Bad idea: updating products for no real benefit to the consumer

I’ve been a product manager and been to business school. We all learned about the cows, dogs and stars via the BCG Growth-Share Matrix.

But there comes a time when so-called innovation is just annoying to your consumers. That happens when you take a product that is working just fine and you “improve” it to the point where is it just doesn’t meet customer needs or wants.  This often happens when a product is no longer bringing in the revenue it did once, or when management want to increase revenue from a product.  A typical solution to this is a product refresh. The idea behind this is to take a successful product and tweak it a bit to drive better sales and it is often used as an excuse to increase retail price.

An excellent example of this phenomenon is the Berlei company who make a bra called Barely There Contour. For many years this bra has been the staple foundation garment for working women around the world. This product – while not pretty or fancy – made the wearer look good, was entirely functional and could be worn all day in comfort at work and then into the evening if necessary. The straps were extremely comfortable and it was by far the best bra to wear for a twelve hour stretch; plus it looked good under either business or casual attire.  It was a great bra for travelling in – it was a favourite to wear for sitting on a plane on long business trips.

I suspect that this product was, for Berlei, a cow as per the matrix above. And there is always an interesting decision to be made in changing products. Do you create a new product, do you enhance the old one, do you create a line extension?

In this instance existing loyal customers are faced with the “Berlei Barely There NEW REFRESHED Contour Bra“. This product refresh has not been a success from my perspective. A line extension might have been a better alternative.

What does that mean? Well it means that the once comfortable straps that used to make it my bra of choice are now painfully narrow ones that dig into my shoulders and make me conscious of wearing a bra (when it should be the last thing on my mind).

It also means that the newly refreshed Berlei Barely There Contour (BBTC) model now has straps that even when extended to their fullest length are not long enough for the bra to sit comfortably under my bust. This again is an uncomfortable feeling, and I suspect that it contributes to the digging in of the now too narrow straps.

I wore one of this new model out yesterday to meet some friends for yum cha. While sitting waiting for them to arrive I was extremely conscious of how the narrow straps of the BBTC were digging into my shoulders rather painfully, and how it was not sitting comfortably under my bust. This has never happened with the old model of this product (of which I’ve owned more than ten). I could not wait to get home and remove the damned thing.

Many friends who were fans of this product have reported similar experiences to me. In fact, one of the women at yum cha recounted precisely the same experience and asked if I’d found a viable alternative product.

It makes me wonder did Berlei actually try out this new “refreshed” model on any actual consumers? Did they have a clue why the old model of this product was one of the most popular bras?

Sadly Berlei have now lost a customer and loyal brand advocate. I need something I can put on at 6.30 am and wear all day in the office and then head out to a function in the evening after work. I need something that makes me look good and is so comfortable I don’t even notice I’m wearing it.

Thanks Berlei for “improving” this product. Hope that works out for you. In the meantime I’m looking for an alternative product. If anyone has tips on alternative products please let me know.  If anyone has stock of the old model please do let me know – I’ve got some friends who’d love to take those off your hands.

By the way I’ve got two of these new model things that will be sent back to the place where I bought them. It’s a real pity that I’ve already worn the other one. Looks like that one will be going in the bin.

Interview with 2 of my favourite entrepreneurs @jason @garyvee

If you’ve got time it’s worth taking some of it to watch this interview with Jason and Gary.

Jason Calacanis, himself a serial entrepreneur, is a great supporter of startups with his LAUNCH Conference.

Gary Vaynerchuk is a well known entrepreneur who built up his family business to a major player using social media and the force of his remarkable personality.

Having met both of these guys, one thing that stands out about each of them for me is that they are truth tellers. You might not like what they say, but they call it as they see it. The corollary is that they often put out a helping hand for people who are working on their own startups. Good guys, with good experience, worth listening to.

Gary raises some important issues about how social marketing is not about push. If you’re trying to sell stuff using social media then this is a crucial conversation to understand. As Gary says:

“If Content is King, then Context is God”

Don’t forget to sign up for the next Sydney Social Innovation BarCamp 26 Feb

Join us for the next Social Innovation BarCamp in Sydney. It’s free registration so sign up now and participate in a day of ideas, conversation and creative thinking.

