Marketers: What’s Your Fastball? What’s Your Curve Ball?

I’d like to share an intriguing baseball story that also happens to complement some fantastic marketing advice from a work friend of mine.

First, the baseball story:

Steve Dalkowski

Steve Dalkowski: The fastest MLB pitcher you never heard of

Until just a few years ago, I had never heard of Steve Dalkowski, the fastest pitcher in Major League Baseball history. He routinely threw a fastball well over 100 mph (161km/h) with top speeds of over 125 mph (201 km/h)! As a minor leaguer in the late 50’s and early 60’s, Dalkowski struck out 1,396 batters in just 995 innings.

Unfortunately, Dalkowski’s incredible fastball was also incredibly wild and unpredictable: He walked 1,354 batters and won only 46 of the 236 games he started.

But there’s much more to Steve Dalkowski’s story – with an important related marketing lesson as well.

Steve Dalkowski

Steve Dalkowski’s performance improved dramatically in the early 60’s while playing for Earl Weaver, who was then manager for the Baltimore Orioles’ double-A affiliate. In 1962, Dalkowski had the best year of his career, giving up less than one walk per inning for the first time, and a 52-inning stretch with an amazing 104 strikeouts and only 11 walks. During 1963 Spring Training, after pitching six straight hitless innings in relief, Dalkowski was told by the Orioles that he had finally made the team.

How did Steve Dalkowski transform his performance? Earl Weaver realized Dalkowski just got confused and pitched more wildly than ever while coaches tried to teach him how to throw a change-up, hold a base runner or execute other unfamiliar plays. Weaver concluded if the team was to ever capitalize on Dalkowski’s potential, he would have to keep things very simple. So Weaver had Dalkowski focus on nothing but throwing his fastball and maybe an occasional slider. Two pitches. Just throw strikes.

Keeping it simple is game-winning advice for marketers as well. Buyers are smarter than ever, and less likely than ever to bother trying to figure out what your technology does. If they get confused or distracted by your message, they’ll simply move on.

Which leads me to my marketing colleague who recently shared with me some simple yet fantastic advice from a rock star technology sales manager. Asked by my friend how he became so successful, he answered, “Because I know my fastball and I know my curve ball.”

He explained his ‘fastball’ was the #1 product of interest to the vast majority of his prospects; his ‘curve ball’ was his second product. Whether he opted for the fastball or curve ball depended on the needs of his prospect.

The company had other products, of course; and while he didn’t ignore those products, he knew his ultimate success depended on his ability to deliver a clear, compelling sales pitch for his top two products – his fastball and curve ball. So he focused right away on practicing those two sales pitches and made sure they were strikes.

Sales and Marketing Fastball

While that rock star sales person described his fastball and curve ball as being two different products, the logic still holds for other scenarios. If, for example, a company offers a single technology platform or solution as opposed to multiple products, then the “fastball” could be an engaging value proposition to answer the question, “What is it?” The “curve ball” could in turn succinctly answer, “How does it work?”

Marketing’s single most important responsibility is to define the company’s fastball and curve ball and then clearly communicate it – internally and externally – to set up your marketing campaigns and sales team for success.

In a cruel twist of fate, Steve Dalkowski severely strained a tendon in his elbow while pitching relief in the Orioles’ final 1963 pre-season game. With his post-injury fastball topping out at only 90MPH, Dalkowski never made it to the major leagues again and was out of baseball for good in 1966. One can only wonder what his pitching career might have been had he not languished for years, no doubt being constantly told to “try harder” before Earl Weaver’s wise leadership guidance.

Similarly, if current marketing messaging is not working, “trying harder” in a multitude of ways and directions with the same overall messaging will not help and instead merely waste time. The future is now. Business circumstances and technologies all change without advance notice. Marketing leaders must be willing to allow trying something new, starting with, I suggest, focusing on answering two simple but critical questions…

What’s your fastball?

What’s your curve ball?

