Idea sharing but not caring


Who owns an idea on the Internet? Apparently, it’s difficult to say since ownership of one, which to many people is something ephemeral, seems to depend on who capitalizes on its advance the most and converts it into revenue. If you write something down on Facebook that you feel is original, or even if you take a picture and post it on Instagram, and then someone shares it and eventually that idea goes viral and then becomes the topic of someone’s story or movie, should you share in whatever compensation results? Many people think no because while you had the idea, you stopped after the act of posting.

An article in the New York Times this week called, the Internet is where we share and steal the best ideas, doesn’t really clear up the debate but it’s still worth reading. It contains many of the fundamental elements of the kind of story that our societies seem drawn to these days. Innocence, theft, greed, personal affront. There’s no redemption, or at least nothing more than a whisper of it at the very end, but there is a kind of hope in the simple act the writer made of calling out the subject.

That subject of borrowing, stealing, copying ideas is worth considering in the business world where, it seems, most messaging are a rehash of other messages, either a company’s own or someone else’s. It’s difficult to be a marketer today with the widely available channels of communication and the endless deluge of messages our audiences receive each day from hundreds and thousands of people and companies. What target audience can absorb all that? It’s why in the Marketing world there is such intense conversation around the need for story-telling, to stand apart by being original. We’re focused on that because we’re worried that only original-seeming content has the chance to cut through the chaos and the noise of the Internet and stick in the eye (and hopefully the memory) of our target audiences.

We’re right to worry about it. Over 200 million people now use ad blockers, which tells you that they only want to see something they’re interested in. How to get around it as a marketer is to learn how to tell a story. It’s a struggle though because there is a fear that all the stories have already been told. There’s an old canard that all the world’s melodies have already been written and while most of us nod solemnly when someone states that as fact, other people dispute that claim. This guy even applied math to address the question and worked out that the world has 2.6 trillion years worth of melodies (humans have only been around for 200,000 of those years so there’s plenty of music ahead).

Taking other people’s ideas, co-opting them, spinning them, tossing them around to see which ones land and stick… we all do it but it doesn’t work over time. It actually works against us and if you’ve ever been in front of an audience and you present ideas that you know everyone has heard before, you feel diminished and (too harsh?) fraudulent. So let’s try to be original even if those ideas take flight and someone else profits. People tire of hearing the same thing over and over and so even if just a few people are positively affected by something original that we’ve said or written, that’s just fine because it means it is memorable. We’ll be remembered.

The importance of reading everything

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My parents had a rule for us when we were young. Well, they had many rules but this one applied only in the summer during our school break, regardless of the weather. They required us to read for one hour after our lunch. It seemed strange to us then, embarrassing, in fact, since none of our friends suffered under such an imposition and we were the targets of mild ridicule.

It challenged us at the time but I warmed to the activity after the first couple of years. After I plowed through the entire World Book encyclopedia set I turned my attention to something a bit more esoteric. I read the Warren Report.  At the age of eleven (fact). It took quite a few days during which I blew past the obligatory hour of reading, which alarmed my mother. But her alarm turned to interest (and then maybe, later, back to alarm) when I shared with her all that I learned about bullet trajectory, Cuba, and some chubby guy named Jack Ruby.

I thought of this today when I saw a link on Twitter to yet another article that discussed the problems associated with too much information. I know life is hectic. I know the Internet age has ratcheted up the volume of written material. I also know we shouldn’t complain too much about that. We’re fortunate. Suffering from plenty is better than enduring the longing of scarcity.

In praise of contemplation

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While synapses are not commonly associated with computing or with business, metaphorically they may hold the key to understanding how to unlock real business innovation.

Medical science has known of their existence for decades, going well back into the 1800s, and even then referred to them by the name we use today. It wasn’t until Charles Scott Sherrington conducted the research that eventually delivered to him the 1932 Nobel Prize for Physiology that the world came to understand that the electrical impulses occurring when brain synapses (the contact points of neurons) connect with each other is what activates the human body at the cellular level. If you’ve read any scientific literature on the subject you will have learned about the diffusion, the binding, the messaging, the triggering, and the reactions that take place at that moment of connection, moments that form the basis of all the activity we undertake through our lives. The connections are, literally, sparks of life.