Register for Social Innovation BarCamp 26 Feb 2011 in Paddington, Australia  on Eventbrite

Again we’ll be crowdsourcing ideas for creating new business models for social good and building up our community network of changemakers.

Like our previous Social Innovation BarCamps this one will provide a place for facilitated conversations (details of the session format here) where anyone can share:

  • a story or an idea
  • kick off a discussion on something they are passionate about
  • share about a cause they want to rally support for
  • road test new social innovation ideas and workshop them with a group

This is your chance to get your ideas out into the open amongst a friendly crowd, as one of the participants said after our last BarCamp:

“thanks #sibsyd, without the barcamp I would never had courage to actually talk about my ‘silly’ idea with somebody else let alone pursue it.”

When: Saturday, February 26, 2011 from 9:30 AM – 5:30 PM
Venue: COFA Cnr Greens Road & Oxford Street, Paddington 2021 Australia

Register for Social Innovation BarCamp 26 Feb 2011 in Paddington, Australia  on Eventbrite

This post was originally published on Social Innovation Sydney and is reproduced with permission.

Guest lecture UNSW law school

Late yesterday I spoke with a class in the Strategic Public Advocacy for Civil Society course at UNSW law school. They are lucky to have Joan Staples as lecturer – because she is one of the few people in Australia who understands these issues at both a deep practical level and at a theoretical level.

The class and I talked about the digital revolution and its impact on social activism. We covered topics such as wikileaks and the implications for activist groups, the risks of cloud computing, and some of the successful digital campaigns (such as Greenpeace’s Nestle action).

Meeting up with smart and thoughtful young people like this class always gives me hope for the future of our country and for the world. They asked a lot of insightful questions and hopefully the session gave them different perspective on digital technology and advocacy.

There was also a mention of the various #wonkdrinks that take place from time to time around the country. The funny thing about this discussion was one of the students asking what a wonk is. And then immediately followed the dawning realisation that most of the class were, in fact, wonks.

For the uninitiated a wonk is defined as:

“wonk (wongk) noun
An expert who studies a subject or issue thoroughly and excessively.
[Of unknown origin.]
This word is most often encountered in the term “policy wonk”. There are many speculations about the origin of the word, for example an acronym for WithOut Normal Knowledge, or the reverse spelling of the word know, but these claims are not supported by evidence.”
[Source: A.Word.A.Day]

But for me the real sign of a political/policy wonk in Australia is whether they own or have watched the entire series of The West Wing and/or they regularly watch The 7.30 Report and Q&A on the ABC. Other wonk give aways are that they know the names of federal or state electorates and who is the sitting member; or the names and portfolios of ministers; or even of shadow ministers.

For those interested in #wonkdrinks you can follow on Twitter @wonkdrinks.

I also mentioned some of the social change and activist related meetups that happen around Australia, some of these include:

The Social Change Collaboratory
Social Innovation Sydney
NSW Wonk drinks
ACT Wonk drinks
(please let me know if there are any to add to this list)

Innovation – does it make sense for business?

Every business book I pick up nowadays seems to accept as a fundamental premise that innovation is a good thing and that it should be pursued relentlessly. But I’ve been wondering about that particular premise and under what circumstances it might (or might not) be true.

Innovation provides us with a dilemma in business. Don’t do it at all and the business will probably die over time. Or others will innovate and leapfrog the business – this is what has happened to Australian retailers (like Gerry Harvey) who have ignored their online channel. Do it too early, too late or too often and it could also damage the business.

A business is setup to measure, monitor and reward people on the basis of performing well in the existing business model, and few businesses are setup to simultaneously manage a disruptive new business model.

Then there is the challenge of innovating while continuing to run a successful business. After all, if the current business is not broken, why would people bother to change? This is a big problem that I have seen many times. Once the need to change is obvious it is often too late and market disruptors are already in play. In many organisations the pressure on getting the most out of the current business model leaves little spare capacity for innovation.

This dilemma of managing both the existing business and innovation at the same time is the great challenge for business leaders of our day. We can see ample evidence of this with the Australian retail industry. Many of the big retailers rested secure in their ‘knowledge’ that online had failed in the dot-com bust of 2000. They ignored the online channel and competitors from overseas have gradually grabbed market share to the point where Australia’s retailers are now crying out for government assistance.

