Dr. Robert J. Bies, professor of management at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University, is the keynote speaker for Retail Solutions Providers Association (RSPA) INSPIRE 2016. In this exclusive interview, Jim Roddy, president of Business Solutions, asks Bies to share a preview of his presentation he plans for the event scheduled January 31 through February 3 at Park Hyatt Aviara Resort in San Diego.
To listen to the interview, click below. An edited transcript follows.
Roddy: Dr. Bies, the title for your talk at INSPIRE is Create or Fail: Seeking the Competitive Advantage. I really love that topic. A book that’s high on my recommended reading list is Creating Competitive Advantage by Jeanie Smith. I don’t know how familiar you are with that book or not. Can you give us a sneak preview of your talk and share with us maybe one or two of the principles that you’re going to examine during your sessions at INSPIRE?
Bies: Well, what I’m going to do at INSPIRE is really focus in on the competitive advantage. How can you offer customers value, lower cost, whatever it is, so that they can make even more money and solve their problems? That would be the focus. It’s about how they can solve their problems to better what they do.
In that spirit, coming up with those solutions in working with the customers, I’m really going to focus in on several principles. But I want to highlight four of them:
One, I’m going to focus on is why it’s important to collaborate to innovate, the importance of collaboration — not just within your organization, but collaborating with customers, listening to them.
I’ll also talk about the importance of thinking big, but starting small. It’s all about starting out on a smaller scale. See if it works. Test it out. Prototype it. Scale it up, but understanding that you don’t have to make a big commitment of resources on something new to see if it works.
I’ll talk about the importance of progress, not perfection. Sometimes we get caught up in, “Well, if it’s not perfect, we can’t do it. If it’s not perfect, it’s not innovative.” The reality is most innovations are a work in progress — getting closer, better. It’s continual improvement. I often say, don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good, the improvement. But it’s all about progress, not perfection.
The last thing that I would really focus in on as a principle would be look for ideas everywhere — within your company, within your organization. Look for ideas with your customers; look for ideas in other industries. If you see something that’s working there, can you adapt it to your world? Can you adapt it to your solution? Be obsessed about what other people are doing, beyond your boundaries, and not just here in the western hemisphere but globally. What are ideas that are working?
Those would be four principles that, when I look at organizations that have competitive advantage, they’re doing elements of all of those with some obsession. One of the key things about organizations who are innovative, they’re obsessed with being innovative. But they see that it doesn’t have to be huge. The keyword is better, keeping it better to solve the customer’s problems.
Roddy: Let me follow-up on a couple of those. First, you said collaborate to innovate. I know one thing I’ve experienced is, when you collaborate, whether it’s with customers or co-workers or talking to people outside your organization, the final version of the idea — one person can’t take responsibility for it. You get all those different perspectives from it, and you get a better idea than one person could have created on their own. Is that part of what you’re saying through the collaboration?
Bies: Exactly, Jim. That’s what I’m saying. There’s a Japanese proverb that I like to say. It’s “None of us is as smart as all of us.” That’s the principle that’s really going with other people’s ideas. At the end of the day, you may see your thumbprint there, but you’re always building on the ideas to make it better.
To me, through that collaboration you get two dividends when you do that. You get a creativity dividend, which is what we’re talking about. You get better ideas. But you also get a political dividend. You get buy in and support for the idea. For me, at the end of the day, it’s usually team-based, it’s multiple people. If they can see their fingerprint, then they’re on board.
Roddy: Yes, you’re right. Buy-in has that, “I made up something, now I have to cram it down people’s throats.” But if they help you along the way, there’s no step for buy-in, because people helped create it.
Bies: One more thing I would add, Jim, is that people love to be asked. We tend to underestimate the power of the “ask” piece. People love to be asked for their ideas, they really do.
Roddy: The other point you brought up was about looking for ideas everywhere. One thing I thought is, in business, you’re allowed to cheat off of somebody else’s paper. When you were in school, it was no, somebody does their own work, and you can’t see what they’re doing and what the answer is. But in business, people have the opportunity to call up someone else in business and see what they’re doing. Do you see a lot of times where people just aren’t “looking off someone else’s paper” and they’re just showing up for work every day, instead of seeing if someone can help them shortcut to the solution?
Bies: Yes, I see that increasingly. The innovator companies, they tend to override that, because — what you’re describing, I’ll give you my academic word for it. It’s called “creative swiping.” You see something that’s working, you talk to somebody, and you steal it. You adapt it, you modify it, and use it. If I put that in more business language, if you ever do a benchmarking study, that’s creative swiping. When you’re looking around your industry, beyond your industry, the best business practices on service, whatever the issue is, you want to be obsessed.
Organizations that stay successful are obsessed by what other people are doing. “What did you pick up? What new ideas did you come back with?” Those sorts of things. They’re obsessed, they’re interested, they’re curious. But they’re really obsessed about what other people are doing.
Roddy: I’ll start using creative swiping, rather than cheating. It’s way more politically correct, too.
Bies: It brings it up to a whole other legitimate level, right?
Roddy: Yes, it does. That’s way more legitimate for sure.