Innovation, as a word, is a bit more problematic. It’s grown to become a business cliché and a catch-all for all kinds of activity that in less-breathy times we would have called work. Like a lot of other words that slide easily off the tongue without conscious thought, it’s become enveloped in fog and has lost its edges, its meaning. So let’s start then with a definition.

Innovation is the process of making changes in something established, by introducing new methods, ideas, or products. Take a moment to think of how you may have used the word innovation when you’ve described some aspect of your own work, the processes that you execute, the stuff you produce to collect your salary. Was the activity you called “innovation” really that? Did it improve upon something or was it just a really good execution of something that already existed and that produced a great outcome? If it was the latter, that’s good but it’s not innovation (even if you did it with more enthusiasm than your predecessor). It would be innovative if you created a new way of executing tasks that produced a measureable improvement to the outcome’s speed of delivery, quality (reliability), or utility for the end user.

Having stripped the word innovation back to its essence we can now visualize it in the business world as meaning a process whereby companies create something new and that the market values or, even abstractedly and perhaps without direct attribution, benefits from. The pressure to do this well is increasing each week. Static companies are failing but companies that focus on creating something new that the market needs ward off threats of commoditization (as described in this HBR article about artificial intelligence) and survive for another day.

How to create something new? Obviously you must start with knowing what you do and what you’re good at. Then you examine whether that thing you do has upward resonance in the market. Meaning, sure it had appeal at some point but will it still have appeal going forward? You look at what the market needs and will need. Can you deliver? If not, what will it take to deliver it? Start innovating. Start utilizing all your neurons.

Neurons = your people

Recall that neurons are nerve cells and for our business analogy are represented by a company’s people. The synapse is a contact point on a neuron and it’s that point where an electrical impulse is generated and transmitted to another neuron.

Two of your people communicating about solving the same challenge = a synapse

Your people possess both considerable knowledge of discrete aspects of your processes and an informed, higher view of their purpose and the expected outcomes. There are no better individuals to consult with regarding process improvement than your own people. Why do you think management consulting companies insist on interviewing individual contributors when they begin their massive consulting gigs? They know where to go for the details, for the information that will fuel their own ideas for optimizing your company’s efficiency. But the neurons, your people, cannot do it alone. Here’s what they need.

Customers – By this I mean both future customers and existing ones. In both cases, through their behavior, demonstrations of interest and disinterest, pertinent statements on any channel, buying patterns, all should be viewed as critical data elements about the market’s needs, appetite for solutions, and validation for the very reason you exist as a company. Data collected about them is synonymous with fuel and the customers themselves as neurons.

Peers – their peers are their cohorts, the ones who are invested in the company and its success to a similar degree. They share the ups and downs of the day to day job. Their peers are the ones who’ve already shared complaints they have about processes, disappointing results, poor communication between teams.

Contemplation – the effort made to quietly, and thoroughly, examine a subject. Critically, undisturbed solitary time is required to allow staff members the opportunity to review all aspects of the processes they execute in their role. This should be a recurring activity for them and its output should become a recurring subject of staff meetings throughout the year during which staff members would be asked to deliver a brief of their ideas for revamping, improving, and perhaps even inventing new, processes. A prerequisite though is for staff members to educate themselves about their own company’s products, the company’s challenges, the customer’s business, and the market dynamics that affect the customer. Having the opportunity for uninterrupted thought will create the environment for the human synapses to fire and for them to generate ideas that can be shared with peers (through the business synaptic process, to coin a phrase and as shown below).

In the wheel below are depicted the various elements of innovation. The lightning bolts signify the locations where a synapse exists, where new information is communicated and where it has its moment to flourish or die.

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Without contemplation there can be no foundation for innovation. It is the element most commonly ignored in the business world. Make time for contemplation for it’s how ideas begin. An idea begins in the solitude of one person’s mind, as a spark between neurons. Those synapses will be more plentiful in the solitude that accompanies contemplation.

Make transformation mean something for them

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They’re not buying it.