Les Paul’s Electric Guitar & Unified Information Access: Two Platforms of Innovation

Les Paul. Source: Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Without Les Paul (1915-2009), it’s safe to say that rock and roll as we know it would not exist. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Les Paul was a virtuoso guitarist and pioneer in the development of the solid-body electric guitar. His innovations helped make the unforgettable sound of rock and roll possible.

There are some interesting analogies between Les Paul’s modern electric guitar, which ushered in a new era of modern music, and unified information access, modern technology enabling a new era of deeper analytic insights well beyond what traditional tools can offer.

Early in his musical career, Les Paul found his acoustic guitar was drowned out by the other instruments in a band. The acoustic guitar was simply too quiet. In its own way, text-based unstructured information (documents, wikis, email, social media) has also been too “quiet.” Quickly drowned out by more easily accessible structured databases, unstructured content was largely ignored by data analysts for decades.

Early efforts to use a microphone or an amplifier with a hollow-body acoustic guitar in Les Paul’s day resulted in poor sound quality and feedback. Similarly, unstructured content also defied initial efforts to integrate it with other information sources, such as trying to store it within relational databases. Unfortunately, most database methods do not perform full-text searching of content, and those that do require the content to be stored and organized in database tables. Effective textual searching requires linguistics and text analytics is commonly found not in relational databases, but in enterprise search technologies.

The methods for accessing unstructured content and structured data remained divided for decades: enterprise search engines being used for finding unstructured content and relational database systems for retrieving structured data.

Applying his musical talent and inventor’s mind, Les Paul built one of the very first solid-body electric guitars, culminating in 1952 with the classic Gibson Les Paul guitar. Thanks in large part to Les Paul, the guitar was definitely no longer the quietest instrument in the ensemble!

Les Paul with his Gibson Les Paul solid body electric guitar and 8-track tape recorder. Source: les-paul.com

Between his electric guitar and breakthroughs in multi-track sound recording, Les Paul created a platform of innovation that enabled entirely new types of musical expression that were previously impossible. Indeed, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rightly honored Les Paul as an architect of rock music.

Similarly in the business world, we have seen unified information access – a new technology platform of innovation – enable new ways to inform, educate and entertain people, through a single interface, portal, website or device, replacing what used to be dozens of individual products or standalone software packages.

UIA is helping transform businesses by freely integrating, joining and presenting all related enterprise information – structured and unstructured, internal and external alike – and building amazing new business applications no one has ever seen before.

How to Write a Case Study (Without Shooting Your Eye Out with a Red Ryder BB Gun)

A Christmas Story is a must-see classic movie. A lot of people apparently agree, as the 1983 classic is featured on TBS as a 24 hour TV marathon every Christmas.

A Christmas Story even offers an interesting product marketing-related lesson about case study writing. No, really! After all, Ralphie wrote one in the movie, remember…?

Ralphie-Christmas-Story

Chances are you have seen this classic Christmas comedy, featuring Ralphie, a 9-year-old boy living in 1940’s Indiana who desperately wanted an Official Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas. Unfortunately for Ralphie, whenever he even hinted about getting one, his mother always said, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” 

Of course, Ralphie refused to give up. For a school assignment, he wrote an essay (aka case study) all about the Red Rider BB gun he yearned for and why it was so important that he get one for Christmas. Ralphie was certain his teacher would be so enthralled with his essay she’d give him an A+. He could then triumphantly show his parents his grade – and essay – and surely earn his BB gun.

Suffice to say Ralphie’s teacher was less than impressed with his writing:

Poor Ralphie felt the same frustration experienced by anyone who has ever written a case study that failed to gain the interest and curiosity from the intended target audience.

By following a customer-focused, time-focused template when researching and writing case studies, we can instead impress readers with our customer’s success, and motivate them to learn more.

When developing a case study with an existing customer, I work through a simple series of questions focusing on the customer’s experience at three key points in time:

  1. Before your product or service: the drudgery your customer had previously endured.
  2. The customer’s “moment of epiphany”: when the customer realized your product or service was the right one.
  3. After your product or service: the old drudgery is gone, replaced with success!

