I’ve always loved the Caterpillar story. Last year’s set of posts highlighting Ken Gray and Nathan Furr’s article on cultivating innovation from the inside highlighted Ken and his team’s efforts developing the 336E H hydraulic hybrid excavator. The focus of this post was on developing the right champions at the right times to secure a project’s success. This stealth project might never have seen the light of day without a lot of stealth work coupled with engaging these champions carefully over time. It’s a great story, but I’d like to take the champion concept a bit further. To be candid, especially in developing disruptive or breakthrough innovations, with champions without developing a focus upon their personal success while mitigating their risk, most bigger ideas will never succeed.
Ken Gray’s story is terrific but its rarely able to be done persistently and the ability to hide a pretty significant amount of scarce resource expenditures coupled with a lot pf potential personal time means the one directing this is likely powerful and already a champion themselves. So how can one make it less rare? One approach involves cultivating different types of champions over a long period of time through your career both within and outside the firm, especially at suppliers and most importantly customers and then calling on them when the time is right and the need exists.
Champions – Who Are They?
Here’s the main message. They are not just senior executives with purse strings and signing authority. Champions are those with critical abilities and the associated reputations to advance your program forward. They can be seen through a number of frames:
- Your Company
- Your Prospective Customers
- Your Customers Customers
- Your Suppliers
- Your Regulators
Within these are the functions, from senior leadership to marketing to product development and so on. Very early in my career, after a lot of coaching from my father and his Loctite colleagues, I learned just how important this was. I was a new PhD chemist, on the job for a couple of years when I was handed a major project everyone else had failed at for new automotive resins. I knew I had to do something different but I had very little real experience. The Loctite guys had told me to find champions everywhere, in every function, at every customer, within our firm and on and on.
What did I do? I found two deeply respected, top analytical chemists by example who were critical to my work – and invited them to every team meeting and copied them on every report, minor to big. No one had ever done that. I instantly had those two champions in that department. They did work on weekends, at night, anything to keep the “story” going. Customer access? I invited the senior technical sales and service staffer the same way. Again, no junior staffer or even R&D member had done that. I got feedback on needs, customer comments, specifications, competitive intelligence that I never would have had otherwise.
When I finally had to give my first big update on what was becoming a major technical breakthrough, I invited them with me to the office meeting with my direct senior execs. The result? Now they were my champions as well, along with those other staff as well as now some intrigued customers who wanted samples as soon as they were ready.
The message – champions are everywhere and it’s your job to develop your own team. As I’ve developed my career and own businesses, twenty and even thirty years plus later, those champions are there when I need them. My own success? It was all of my champions that did it – I was simply blessed to have them.
Champions – What Motivates Them?
A lot of things, but the most powerful two I’ve found is being a part of a success intimately as well as the chance for improved career development via said success – aka, a promotion, more money, a bonus or a new job. It’s that simple.
At customers, Loctite called these people “Loctite Charlies” after an early customer employee who so depended upon Loctite for his success that after changing jobs, one of his first calls was to his Loctite sales rep to whom he declared
“I’ve got a new job and I know you can get me my first promotion. Let’s meet, here’s what I do here and how can you help me?”
You see, when done right, you actually are those people’s champion yourself. They want to help you because you have helped them and been successful at it, likely persistently and repeatedly.
Develop Your Champion Relationships
Well, your reading this, so your on Linked in likely. Networking. Collaborating. Giving respect. Giving people a voice. Helping them up, not down. Take the time to develop these relationships by being a champion yourself first, when you do not need the help.
In my career, after a wife with three different cancers over 20 years, I’ve learned that helping and developing others gives me far more satisfaction than anything else in my life. I’ve realized that if I can save just one person from repeating my mistakes or advancing their lives to a better place, then It’s likely that someday, for most, when I need help they will be there. So do not simply network – make a difference. Be dependable. Sacrifice a bit of yourself. That’s what a real champion does. It’s what can then truly drive their own success.
Also, develop many different relationships per the above – across all functions, across al disciplines, from customers to suppliers to your own firm to other critical influencers. Develop yourself as their resource in what and who you know. Again, be one of their champions.
Build Your Own Champion Team
Now that you have this ever growing, developing network, when you need to innovate, conceive of that great way to serve a big need or solve that challenge you can put that key group together as needed and that group can find you more.
Just like a great sports club, you can put in that key player, get that key advice, access critical resources or get the word out better than most.
Be a Great Entrepreneur – Obsessively Mitigate Risk Versus Reward
Well, now for the real work in getting those champions to buy in, especially those with greatest risk – likely your boss, the customer – the one who can make the big decisions. Your job is to mitigate the risk versus the reward and only where the rewards look to vastly, verifiably outweigh the risks should you approach those decision making champions. Seems simple, right? How few actually do this honesty and effectively.
Next? Again, the seemingly obvious – understand the risks and quantify and rank them. Be truthful, be honest, actually do a through analysis. Don’t and you yourself are indeed the big risk. Champions do not like risk.
Demonstrate Powerful Need
Prove the need – there are a million posts, books, articles and experts on this, so there is no point here here in discussing the details. The bottom line – if you talk to the customer half way through, at scaling or last, you’ve made a big big mistake. The objective then, when having an idea is to first demonstrate powerful need and a strong pull from customers, no different than preparing a startup pitch deck.
Have a demonstrated need where the rewards look to outweigh the risks and well, I bet you might get that decision making champion or three.
Prove The Required Technology Already Exists
Decision making champions abhor risk in all of its forms, but none is worse is than the technology black hole. I just need more time, more money, more scarce resources.
You know that awesome network of champions you’ve developed? Use it to discern where the elements of your idea already have been reduced to practice, where support to incorporate the technology exists and use those testimonials, examples, sample a to prove this is not like man’s discovery of flight. Empowered with documented need and the proof that the technology elements exist coupled with those long term senior relationships and you are likely to get that skunk works or an overt program.
Building on the latter points, investment in novel, disruptive programs should generally be inversely proportional to said risk – if that cannot be true, the risk coupled with investment is likely too high. Decision making champions like low cost bets as there is likely little if anything to lose. Again, talking to a lot of people and finding existing technology and the like is far less costly that that black hole program. Don’t be that guy or gal.
Let Your Champion(s) Shine!
Well, if you’ve done all of the above and more, it’s time for one last thing. Let your champions shine, not you. Those Loctite “Charlies” were what they were because the Loctite salesman – the “Charlies” champion in fact – knew that his job was to promote that guy or gal first, and the company second. You never sell to companies – you sell to people. You sell to your prospective champions. Let them shine!