It is interesting to see that, in contrast to the head-in-the-sand approach of many Australian retailers, shopping mall giant Westfield has pursued a diversification into online shopping as well as focusing on their core bricks-and-mortar business. [Disclosure: I used to work for Westfield as part of the digital team.] Thus they have balanced their successful existing business model with innovation.

In the places where I have worked successfully on new products there has been a happy confluence of things that made it possible. Among them were:

  • substantial top-down support from C-level team, coupled with time to educate executives about the idea/product and it’s benefits and risks to the business
  • an active and responsive project owner at executive level who can protect the team and manage upwards effectively
  • adequate resources to get the job done
  • appropriate oversight and governance (but not too much)
  • freedom to get it wrong in the short run, together with focus on getting it right in the long run
  • clear goals, objectives and milestones
  • adoption of agile development methods for software
  • good project management together with adequate reporting to enable stakeholders to gauge progress
  • a small tight-knit team who have a clear sense of mission and purpose

Whenever these things have come together for an innovation project it has been successful. Where these are missing the success has been much more hit and miss. That is not to say that an innovation cannot be brought to market without these things, but it is much more fraught with angst and is much harder for all concerned.

Business leaders really need to think about what internal barriers to innovation exist in their organisations and how to create safe nests for innovation to incubate.

Rebooting business and capitalism

Last year with the launch of Social Innovation Sydney I was inspired by the idea of rebooting capitalism. I had become depressed about the nature of business in our world today and wanted to do something practical about changing things.

Then I went off to Paris for LeWeb 2010 Conference and ran into Tara Hunt and our conversation got me thinking (I love meeting people who make me think!).

Upon arrival at home I read Tara’s posts about The Hole in the Soul of our Culture [Part 1 here and Part 2 here – both are recommended reading] and these resonated with the feelings that had sparked my involvement with Social Innovation Sydney.

Tara’s posts also pointed me in the direction of Umair Haque’s I’m Bored – The Significance Manifesto, which I’d missed during my travels.

I believe that we have entered an age where ‘business as usual’ is no longer viable. We need to come up with new business models that are founded on truth, openness, justice, equity, and sustainable profit. No longer can we sustain a world where profit and profit alone is the only goal of business (after all we are not Ferengi). We need businesses that change the world, that make things better for people, that do not destroy the environment for future generations.

We have flirted around the edges of change with notions like the triple-bottom-line to no avail. The existing culture of business has shown itself to be highly resistant to change. Existing business culture does not value the things that go into creating value that are not easily measured as ROI. Thus having a conversation with a customer is often not valued highly over getting the customer off the phone quickly to meet KPIs in a call centre.

I suspect that Tara is right when she identifies a key part of the problem as us:

“But it all comes back to what we value and why I think we have a hole in the soul of our culture. It isn’t merely the businesses and boardrooms where there lies an issue. It’s all around us. In North America at least. We pay lip service to wanting to change the world, to being better human beings, to ‘balancing’ our lives, but when it comes down to it, we tend to be more impressed with big numbers: 1 MILLION hits, 100,000 followers, $1 BILLION market capitalization, etc.”
[Source: The Hole in the Soul of our Culture – Part 2]

The change needs to start with an individual deciding to be different and to think differently. Deciding to shift away from instant gratification and ROI measured in mere numbers seems to be the first step. I also suspect that once an individual changes their thinking in this way that individual behavioural change will not be far behind.

New initiative: the Digital Revolution and Government #gov2 #gov2au

One of my great passions is the digital revolution and how it is affecting society. A key area of our life that the digital revolution is changing is government and governance. Revolutionary thinkers like Clay Shirky and others have even posited the notion of a kind of digital direct democracy.

Exploring these ideas and finding actionable insights is important for Australia and its people, and today Craig Thomler and I have launched a  Government 2.0 Futures project with a new site about Australia’s Government 2.0 future:

“… to provide public sector policy-makers, practitioners and academics with a collection of views on Australia’s Government 2.0 future.