First, what was the customer doing before your product or service? The more intolerable drudgery we can genuinely convey here, the better. Quantifying the drudgery our customer experienced in this “before” stage is also essential: how many dollars or personnel-hours were being lost by your customer? Less tangible but no less real consequences of this drudgery are welcome as well; for example, what business decisions might have been compromised due to the unacceptable status quo?

Next, ask your customer how and when they realized, “Yes! This is the right solution for us! The dark days of our drudgery are over! Help is on the way!” I’m only half-kidding here: we must convey to the reader what triggered the customer’s decision to buy; what led the customer to confidently conclude that our product or service is uniquely capable of solving their problems.

Identify the unique features and functionality relevant to this moment of epiphany, and how they translate into providing business benefits – a process Pragmatic Marketing calls marketecture:

mirac;e

Marketecture matches the key features of your product with the problems your target customers need to solve. (source)

Now, focus on the “after” phase: your product or service has been implemented for the customer, leaving a trail of roses in your path. Again, I’m only half-kidding: we must convey that the customer now knows their decision was a winner. What new success has replaced the old drudgery?

Take the time to carefully walk through with your customer one or more specific,  formerly costly and frustrating business processes. How has your product or service resolved the drudgery that once plagued this business process? What measurable savings in money or time has the customer since realized? What plans does the company have to expand the use of your product or service? 

When writing the actual case study, quote the customer directly wherever possible. Direct quotes from the customer declaring in their own words how valuable your product or service is to them will always earn more attention and credibility from readers than any narrative text.

Also… please avoid using those generic case study sub-headings; i.e., The Problem, The Solution and Results. They provide zero value to the reader and offer nothing in the way of SEO (a Google search for problem solution results as of this writing yields 1.4 billion hits). Your case study sub-headings should be written such that if your reader reads only the sub-headings, they still get a TL;DR understanding of your case study. Here is an example from some previous work of mine. Just read the main headings and you’ll see what I mean!

Did Ralphie still get his beloved Red Rider BB gun despite of his unsuccessful writing effort? Let’s put it this way: if he did, it was no thanks to Santa. Of course, product marketers must rely on more than luck to get the favorable attention of potential new customers. Compelling case studies are a one of the best means to do so. By asking your customer time-focused questions and actively listening, the customer will essentially tell you what relevant information belongs in the case study – before, during and after their wise decision to purchase your product or service.

When the Right People and the Right Information Come Together, Expect a Masterpiece

“All knowledge is connected to all other knowledge. The fun is in making the connections.”

The remarkable gentleman who said this quote, Arthur Aufderheide M.D. (1922-2013), certainly lived by these wise words.

Dr. Arthur Aufderheide

Dr. Arthur Aufderheide

Dr. Aufderheide was a medical school professor at the University of Minnesota who founded an entirely new area of scientific research: paleopathology – the study of the spread of disease through the forensic analysis of mummies (think of it as CSI: Ancient Civilizations!). He actively pursued his research with true passion for 30 years, traveling the globe locating mummies and establishing best practices for their proper examination.

Dr. Aufderheide’s ground-breaking research was the perfect combination of his medical expertise with his personal passions for archaeology, outdoorsmanship and native world cultures. Simply put, he absolutely loved his work. His excitement and passion for his innovative research inspired his students and earned recognition from the global scientific community.

Dr. Aufderheide’s life work helps drive home two key points about success, meaningful work… and life:

First: Organizations with genuine passion for their mission will utilize technology and share information far more effectively than other companies.

Dr. Aufderheide’s career as a medical school professor was not his first. He had worked for decades as a hospital pathologist, a job he no longer found fulfilling. Had he opted to just count the days to early retirement, his remaining life work likely would have been mediocre at best. Instead, at the age of 55, he made a career change into academia, resulting in one heck of a “second act”: a highly fulfilling career and life.