I know a lot of times, when folks hear about innovation, they see big companies are doing that. But the solutions providers who are listening to this recording or reading the interview, who are going to attend INSPIRE, where you’re going to speak, they’re small businesses, and a lot of them are going to say, “Hey, I just don’t have those resources.” Can you talk about the process or the early steps for a small business that they can take to identify and maximize their competitive advantages, but do it in a resource-manageable way?
Bies: Well, what I would do is, first and foremost, the most important leadership skill and the most important business skill, Jim, is to listen. If they begin to think, “How can I create more opportunities for listening with my internal customers, the people that work for me, my external customers, the ones that I’m trying to find solutions for, can you figure out more different ways to listen?"
I often say you’ve got to go on a listening tour with your customers, a listening tour with your professional associates, a listening tour with your employees. Listen to the VOC — the voice of the customer. What do they have to say?
To really get an understanding, you’ve got to gather data. What are people thinking? You live in a very competitive world. Everybody lives in a competitive world. If you’re not doing it, maybe your competitor is. Can I use my sales force — it’s a much more aggressive way to gather more information. The sales force, they’re the ones that know everything that’s going on with the customer. They really do.
I would go on a listening tour first. Gather the data. Bring the data back. What did you learn? What are new things? What are new best practices? That is just an issue of some of your time some of your commitment of energy, but then what I would do is also focus in on your strengths.
There’s a technique that consultants use, in a variety of different ways, called the SWOT analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. That’s a great technique to gather data on how we can improve. But I’d like people to focus more on your strengths. What can you bring to your customers? What are your strengths? Often, you get caught up in what we’re not doing well, and we tend to miss what we actually do quite well.
Figure out what those strengths are. Begin to listen and figure out what your strengths are. I think you’ve got to increase and strengthen the commitment and connection to your customers, to get their ideas, to share their ideas, always being on top of it. I think that’s just part of how you do business. Stick with your sales force.
Roddy: It seems like one of the concepts is, if you know your strengths and you can maximize that, it’s going to be harder for somebody else to duplicate it, where if you’re constantly getting better and better with your strengths — is that accurate and a key to innovation, staying steps ahead of the competition?
Bies: Absolutely, that’s the way to go. First, the weaknesses may take time to overcome, and what people are looking for is what do you bring to them? What are your strengths? Focus in on the strengths and leverage those strengths. Become better at those strengths.
Roddy: Let me ask one more specific question here. You were talking about listening, and one thing I’ve always recommended is you can’t just go in and listen to somebody for an hour and then walk out. It seems like folks need the discipline to take notes, write those things down, and go back and analyze them, so you put everything together. Is that a key point that, a lot of times, business leaders miss out on, is they’re just listening in general but they’re not walking away with as many specifics as they can?
Bies: I think that’s absolutely right on a couple different levels. It’s one thing to go out and listen, but you’re gathering intelligence. The key next step is how do you make sense of that intelligence? What are the common patterns? What are the themes that are emerging?
Part of when I talk about design thinking, that’s part of what designing thinking is. You go off to the four corners of the world, you get pieces of information. You bring it back and synthesize it. Try to make sense of it. What are the patterns here? What are we seeing? What are we hearing?
Understand that it’s a much more in-depth way of looking at the data. Data is data, but how do you make sense of it? What does it mean? What are the opportunities? Have you heard some specific need? In fact, one of the things I say is listen not just for the words or the lyrics, listen to the music. What are the emotions? Is it apprehensive? Is it excitement? Is it joy? Is it fear? Listen also to some of the music behind the lyrics of what you’re hearing.
Another thing to listen for is listen for action steps and solutions because often, when we spend time with customers, they’re trying out some solutions or half-baked solutions that, hey, they actually said something concrete there — go beyond just listening. Listen for solutions. They may be giving you solutions, but you’re not listening for them. Listen for solutions as well, but you have to make sense of it. Then, what are the action steps?
Roddy: Yes, it’s not just listening to be empathetic, so somebody feels heard, but it’s actually, like you said, gathering that real data.
Bies: You have to be thoughtful and intentional about what you’re listening for, and what are you learning? President Kennedy once wrote a speech that he was going to give on November 22, 1963. Unfortunately, he did not have the opportunity to give that speech, but in that speech, he says a sentence, and that is this. “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” When you’re going out to listen to questions, what do you learn? What are you learning? What are the key takeaways?
I say you do that in a group of people, because people may hear the same conversation — maybe you’ve been in a conversation and people hear different things. You want that consensus. What did you hear? I didn’t hear that, I heard something else. What did you learn from the listening?
Roddy: That’s tremendous. Dr. Bies, thank you so much for your time today. I’m really looking forward to seeing you at RSPA INSPIRE in San Diego, January 31 through February 3. Thank you so much for your time today.
Bies: Looking forward to it, Jim. Thank you so much.
INSPIRE 2016, the Retail Solutions Providers Association (RSPA) conference for thought leaders in retail technology, will be held January 31 through February 3 at Park Hyatt Aviara Resort in San Diego. For coverage, go to www.BSMinfo.com/go/InsideRSPA.