They hear the words the executives say about digital transformation but, unconsciously, they aren’t buying it. They read the periodic communiques from the management team about the various transformation initiatives that have been launched but the messaging doesn’t really stick. They may even take the time to read industry material that describes the urgency for companies to transform the way they operate and go to market but most of it gets sucked into the swirling dark matter of their mind. They attend the town halls and nod approvingly when each VP reviews their plan for the coming year, but they’re also thinking, obsessing, about that deadline that looms this Friday for their own project. They are as close to being riveted as one can get in a corporate setting when their dynamic and engaging CEO artfully tells a story for why the company needs to evolve but they can’t get past the fact they never see her at any other time than these town halls.

Then they go back to their desks.

If they are individual contributors they might first quickly check their Facebook feed to see what they missed before jumping onto the fileserver to locate that document they were looking at yesterday, the one that describes the steps they’re supposed to take when they want to requisition a new territory report. Then they go to lunch.

If they are a manager they might go back to their desk and make a quick note to include a brief reference to the town hall content in the next staff meeting scheduled for next week. Then they’ll quickly open the email app and start working through the backlog while munching a sandwich they brought from home.

The digital transformation messaging they heard in the town hall was both interesting and a little nerve-racking but at the same time it was abstract. If you asked them, they wouldn’t use the word skeptical or cynical about the prospects of the digital transformation initiative being successful or even mattering. Instead they might say this sentence, “I don’t see it affecting the way I work any time soon.”  Or this, “I’m glad the execs are the ones who have to worry about that. I have my own set of projects I need to focus on.”

Can a company’s digital transformation initiative succeed if frontline employees don’t buy into it, or if they don’t even understand it at all? Can sheer will of the management team, on its own, drive the initiative towards eventual success? What are the odds that redesigned processes will accurately reflect intimate knowledge of the customer if their creation excludes the involvement of people within the company with whom the customer most frequently interacts?

Bubbles can be beautiful… in bathtubs and kitchen sinks, or when blown by a child threw a ring. Management bubbles though can be deadly to business.

Communication is critical and we can see from the example at the beginning that the company is doing some of the right things. The missing piece though is their ability to ensure a sustained and clear flow of communication from top to bottom and, almost more importantly once the initiative is launched, from bottom to top.

So how can a company ensure its digital transformation initiative is both clearly understood at every level while being inclusive of every level at the same time? The same way any other successful company transformation has happened in the past, by practicing good, transparent, consistent, fair, and respectful management. By understanding that to be digitally transformed it means the entire company must be transformed. Each layer. Each process. Each person. Each partner.

Communication is the key enabler. Its power lies in its relevance for the listener. If you want the buy-in of your employees, make transformation mean something for them, for their daily work, for their hour to hour work, for the way they see themselves making a meaningful contribution to the company’s success.

I’ll close with this thought on communication. It is my Friday gift to you, the reader. This post is exactly 700 words in length. Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, as mentioned in this article, was the same length.

Digital Transformation: Thinking to Level 2

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I attended my regular Friday morning BodyPump class today and the instructor didn’t show up. She called in sick but too late for the gym to organize a replacement and so since the class is filled with very serious regulars one of them simply walked over to the studio computer, tapped the BodyPump icon, and down came a massive projection screen. A 20 second countdown later and I was in my very first virtual class.

I know virtual exercise classes have been around for many years for both studio and home use so I’m not revealing anything revolutionary. What struck me as soon the class was 5 minutes old though was the realization that, in my mind anyway, our real-life instructor, the one I’ve been raving about for weeks as being the queen of the perfect cue and of the engaging and constant chatter, had been digitally transformed (replaced). Has anyone ever heard of Wally Pipp? He’s the New York Yankee who took a day off in 1925 and was replaced by some unknown bench warmer (to that point) named Lou Gehrig. The latter took over Wally’s spot and went on to play in the next 2,632 consecutive games over more than 16 years. I wonder if our real-life BodyPump instructor is going to become our very own Wally Pipp.