Aufderheide’s tremendous passion for his work was key to successfully discover new insights from many far-flung sources of information that had been waiting for centuries to be discovered. Anyone else doing similar work just to blithely earn a paycheck surely would have made very few – if any – meaningful discoveries, much less establish a brand new field of scientific research.

Similarly, organizations with true passion for its mission will uncover more, better and faster business discoveries by collaboratively gaining new insight from big data analytics, enterprise search, enterprise knowledge management, and other silo-busting technologies. Workers are actively empowered by leadership to ask new questions about the business, while also being provided the advanced technology resources that enable them to find new answers.

Second: Organizations with a culture of genuine passion for their mission will outperform competitors that don’t.

Leaders with a true passion for their organization’s mission will insist on an open, positive company culture that enables everyone to pursue that mission to the fullest – free from company politics, turf wars or internal arguments.

Passionate leaders will also only hire people who will share their passion. At a recent roundtable event, startup exec John McEleney emphasized the need for start-ups to “have the right people on the bus” and keep mediocre players out of the organization by requiring any new potential hire to be referred by an existing employee.

Without a supportive company culture and proper hiring practices, an organization will end up with people who are just working for the money.

This all reminds me of Simon Sinek’s fantastic viral TEDx presentation – a must-watch (and well worth watching again!):

Well, that definitely describes the kind of organization I’d love to work for. How about you? 😉

“Begin with the Beginning in Mind” for Content Creation

Many people are familiar with Stephen R. Covey’s bestseller “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (although I much prefer Dale Carnegie). One of Covey’s “7 Habits” is to “begin with the end in mind.”

However, when crafting product messaging, I suggest you “begin with the beginning in mind.”

When writing a datasheet, web copy, case study or other collateral piece, I start by thinking about what the first paragraph should say that will make the reader want to keep reading and learn more. For a new website, I think first about what the home page splash screen should say and what graphic should accompany it.

If that first impression message is not compelling, your audience will most likely tune out rather than bother to continue paying attention.

For a presentation deck, I like to define a really good “icebreaker” slide first before anything else. It might be a compelling – even alarming – stat with a strong supporting graphic. It can be a quick story or interactive game, as long as it is directly relevant to your presentation. I once attended a breakout in which the presenter led off with an awkward “tell to your neighbor something interesting about yourself” exercise that had nothing to do with his chosen topic. It merely distracted the audience from his presentation.

My friends and colleagues know I generally like to go with humor; for example, I recently led a presentation on replacing expensive commercial software with reliable, supported open source technology. My icebreaker slide was this excerpt of a classic Calvin & Hobbes comic strip. I wanted to convey, in an engaging way, the core message that no one likes to feel like they’re being ripped off, forced to pay too much for something, and not being treated fairly… and that includes paying too much for commercial licenses with pricing accelerants and legalese intended to lock in their customers. Notice too how Moe, the bully shaking Calvin down for a quarter, is now in the minds of the audience as a symbol for their unrepentantly high-cost commercial software vendor taking too much of their money.

From that intro, slides presenting the proof points for smart and substantial open source savings and how to get started flowed naturally from that icebreaker.

“Begin with the beginning in mind” also applies to demand generation emails. Even before the intro paragraph, come up with the subject line. I have received three emails in a row from a vendor, each with the same bland subject line of “[Company Name] Newsletter — New e-Book”. I can’t imagine the open rate for these emails is anywhere near acceptable. I don’t accept the notion that email marketing is dead; only that poor email marketing is dead. During the company’s recent Boston World Tour stop, Salesforce.com agreed. Going beyond A/B testing, SFDC proceeded to present new features to make it easier to personalize email subject lines to optimize engagement as soon as the email hits the inbox. Begin with the beginning in mind.

As frustrating as it is, if the beginning of your message is not engaging, the end and middle of your collateral, no matter how fine, scarcely matters. But if you spend the extra time up front by beginning with a great beginning, a great introduction, you’ll find the rest of your message will flow from there much more easily – and your target audience will be much more willing to receive it and act on it.

