Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Spanners and dollars – the common ground

Or...how to integrate across technology and commercial functions

Not a month goes by without either a CEO, CTO or Commercial Director asking me questions about how to build bridges between the technology and sales functions in their ventures.  You know the stereotypes – engineers want the perfect model and sales people just want to say yes to a potential client regardless of what they want. Fundamentally untrue of course but a commonly held pre-conception.  This can be exacerbated if the CEO of the company comes from mainly a sales or technology background.  Were they the inventor of the company’s product by virtue of an interesting laboratory experiment or because they picked up an unmet need from a client and went in search of a solution to it?

Either way conflicts can occur and often the main result is products that do not fit a market need and hence revenue forecasts are not met.  And we all know where that particular slippery slope leads – don’t we…?

My response, obviously, is well isn’t the solution blatantly simple?  – you need an integrating force who is just as comfortable working with customers to determine how to convince them that their needs can be satisfied as well as credible and influential with in-house technology teams to ensure development and production effort is prioritised to meet those expressed needs.  "What on earth is one of those?" comes back the riposte!

So whether you are talking about a sales person or an engineer or someone to build a bridge between the two the characteristics are the same.  The product champion needs to:

  • Be passionate about, and be completely focused on, making a positive difference for clients and doing it smarter/cheaper/quicker than an alternative solution (especially versus the do nothing option)
  • Display exceptional levels of intellectual curiosity – have they spent their whole, or a decent proportion anyway, of their lives always thinking about how to improve the world around them – never satisfied with the status quo or just the ordinary and mediocre?  They wake up in the morning with the mantra – surely things can be better – ringing in their ears.  I know I can persuade someone that there is a better way of doing that…

    Intellectual curiosity is an awfully difficult thing to grow if it does not exist already
  • Relate any supposed technical innovation to a revenue, cost, process, efficiency, effectiveness or competitive advantage dimension of a client’s business – an idea only satisfies a need if there is a clear commercial rationale and business case for it that the client understands
  • Driven by team success and not by their own brilliance
  • Be empathetic to the motivations of the different players involved and be able to tailor their communications accordingly – how to manage the frustration of an engineer whose “perfect” solution does not get accepted fully by the client,  how to get them feeling excited about their contribution to what actually is bought by the customer
  • Able to explain the activities of the engineer/technology developer to the cash generated as a result that then goes to fund their salary – make no bones of the commercial reality they operate in and their role in making and spending money
  • Willing to experiment, take a few risks with product designs and potential solutions but see a clear way of prioritising efforts based on customer feedback, generally best to iterate rather than spend 12+ months building. Get customers involved and know when to switch from iterative improvement to delivery
I am not convinced that domain/sector experience is critical unless clients see it that way – being credible with technical teams is though – functional compatibility is needed: can you edit the models the engineers produce, can you specify requirements in a way that they understand how to implement it?

Getting a common aim across teams can be a valuable platform – not just alignment but actually the same goals and aspirations. Getting all the various elements from data scientists to developers to sales people all working together using sales people as the filter for customer needs and development prioiritisation.  Sales people do have to provide a genuine proxy for customer needs though – the integration person having a critical role in ensuring that development effort is not spent on the whim of one customer but only on issues that are clearly of value to a good set of actual and potential customers.

This integration of the commercial and the technical is key (but difficult). It may require product managers/mini-CEOs to knit the various components together. Many management consultants can have this skill as do brand managers from FMCG environments.  COO figures can help as long as they have a strategy and big picture outlook rather than one of purely execution and efficiency in the factory management sense of operations.

And finally…

If there is one thing that truly differentiates an integrating force from us mere mortals is their ability to entice customers to pay for development pilots before any technical solutions are fully formed = a key marker of progress & business value. And if they can get 5 or 6 clients paying for similar pilots then you know you are onto a winner!


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