Afterwards, the situation got me thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of a gym utilizing a virtual class format over a real-life instructor. I wondered whether they’d tried it before on a more programmatic basis and whether they’d ever surveyed the members to learn whether there was an appetite for that kind of class delivery. What are the potential cost savings? What can virtual programming do to the cost structure of the gym when less people are required to administer, schedule, and deliver a set of classes?

I was Level 2 thinking.

Digital transformation is all over just about every form of media and yet for those of us buried deep in its strategy and roll-out we can easily forget that whatever it is, it’s not readily obvious to everyone. Sometimes we’re required to offer up an explanation to people who (mercifully for them… I honestly think this sometimes) lead lives that seem to operate at a wavelength that is at odds with society’s rush to embrace the digital realm. That’s why, for me, the story of our instructor being replaced by the pixels of five perfectly fit Australians, pixels that can be replayed a multitude of times all over the world at any time, is an apt analogy.


When the business world talks about digital transformation, it isn’t just blowing smoke. It’s real. It’s significant. It’s going to separate the strong from the weak, the smart from the not-so-smart. And it’s going to trigger conceptualization on a scale that’s hard to comprehend. Why? Because while we can hazard guesses, we just don’t know the extent of change to come when we apply the power of computing (fast and cheap), robotics (eventually ubiquitous and infinitesimal), process automation (time compression), real-time customer and business process interactions (customers fuel the processes), and the limitless power of the human brain (it still confounds science). It means that for a company to get to the state of being truly digitally transformed it is going to have to systematically excel at exploiting those elements. It will have to have processes in place that automatically collect, compute, and perform actions against customer data. It means that a company will need to be a lot more intimate with the target of its affection. That’s you, the customer. Companies are going to want to get a whole lot closer to you. And you know what? You won’t mind at all. You will actually want them to because up to now through your actions and your choices for how you live you’ve demonstrated that you expect better products, better service, and better solutions, all at a cost you can afford. To satisfy you, to be that responsive and agile, companies are going to need data. Lots of automatically collected data about you, about what you want, what you expect, how you’re doing, why you did what you did with the product, how you managed to get the result you received, what you hope to do next. And this is where the human brain becomes a more significant factor. All that data can be taken at face value (Level 1 information) but what smart people do with Level 1 data is they start wondering about why the data is the way it is (Level 2 thinking). This eventually leads to Level 2 data.


Mostly, today, the data that companies collect is Level 1 information. It’s important but it’s high level and is for now just the first step towards creating stronger insights into their customers’ behavior. The pyramid above graphically represents the magnitude of expansive thinking (the amount of questions that are triggered) at each level of the data.

Let’s use the Marketing department to help explain.

When we consider what it means to measure the digital readiness of a marketing organization we right off the bat look for binary information like this:

  • is the Chief Marketing Office (CMO) a member of the senior leadership team?
  • does the organization consider itself customer-centric?
  • is there a systematic process for data cleansing?
  • are the processes designed to allow for consistent cross-channel messaging?

Those are just a few questions we consider and the answers to them provide us with high level information (Level 1) that helps inform us to a small degree about the state of the organization’s maturity and digital readiness. I say small because even though they are binary questions we actually think of them as open-ended because depending on the answers provided many other questions can follow on. For example, the fact that a CMO is not a member of the SLT and is instead part of another organization (typically Sales) that reports into the SLT tells us something about Marketing’s strategic relevance from a corporate point of view. Meaning, how seriously is the CMO seen as a strategic leader by the members of the SLT? Is the CMO new and relatively lesser known? How much of a voice does the CMO have in the industry through published articles in trade magazines? Likewise, if the Marketing organization has yet to implement a consistent messaging experience across multiple user channels, we can ask why not. Do they know how their peers are doing? Have they bench-marked? It’s highly likely they are behind the curve and are probably bleeding customers to competition that provides a better experience.

Level 2 information is a follow-on activity from Level 1 and a follow-on question can look something like this:

  • if the CMO reports into Sales leadership, how does the Marketing organization gather experiential data about existing customers?

Level 2 information is tougher to do in a binary manner. It’s not impossible but because the line of questioning is more consultative in nature, Level 2 questions tend to be more open-ended. They also tend to surface more actionable insight.

