't working?
  2. Is this project/product getting the same energy, attention, and rigor that it did at the beginning?
  3. Have I left behind key pieces of information, or subject matter expertise? (How am I passing the baton?)
  4. Is someone else more capable than me to take it across the finish line?
  5. What does success really look like? (5 years from now when this project/product was a massive success - what did the path look like? How did we get from here to there?)
  6. What changes does that path to success require?

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