Intuitive Reasoning, Effective Analytics, Success: Lessons from Dr. Jonas Salk

Jonas-Salk-MemeApril 14, 2015 marked the 60th anniversary of the Salk Polio Vaccine. On that day in 1955, it was publicly announced that human trials confirmed Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine provided effective protection from the polio virus. By 1957, new polio cases fell by 90% from epidemic levels just five years earlier.

A fascinating interview with Dr. Salk on the Academy of Achievement website sheds light on his key personal attributes and values, which are vitally important for success in any line of work. And the best analytic tools will play a leading role in fostering that success.

1. The most successful people practice intuitive reasoning.

Dr. Salk explained how he could identify and solve problems more easily and effectively than others by following his intuition (perceptions, spontaneous creative thought), guided by reason (hard data):

Reason alone will not serve. Intuition alone can be improved by reason, but reason alone without intuition can easily lead the wrong way… both are necessary. For myself, that’s how my mind works, and that’s how I work… It’s this combination that must be recognized and acknowledged and valued.

It was Salk’s intuitive reasoning skills that ultimately led him to his polio vaccine research. Several years prior, as a second year medical student, Salk realized statements from two lectures on immunization techniques contradicted each other. He never got a straight answer as to why, which he (thankfully) could not accept:

It didn’t make sense and that question persisted in my mind… I just questioned the logic of it… I just didn’t accept what appeared to me to be a dogmatic assertion in view of the fact that there was a [medical] reason to think otherwise.

Intuitive reasoning requires not taking “because it is!” as an answer, and “actively pursuing a question and seeing where it leads.”

Continue reading

You Do Not Need Permission to Innovate

Bootleggers K turnI read a great blog post written by Brooke Allen describing how a chance encounter decades ago with an ex-Prohibition-era bootlegger provided a key life lesson that served him well throughout his business career.

The ex-bootlegger – Brooke Allen called him “Jeb” – began by chatting about such tricks of the bootlegging trade as the “bootlegger’s K-turn,” a driving tactic used to escape hot pursuit by police by quickly reversing direction.

When FDR brought an end to Prohibition, Jeb needed to find new work. He finally found a mundane job working as a factory drill press operator. To deal with the monotony, he would think about how he could improve the drill press.

Finally, Jeb mustered up the courage to ask the factory owner if he could share his ideas:

After a few years he screwed up the courage to ask the owner, “May I ask a question?”

The owner laughed, “You don’t need permission to ask a question.”

… It turned out Jeb’s idea made the drill-press much more efficient. Jeb was about to go back to work when the owner said, “Why don’t I put you on another machine and let’s see what you come up with.”

In short order he’d invented all kinds of better ways of making things and soon he was even inventing whole new things to make. The owner gave him piles of money and Jeb was very happy.

“I never asked for permission to be a bootlegger because I knew it was the wrong thing to do,” Jeb told Allen. “But, I didn’t become [an inventor] until I learned that I don’t need permission to do the right thing.

Brooke Allen took away that key life lesson: You do not need permission to do the right thing. Knowing this simple fact is essential for any true innovation to take place. Innovation, by definition, is an act of “intelligent disobedience.” It is unafraid to question the status quo; it unashamedly asks, “What if…?”

I’d also add a big thumbs-up for the factory owner who had the sense to not only listen to Jeb’s idea, but to also encourage Jeb to discover new ideas and share the financial rewards with him. The owner demonstrated business sense that is lacking in too many corporate “leaders” today.

An empty suit of a “leader” probably would have just used Jeb’s first idea to make or save money without so much as a thank you (just like this example); or simply marched Jeb back to his drill press saying something like, “We don’t pay you to think!”

A bad boss can indeed go a long way to discourage innovation; however, that doesn’t change the fact that you don’t need permission to innovate. Lousy leaders who think nothing upsets the status quo without their blessing are kidding themselves. Under their noses, innovations are taking place in the form of secret skunkworks projects, workarounds and hacks that enable workers to sidestep red tape and self-important gatekeepers while also keeping their personal sanity!