Why does it matter where the CMO reports? Because knowing how a Marketing organization gathers knowledge about existing customers helps determine the state of their digital readiness and the state of their ability to optimize the experience of the customer through their entire life-cycle (not just when they were in the state of buying, which is the conventional focus area of Marketing). Why is that important? Because considering the customer as having an entire life-cycle with you, the company, is the first step in recognizing the need and opportunity for making improvements at each step in their journey. If Marketing reports into Sales they are less interested in pursuing the customer’s engagement post-sales. They have little incentive to do so.

For a company to be digitally ready they must view the customer as a living and breathing entity with a lifespan that can be influenced and enhanced with smart injections of specific and relevant attention and sincere interest at certain points in their journey. This approach ultimately drives up engagement and loyalty, which should translate into stronger revenue. If the Marketing organization is going to be responsible for managing that overall messaging then they defacto represent the customer inside the company. Having the Marketing organization on par with other SLT leaders therefore puts the customer in the same room.

Level 2. It’s richer information for our Transformation Services team at Oracle Marketing Cloud that allows us to plan a strategy for helping our customers evolve to become truly digitally ready.  Level 2 is also a way of thinking for any organization that wants to digitally transform. Level 2 thinking is not just for Marketers. Anyone who works with customers and is interested in evolving the relationship to a higher plane should exercise this deeper abstract way of thinking. It opens pathways to critical information that leads to full digital capability.

Think to Level 2. You don’t want to be Wally Pipp, nor do you want to be my Friday morning BodyPump instructor who was replaced today by a virtual version for a microscopic fraction of the price.

(Pssst…. I’m hoping the gym doesn’t find the cost-savings so compelling that they drop the real-life instructors. I’m still a little old school in some ways).

Can math help clarify the CS mission?

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Customer Success professionals need to start thinking of their mission in a similar way that professionals in Sales and Marketing see theirs. On the Marketing side, they see their mission as finding, nurturing, and qualifying interested parties and moving them further along towards a decision to commit to a financial contract with the marketer’s employer. Straight-forward. On the Sales side, they see their mission as helping those interested parties make that decision to sign the contract thereby securing new revenue for their employers. While the processes and tasks executed by these organizations can be complex and fraught with bumps, their missions are simple.

What is the mission of Customer Success? Is it as clear-cut as those other missions? What is it primarily about?

  1. Renewing customers?
    • Goal = keeping customer numbers up to improve the vendor’s balance sheet
  2. Expanding the business with customers?
    • Goal = growing revenue to improve the vendor’s balance sheet
  3. Helping customers adopt more of the product’s capabilities but motivated by how it benefits the vendor?
    • Goal = helping customer utilize more of the solution so that they feel invested in it and have more of a propensity to renew the financial contract. Symptoms of this behavior are when Customer Success is asked to intervene in sales-sensitive situations to clear technical challenges that are perceived as hurting the chances for renewal or expansion.
  4. Helping customers adopt more of the product’s capabilities but motivated by how it benefits the customer?
    • Goal = helping customer achieve their business goals so they can improve efficiency, or increase market share, or solve other business challenges that prevent them from growing
  5. All of the above?
    • Goal = do whatever is needed

Usually the answer is #5, which makes it not so straight-forward nor so simple. If companies take an honest look at it though, they might admit that they have their Customer Success teams focused on achieving #3, which when it’s considered as starkly as it’s written above, sounds crummy, like it’s short-changing the customer and causing damage to the relationship.

Unlike Marketing and Sales, whose missions are clean and easy to understand, Customer Success is too often charged with having to equally prioritize the following: implementation, enablement, support, consulting, coaching, nurturing, negotiating, selling, closing deals. Why the lack of focus? Pardon the straying into the theater of politics but it almost sounds like Donald Trump’s foreign policy. It’s all over the place, it’s inconsistent, it sends mixed signals, satisfies very few, accomplishes only a fraction of what it hopes to do, and is confusing to the people it’s meant to deal with.

There needs to be some order introduced into the Customer Success world so to make things easier I propose applying some basic math.

