Be Careful What You Wish For…

Camera lensVery early in my career I worked for a publishing company. It was an old one with all the rigid (not to say ossified) procedures and whacky customs that organisations collect over the years. Its main market was in educational books to schools. My department was the go ahead one that was developing new books targeted at the home market but with an educational emphasis. It had been bought recently by a larger and more commercial conglomerate which brought with it new thinking. That new thinking was slowly filtering through the organisation and making the employees realise that making a profit was an important objective. As is so often the case with new thinking; people tend to adopt it a little too quickly, throwing out the good with the bad.

When I was asked to come up with new product ideas, I asked for a few more hints as to what it was they were looking for, and got the new mantra in reply “to make a profit”. Well this struck me as odd at the time, and took me a little while to work out why. The answer, it seemed to me, was that “making a profit” was a necessary objective, but that the culture of the organisation was built around delivering educational books to children in schools. Being a feisty and argumentative young man I choose to illuminate this contradiction with a challenging statement. Sadly, I’d yet to learn my place (still haven’t) and choose not to use my challenge in the canteen over lunch with my colleagues, but during lunch in the executive dining room (at the top of the building, of course) where I had been invited by my boss, my bosses boss, and my bosses, bosses, boss as a new employee.

“So”, I said, with a wry twinkle in my eye and an ironic grin, “if you want to make a profit from publishing, why are you not selling pornography?” I don’t remember being invited to the executive dining room again.

You see they’d adopted the new thinking so wholeheartedly that they’d not stopped to think what it meant. Of course, they were never going to publish pornography, but that was the logical consequence of what they were saying.

It is, literally, blindingly obvious, that it is a good idea to figure out what your objectives are before starting to develop a new product or service. It may be that achieving a particular return on the investment is a requirement, but it is unlikely to be the only objective. At the very least your product development will be constrained by the organisation you are working with and its skills and resources. Executives will often plead with new product development teams to “think out of the box”, “imagine the unimaginable”, or to “not let your ideas be constrained by what we’ve done in the past”. Sadly they often don’t mean it and that becomes painfully clear when you present ideas which meet the stated objectives but not the unspoken ones.

I’m not pleading for the vacuous vision statement approach to this; “to achieve an ROI of X within Y years, with current technology and to markets which we have access to…”. What I’m pleading for is a little realism at the beginning of the project about why the organisation is doing this. State a few really obvious things, just to get them into black and white; “we publish books”, “our books are educational”, “we enjoy what we do”, and “we have to make a profit to carry on doing what we do”. Now that you have them written down, you can (and should) challenge them. You can also challenge the apparently contradictory (but perfectly acceptable) objectives; “it should look a million dollars” compared with “it should cost half of what the current model costs to make”. These objectives can then be explored in a meaningful way with tools like the Ansoff Matrix (probably using your own parameters) or conjoint analysis to achieve a prioritisation.

Now that you, and the organisation, understand what it is you are wishing for, you will all be more likely to be delighted when you deliver it.

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