Gatekeepers and Workarounds

Now imagine how well such a company could perform if innovation wasn’t driven underground by its own “leaders.”

Bottom line, you do not need permission to freely assess the way things are and envision the way things could be. Recognizing this universal truth might be the bootlegger K-turn you need to make a clean getaway from a “potted plant” organization and towards organizations and true leaders that actively encourage and reward innovation.

If you liked this post, you may also like:
“I’d Like to Have an Argument, Please” – An Innovation Message from Monty Python
The Impact of Imagination Level on Product Marketers and Managers
Product Managers and Marketers: Ever Feel Like You’re Being Treated Like “The Fighter”?

When You Have an Analytic Hammer, Every HR Challenge Looks Like a Nail

Back in 2014, IBM announced a new consulting practice offering several new technology services that would apply big data and analytics processes to human resources problems.

From the above-linked article:

One service, predictive hiring, would use large volumes of behavioral assessments and other employee data to better understand the traits that are characteristic of top performers, and then comb through candidates to identify potential hires.

A predictive retention service would analyze workforce data — exit interviews, for instance — to identify those employees most likely to leave.

What struck me when I first read this article is the flawed assumption that job applicants bring high-performance traits with them through the door, or they don’t. And if an employee is looking to leave the company, it’s due to some shortcomings on their part.

It sounds like an example of Maslow’s law: If your only tool is a [analytic] hammer, every [HR] problem will look like a nail.

confirmation-bias-at-workplace

“We’re here today to identify the unique traits of our top performers.”

Since existing leaders will decide what the “traits that are characteristic of top performers” are, they may well end up defining the ideal employee profile in their own image – a clear example of confirmation bias.

Analyzing the traits of perceived top performers who have a long history with the company runs afoul of survivorship biasFrom David McRaney’s blog-turned-book You Are Not So Smart:

You must remind yourself that when you start to pick apart winners and losers, successes and failures, the living and dead, that by paying attention to one side of that equation you are always neglecting the other…

When a company performs a survey about job satisfaction, the only people who can fill out that survey are people who still work at the company. Everyone who might have quit out of dissatisfaction is no longer around to explain why. Such data mining fails to capture the only thing it is designed to measure…

The reality is that workers’ attitudes in the workplace can and do change significantly over time in response to the organization’s own traits, for better or for worse, depending on whether the work environment is proactive or risk averse, collaborative or politically charged, collective or exclusive.

Liz Ryan, former HR VP and founder of Human Workplace, hits the nail right on the head (bad hammering pun; sorry not sorry) in her article:

In order to hit our goals in any organization, we need to build positive energy in the workplace. We need people to be excited about their work…

Can you measure that excitement level? You can’t measure it, but it will show in the results that you do measure, from customer satisfaction to turnover to earnings per share. Anyone in your organization will be able to tell when the excitement level is high, low, or nonexistent. We’d have no trouble reading the energy waves at work if we remembered to stay human on the job.

To her credit, Liz Ryan doesn’t pull any punches in rejecting impersonal, technocratic measurement of employee engagement. I doubt the predictive analytics described above would fare any better with Liz than the hollow ritual of the annual employee survey:

If we really care what our employees think, it’s easy enough to find out… We could ask them how they’re doing… We can be human at work…

We don’t have to insult our employees by having them fill out surveys so the people charged with employee engagement can go to the leadership team and say “Look! The employees are 68% engaged. Look how well I’m doing my job!”

Give up the employee engagement survey, drop the junk-science patina on stupid HR practices and learn how to be human at work. You’ll be amazed how the team’s energy will power your success once you let it start flowing.

Analytics, when created and used appropriately, can be a powerful force for success, but there are also many new technologies that help actively engage employees and cultivate employee positivity and productivity. Gamification platforms are just one such example. Here in Boston, for instance, the WeSpire platform engages and energizes employees around company sustainability and social responsibility programs.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it” is an old saw, but it still rings true – especially when leaders choose to seek out genuine, human interactions and build an energetic, collaborative work culture, which should yield much better employee outcomes and improved individual and team performance.