Adoption = quality product + clearly defined outcomes + enablement + quality, timely guidance
Renewal = adoption of the solution + quality relationship based on trust
Expansion = adoption of the solution + quality relationship based on trust + clear business need

Looking at it in reverse, Expansion won’t happen until there is Adoption of the solution, the relationship between the parties is good, and the customer has a clear business need for investing more with the vendor. Renewal won’t happen unless there is Adoption of the solution and the relationship is sound. Adoption won’t happen unless the product works, the customer has articulated clear business outcomes, they’ve been enabled with the right skills and knowledge to use the solution to achieve those outcomes, and they’ve received high quality guidance in a timely manner along the way. This is obviously a proactive methodology that prioritizes Adoption above all else. When you see things laid out mathematically they make sense. The logic flows. Changing the equation to prioritize Renewal or Expansion before Adoption defies science and human nature. It might work for some situations but it’ll work against you over time.

To close, and speaking of proactive, I’ll leave you with a line from Silje Nergaard‘s song, Two for the Road.

“I’d rather hit the road than have the road hit me”.  

Maybe it should be on a t-shirt.



The lab coated CSM

I’ll say it now.  In five years the job of a Customer Success Manager will be almost 100% focused on managing the performance of algorithms that drive the customer towards achieving their goals. We’ll see a 180 degree flip in how things are largely done now. CSMs in that near future will spend their time reviewing new findings of consumer/customer behavior and the data that show the progress customers have made towards their expected outcomes. They’ll use that information to tune the algorithms. CSMs will be more data scientists than customer relations experts. Provocative? Not really. Inevitable? Yes. Impersonal and detached from the reality of a customer’s experience? I can see that it might be perceived that way but, no. How can I be so confident? Because this type of work style is already being done everyday by a department employed by most companies but whose mission is aimed at a different target group (buyers) than the one targeted by Customer Success. Modern Marketers conduct themselves more or less this way now.

In the April 3, 2017 edition of The New Yorker magazine is an article entitled, The Algorithm Will See You Now. The piece mainly states that medical technology is advancing so rapidly and the pressure to reduce costs of the healthcare system is also increasing at a similar rate that the two together are forcing a rethink of how diagnostic medicine can, and should, be most efficiently and accurately delivered. My quick take for you from the article (written by a biological scientist)… it’s cheaper, faster, and in some cases, more accurate for machines to do the job of radiologists. There are limitations though that have to do with what are referred to as factual knowledge and experiential knowledge and while the state of the technology is quite sophisticated and there is enthusiasm for its ability to augment the diagnostic process, it isn’t yet seen to be a complete replacement of the human expert. Pick up the edition and read the article to get the complete picture. I can’t do two things here: 1)I cannot include the link because of the paywall, and 2) I cannot give the article the justice it deserves.

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A similar state exists in the Customer Success industry. Many people operate on experiential knowledge (gut) without a lot of factual knowledge. Conversely, we have vendors who focus a bit too much on factual knowledge and don’t give enough weight to experiential knowledge. That’s what I meant last week at the Toronto Customer Success Executive Breakfast (sponsored by Gainsight) when I said that the future of Customer Success will see smart people focused almost entirely on managing processes. They’ll exercise a blend of factual knowledge (from tools like Gainsight) and experiential knowledge (a highly mature gut instinct stemming from the experiences they’ve had themselves working directly with customers and also from conclusions reached by AI machine learning software) to determine the most accurate course of action that should be taken in order to improve the algorithms. Otherwise, how will it be possible for Customer Success to effectively perform, scale, and personalize its approach so the customer feels they get the right attention at the right time? This is especially true when you consider the implications of the data represented in the McKinsey chart below.


IoT, automation, escalating customer expectations, increasing calls for higher share value, accelerating business disruption… all these things and more are conspiring to force companies to deliver increased, personalized customer attention faster and at less cost. Scale is the only option but not just any scale. Personalized scale.

Do you have difficulty seeing this evolution of Customer Success? If so, I have one question for you. Is diagnosing customer health any more complex than diagnosing the health of the human body?