Through we are asking Australian and international Gov 2.0 experts, commentators and practitioners – and the Australian community – to reflect and contribute their views on three questions:

  • What does Government 2.0 mean for Australia’s governance?
  • How will Government 2.0 change the culture and practice of Australia’s public servants and governments?
  • What will Australia’s Government 2.0 future look like?

We hope to release a selection of these contributions under Creative Commons next year as a free ebook. We also hope to release a paper version to sell in bookstores and online. Any profits from the sale of this book will go to support Government 2.0 initiatives from not-for-profit organisations in Australia.

We invite you to be part of Australia’s Government 2.0 future by contributing your viewsideas and suggestions via the website.”

Source: eGov AU

Living in the future: new media, new consumers, new desires

The old media model of the twentieth century was monolithic and based on a broadcast model. Large scale media players distributed a fixed series of products to a passive audience.

In the twenty-first century we are seeing the beginnings of a new media model. The passive broadcast audience is fragmenting into niches. Now audiences are not passive. They have been trained to engage with their media by years of playing online games. And they also expect to be able to engage with other people as part of their consumption of media. Thus the audience is no longer merely an audience, instead they are participants. And those participants are hyperconnected with each other.

This evolution is causing shifts in the business models of organisations that deliver media content. The power relationship between the creators and distributors of media and their erstwhile audience is shifting.

The introduction of new devices is also driving this trend. Social computing is truly here now that we have devices like the iPad or Android tablets. These devices encourage collaborative behaviour and sharing of the media participation experience.

Participants (or consumers) in this new media landscape are also on the move. No more are we tethered to a television or desktop computer. Our computers are in our mobile devices like cell phones, laptops and tablet computers. Our consumption while on the move is only limited by battery life (especially if using Apple devices).

A defining feature of the media that will be successful in this new milieu is device neutrality. Successful media products will not need to be played on a particular machine or device, nor will we be forced to consume it on only one device.

This means that licensing and related legal constructs will need to evolve too. Consumers want to buy the rights to content only once but to be able to consume it on our various devices at will. Consumers also want ways to give our right to the content to another person to play on their devices.

Consumer demands for this kind of flexibility are growing and will continue to increase. The media industry needs to face up to these kinds of demands and find ways to accommodate these consumer desires. Locking down access is not the answer. Loading increasingly onerous legal obligations upon consumers and enforcing them vigourously (for example by way of Digital Rights Management) is no way to address the evolving consumer demands.

It is time for the new media creators and distributors to find new ways to price-in flexibility and ease of use. The realities of a global market for digital media must be acknowledged.

The business of being agile

Recently I noted several large businesses announcing proudly they had adopted Agile development techniques – for example Suncorp, NBN Co, Allianz, Jemena.

There is a pattern to the adoption of a new methodology within an organisation. I have lived through the adoption of a number of new methodologies over the years at various companies, for example: Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, Lean, Capability Maturity Model, and Balanced Scorecard (to name a few).

Like many corporates adopting a new idea I suspect that these four companies are in the honeymoon phase. They are still getting managers used to the ideas, training staff in the new processes. And the critical things for success will be:

  1. consistency of management support,
  2. consistency of practice, and
  3. consistency of internal reward systems.

Without these three kinds of consistency the adoption of the new methodology is a real challenge. Most importantly the internal reward systems – not just remuneration, but also promotion and recognition – need to be recalibrated to support and endorse the new methodology.

To effectively support Agile development (or Agile adoption in any other part of the business) it is necessary to change some of the cherished management tools and practices that date from the days of Taylorism.

Agile means doing something that seems counter-intuitive. It means accepting the uncertainty which is inherent in so many business activities. It also means working with that uncertainty to create change and build value based on the social nature of business and the creative process. It also means that we shift away from long-term highly-structured and well-documented plans and towards smaller chunks of work. Thus certainty is achieved in small focus deliverables and there is an ability to quickly adapt to new business needs and requirements.

At about the same time I saw the news about these four companies I also discovered a wonderful summary of the challenges we often face in adopting agile in an enterprise context in the form of the Manifesto for Half-Arsed Agile Software Development. This sums up the situation facing organisations that want to adopt Agile practices successfully.