P.S. – On a related note on hiring decisions, what often passes as “common wisdom” within the HR function really isn’t all that wise. Well said, Natasha Bowman!! ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️:

HR-Try-Something-New

 

Breaking the “Curse of Too Much Knowledge”

A great passage from Jeffrey Fox’s best selling first book How to Become CEO has stuck with me over the years. Fox recounted how one of the U.S. automakers, desperate to improve gas mileage during the 1970s energy crisis, called on its engineers to redesign its cars to be less heavy. But veteran engineers insisted that just couldn’t be done. Doing so, they said, would be unsafe, impractical and impossible. Of course, they were wrong.

The automaker brought in recent engineering grads with less experience, who proceeded to shed hundreds of pounds off the cars with no adverse safety impact. The new engineers were successful because they were not constrained by preconceptions; they didn’t “know enough” to conclude the task was impossible!

The Man Who Knew Too Much (classic 1956 Alfred Hitchcock film)This story is a great example of what my business friend and colleague Neil Baron calls “the curse of too much knowledge.”

Neil Baron is managing director of Baron Strategic Partners, a business management consulting firm with experience in developing value propositions. I have known Neil for a few years now and have enjoyed many of his presentations at past ProductCamp Boston and Boston Product Management Association (BPMA) events.

At his recent Creating Compelling Value Propositions workshop, Neil said the ‘curse of too much knowledge’ is a major inhibitor to successfully creating a value prop that resonates with prospective customers:

A big challenge is that we assume that our customers know as much as we do about the product. Our own knowledge gets in the way. Companies have an advanced understanding of the technology because they live with it every day. Customers, even those with PhDs, are not at the same level of expertise. This makes it hard for vendors to relate to their customers. It is nobody’s fault. It is just how our brains are wired.

Neil then offers a solution which happens to coincide very closely with how that US automaker lightened the weight of their cars:

Often the problem of too much knowledge can best be addressed by bringing in an someone who does not have the same level of knowledge as your team… The key is that they have the ability to question your assumptions about your product and your customer. (emphasis added)

This is very similar to advice from Michael Roberto’s book Know What You Don’t Know (a longtime favorite of mine that I happened to recently turn Neil on to as well!). In his book, Michael Roberto agrees with Neil that managers need to “seek out the youngest and the brightest inside and outside the organization” to “gain access to a different worldview” about your products and markets. And these two additional suggestions to get unfiltered points of view appear particularly relevant to breaking the curse of too much knowledge:

  • Seek-out-unfiltered-information-go-out-to-peripheryGo to the periphery. Communicate with co-workers in distant geographic regions, units exploring new technology and groups or ventures outside of the firm’s core market. Focus on the disconnects between what people living your products every day versus the “periphery” of the business.
  • Talk to the “nons”, as in speaking with non-customers, non-employees and non-suppliers; those who do not interact with the company, whether for a particular reason (why?) or simply being unaware of your organization. What are their reactions to your product and value prop? Do they “get it” and express some interest in it? If not, why not?

Neil Baron offers a very thorough process in his value proposition workshop to overcome the curse of too much knowledge using tools and techniques based on cutting-edge brain science from MIT. Similarly, Michael Roberto’s book also addresses the root causes of barriers to getting fresh, unvarnished perspectives on products and customers, some of which also involve brain science (confirmation bias) and others rooted in the unfortunate reality of “palace politics” (pressure to conform; advocating for one’s own best interests).

A clear first step forward is to simply accept the paradoxical notion that we as product marketers and product managers just might not “know what we don’t know,” while at the same time “knowing too much”!

If you liked this article, you may also like:

“Collective-We” Firms Eat “Exclusive-We” Competitors for Lunch (and How to Become One)

Product Managers & Marketers Should be “Intelligently Disobedient”

Be a Dogged (not Dog!) Product Manager

 

Using Business Intelligence for Effective Business Storytelling

An appropriately told story has the power to do what rigorous analysis couldn’t: to communicate a strange new idea and move people to enthusiastic action.

