Don't Forget How

Don’t Forget "How"

Recently, I worked with a client that was implementing a new “customer partnering” initiative that provided a valuable learning experience. This firm had set ambitious goals to collaborate with some of their largest customers on new product development projects, hoping to avoid outcomes where the contribution was off the mark, timed inappropriately, or otherwise failed to yield a win for the two organizations involved.

An executive in this firm described what they had done, and the outcome, as follows:

“We did a good job of selecting which of our customers we wanted to work with, thinking about those that had priorities for new product introductions and identifying those where we had the potential to assist with meaningful contributions. I give us an A along that dimension.

And we did some good outreach to these selected organizations to learn their priorities. We give ourselves a grade of A on this as well. We didn’t just send in our sales team, but had face-to-face meetings involving our technical leaders, those that knew our product development concepts and what was possible. They met with the right people, by and large, in the customer organizations. So we came out of this process with a real solid understand of the priorities. We knew the ‘What’ dimension of our challenge quite well.

I’d give us a grade of at least a B on the ‘Who’ dimension and at least a B- on the ‘When’ dimension. In the course of the meetings we did, we got a good sense of who would be involved on the customer side, although we didn’t get high enough in most of the organizations to interact with those making final decisions and choices. And maybe our shortfalls in terms of understanding our customers’ schedules were inevitable, as I’m not sure they knew them any better than we did. Maybe a B- is as good as is possible on ‘When’.

Where we missed the mark, and don’t get a grade that we’re proud of, is on ‘How’. We failed to learn how to collaborate with our customers, and after the fact found that the right answer is rarely the same from one customer organization to the next.”

This firm’s experience is one that is all too common. In numerous instances, we’ve found that the right answer to “How” differs widely from one organization to the next.

I’ve seen instances in which collaboration requires a complete proof statement with an essentially final product example in order to motivate discussion and collaboration. Firms in this category want to see working prototypes. They love to see success stories in nearby environment and applications. They basically don’t believe it’s real until they actually see it. And when you give them sufficient “proof”, they become motivated to define a plan of collaboration to bring the concept into their own environment.

At the other extreme are firms that want to be involved from the ground floor, welcoming half-baked ideas and brainstorming sessions, largely bringing the supplier into their own conceptualization process and its evolution through stage gates to a final new product introduction. Such firms get angry at suppliers that get ahead of the game and that don’t interact and engage at every step along the way. They want to participate (and often to own) the process from cradle to grave.

In between these extremes are numerous other examples of preferred versions of “How” to collaborate in product development and other linked processes. And, in my experience, where firms are along this spectrum is not easily defined by industry, technology, the past history of the supplier-customer relationship, or other such demographics. Rather, it seems to be part of the organization’s DNA, which can vary about as unpredictably as does the DNA of each of us.

So the lesson learned is that along with doing the best possible job in learning the “What, Who, and When” of collaboration plans, don’t forget “How”. Ask your customer how they think the two firms should work together, at a quite micro level of detail. Ask them to provide a success story of collaboration, and listen closely to that success story to extract the pattern of interactions that paved the way to success. And after you think you have a handle on “How”, go back to your customer with a collaboration game plan that defines the “What, Who, and When” of the collaboration process and see if they buy in or not. Often the “What, Who, and When” associated with “How” is as important as the “What, Who, and When” that we usually work so hard to learn.

Author: George F. Brown, Jr.

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