Advice to the New GM

What advice would you give your best friend? Business advice, I mean. I've had to think about this question once or twice a year for the past decade.

Recently I came across some advice I offered to a not-too-close-friend four years ago. It was early 2012, and he had just taken a role as GM of a large business unit, part of a household name Fortune 200 corporation. He said, "I have to create organic growth, not just incremental but real (double-digit) growth. That's what you do, right? What should I do?"

Since I didn't know him that well, I wrote my advice down in a formal letter, which is how I know exactly what I said.

Dear Chris,

Hat’s off to you for taking on this new challenge. It’s difficult work to foster organic growth. For decades the promise has been there, but somehow we find every other growth mechanism to be easier. Six sigma. M&A. Global expansion. Branding. Cost reduction. Again and again, organic growth falls to the bottom of the list. It’s just too hard.  It is hard in a successful business, and even harder in a struggling business where it’s usually all-hands-on-deck to protect margins.

After years of throwing our best MBAs at the problem, Design has been asked to ride in and save the day. That doesn’t work, either. Growth projects still fail, but they fail for different reasons than before. I learned this working as a consultant to P&G and HP from 2005-2009.  
Outsourcing the project to a design agency doesn’t work, either. You end up with inspiring designs, no doubt, but the tie to your core capabilities is tenuous, and there is the problem of commercial roll-out. At first contact with the market, firms lose confidence in the new offering, despite how unique it seemed in the boardroom.

What does work? Nothing that’s sure-fire, honestly, but since 2009 we’re having great success with a surprisingly simple approach:

(1)    Reframe the problem as entrepreneurship, not innovation … that puts the focus squarely on learning;
(2)    Change the work flow to focus less on design, more on design thinking … that puts designers in partnership with managers to create in-market learning; and
(3)    Compress the learning cycles to weeks, not months … that saves tens of thousands of dollars of wasted resources.

Over the past four years, I’ve personally led projects at eight different Fortune 250 companies using precisely this approach – it is the best answer thus far to the wicked problem of organic growth. Here’s another way to say what I’ve concluded:

When design is used as an alternative to analytics, it fails to create organic growth.  Instead, it creates beautiful, human-centered designs that lack a clear go-to-market path. When design and analytics are united in the cause of entrepreneurship, and when the team is committed to rapid in-market learning, hungry customers seem to pull the offerings into the market.

So that’s what I would do. You can follow the workflow described in our book, “Designing for Growth: A Design Thinking Tool Kit for Managers.”  We even apply design thinking to the business case, from the very first week of the project. This unites designers and managers in a shared goal, and it aligns them on the shortest path to get there.

Best of luck in your new role, and don’t hesitate to reach out to me.

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I check in with him from time to time, and he's had some wins, the biggest coming in an unexpected adjacency. He's had several explorations fizzle out, too, naturally. He says my advice has stood the test of time, but you never know if that's candor or just good manners, right?

Advice-giving is a tricky business. Don't offer it unless you’re asked, at least that's my advice! What's yours? Drop me a note if you have a favorite tip you've given or received.