~  Steve Denning, “The Leader’s Guide to Storytelling”

Business storytelling, campfire optional

“…And my phone log analysis proved the calls were coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!!”

The most successful business intelligence professionals are also great storytellers. Regardless of your BI tools of choice, it’s important to note that “business storytelling” is not synonymous with infographics or data visualization. Every analytic tool can slice and dice data in a multitude of ways, but, of course, correlation is not causation. (More on this in a moment…)

Also, effective business storytelling does not necessarily require advanced data visualization tools. Any organization can take a the first step towards better storytelling by following universal best practices when creating even the most simple chart. Data consultant and author Thomas Redman recently wrote: “As Edward Tufte advises, label the axes, don’t distort the data, and keep chart-junk to a minimum.”

Redman’s next recommendation is also very simple: annotate your charts. “While annotations do not replace a well-told story, they do give the reader some inkling of what’s involved.”

Take a look at the “before” and “after” charts cited by Redman in his article. The annotations in the “after” chart tell a story how the company successfully improved customer data quality were successful, all in a very simple line chart:

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The chart annotations (above) are not just helpful notes; they also comprise a second set of data (the key milestones of the company’s data quality program – by month), correlated with the monthly data quality measures. As a result of this data correlation, a time series cause-and-effect story emerges, complete with a beginning, middle, and a happy ending.

This leads to a key point: the most compelling business stories present strong correlation-causation relationships using many disparate yet complimentary sets of data.

Perhaps you have seen Charles Joseph Minard’s 1869 data visualization of Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812. It was deservingly praised by Edward Tufte in his classic book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information: “It may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn.”

Charles Josepn Minard's Chart of Napoleon's 1812 March to Russia (1861).

Source: Scimaps.org. Click map to view/enlarge image. See also: http://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/posters

Minard painstakingly correlated multiple data sources: the movements of Napoleon’s army over time, their geographical location – marching to Moscow and then retreating from it – with the (rapidly narrowing) thickness of the line representing the number of Napoleon’s men, falling in battle as well as from deadly subzero temperatures that hit a low of -30⁰ F/-38⁰ C.

Minard then brought his many datasets together to very effectively tell the story of Napoleon’s futile Russian campaign and the misery of his soldiers, resulting in massive casualties that wiped out the Grande Armee.

Fast forward to today: Big data infrastructures and analytics hold huge potential to not only tell the story of the loss of life from violent conflicts of past history, but also in the future – by piecing together stories that help prevent global violence before it actually happens.

This critical world goal was covered in a Foreign Policy magazine article, Can Big Data Stop Wars Before They Happen? Author Sheldon Himelfarb cites three key trends justifying optimism that the answer will soon become a clear “Yes”.

First, Himelfarb points out the increasing amounts of data being generated by more and more people through digital devices; and second, our expanded capacity to collect and crunch data like never before. But the third trend he notes is the most critical to developing a clear story of human sentiment that can forewarn us of future violence:

When it comes to conflict prevention and peace-building, progress is not simply a question of “more” data, but also different data. For the first time, digital media – user-generated content and online social networks in particular – tell us not just what is going on, but also what people think about the things that are going on.

Excitement in the peace-building field centers on the possibility that we can tap into data sets to understand, and preempt, the human sentiment that underlies violent conflict.

Thankfully, the stories we want and need to tell in our respective organizations don’t fall into this same literal life-or-death category. However, all effective business storytelling requires the same two core elements:

  • Not just “more” data… Different data. Integrate of as many varieties of complimentary data as possible on the backend – structured and unstructured, internal and external. Doing so lets you present what has happened with strong correlation/causation, as well as enabling deeper advanced analytics (e.g., location-based, sentiment, predictive).
  • Clear, annotated, “junk-free” data visualizations. Combine and present your data on the front end as a compelling story that conveys understanding, empathy and a sense of urgency to take action.