NVTC is inviting members and industry leaders to serve as guest bloggers, sharing insights and information on trends or business issues relevant to other members. In the below post, Elizabeth Harr of member company Hinge explains how research is an essential element for tech firms in differentiating their brand.


Technology firms go to great lengths not to reinvent the wheel when developing new ideas. Staying on top of industry trends and tools keeps them from wasting time and money developing last year’s products or services. Tech firms live and die based on the quality of their research, of how in-tune they are with competitor’s capabilities. But even as technology providers differentiate their products and services, they often forget to differentiate themselves. And in the struggle to understand the competition lies the risk of blending in with the competition.

But if your firm is looking to grow, blending in is not the way to go. Our research shows a strong correlation between brand differentiation and growth. In fact, high growth firms are three times as likely to have a strong differentiator than firms with average growth.

So what makes a differentiator strong? Three things:

  1. It must be true. You can’t just make it up. Well, you could. But if you don’t practice what you preach—if you don’t deliver what you promise how you promise—you’re going to hurt your brand and your business.
  2. It must matter to your clients. More than just setting you apart, your differentiator must be important to your clients. You can boast having the best kickball team in the state, but if it’s not serving your clients’ interests, you can’t count on your differentiator gaining much traction.
  3. It must be supportable. So your differentiator is true and it matters to your customers, but you can’t prove it. That’s a problem. If it’s not quantifiable in some way, it can be difficult to communicate it to your clients. This is particularly tricky with “soft” differentiators like commitment to clients. A good rule of thumb is to avoid differentiators that everyone claims. Things like customers coming first or having the best team in the business are both hard to prove and everyone claims these. If everyone’s has (or at least claims) a particular focus, it can’t set you apart.

Discovering Your Differentiator

There are two ways to approach brand differentiation. You can uncover what you’re currently doing that sets you apart and play to that strength, or you can look for customer needs that are currently not addressed by the marketplace. Find out what your customers value and how you can rise to the occasion. Take a long hard look at the marketplace. Ask questions. Is there no one providing both of a couple of services that seem like a natural pairing? Is no one focused on a particular region, industry, or process?


Elizabeth Harr is a partner at Hinge, a marketing and branding firm for professional services. Elizabeth is an accomplished entrepreneur and experienced executive with a background in strategic planning, brand building, and communications. She is the coauthor of Inside the Buyer’s Brain, How Buyers Buy: Technology Services Edition and Online Marketing for Professional Services: Technology Services Edition.

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NVTC is inviting members and industry leaders to serve as guest bloggers, sharing insights and information on trends or business issues relevant to other members. In part three of her Engaging Your Total Enterprise Series, Board member Marta Wilson of Transformation Systems Inc. explains how a strategic plan can create impeccable decision-maker skills


How are you sure you’re moving forward in the right direction? Where’s the compass? Where’s the plan? One great misconception about strategic planning is that it sets in stone a course for the long haul. For those of us in the business of nimble, responsive strategic plans, the very idea seems linear, stale before it’s done—rote. I’m thinking of a word, and that word is “boring.”

Wordle: Strategic Plan

By contrast, a strategic plan can create impeccable decision makers. That’s because a successful plan puts everybody at work in the same place. In other words, a plan creates nexus. Everyone’s work is connected by common understandings. All the right people have all the right information to make all the best decisions that move everybody forward—one person, one decision at a time.

A strategic plan isn’t so much a piece of paper as a shift in mind. It moves responsibility for a company out of the hands of a few executives and into the hands—and heads—of everybody working the plan. For success, a strategic plan is a daily awareness. It’s simple. A strategic plan is what makes sure that the vessel leaves the hands of the manufacturer and is handed over to crew for passage to bolder destinations. Each person relies on his or her own power for many key decisions and knows when to turn to leadership for guidance with larger, collective changes.

A strategic plan is the best way—whether sailing is smooth or rough—for you to be involved in every decision without being in the way. The plan is a robust mechanism that keeps you from exerting a dampening influence on your teams. When you step out using a strategic plan you can count on unleashing the full power of your organization’s talent. Once a strategy is planned and in place, your only remaining challenge is stepping back, listening, and being humbled by the brilliance you find working for you.

How is this done? The well-crafted strategic plan isn’t complicated, although its development can take some time. The goal is clarity, and the process is energizing. What you have, in the end, is a shared understanding that becomes a familiar reference point. It’s used as a sure-fire way for each person to move forward independently without creating chaos or downward drag. This plan becomes the filter for sifting out meaning from all the noise among the rush of daily priorities.

A strategic plan doesn’t start on a blank sheet of paper. It builds on the organizational assessment that precedes it. Discoveries from the assessment are integral to how the business works and shares information—and also for the quality of information you have for keeping executive-level decisions in tune with what your people are doing. It also removes impediments to decision-making, because everybody knows the parameters for choices and the end goal that drives them.

Rapid response is possible no matter how large or far-flung your enterprise, and strategic planning is the key to rapid response, empowering everybody working ably within their spheres to be poised to make decisions quickly and in synch with everybody else.

All too often, though there is a plan, one no one takes it seriously as it sits in a three-ring notebook on an executive’s shelf. Having watched, over the years, the impact of a well-honed strategic plan on a business endeavor, I find it a shame that people slog to work to be part audience, part player in a poorly tuned, cacophonous symphony. It doesn’t matter if there is a skilled conductor— or executive—if there’s no sheet music from which to play. Just like an orchestra with its various instrumental sections, there are various subgroups within your enterprise. It’s natural for subsystems habitually to act independently and, all too often, at cross-purposes. But strategic plans are the integrating factor. They carry your leadership to the level of the individual instrument. They drill down into roles and responsibilities— and performance measures. Execution becomes smooth. There is little waste of effort and little reason for decision-making angst. Your team is finally working in unison, empowered to implement the daring decisions needed for triumph. Only with strategic planning can you get the musical score squared away so that you, as conductor, can restore order— enterprise integrity—among all the various parts of the ensemble.

A focus on the strategic plan typifies a skillful orchestral conductor who, amid the dynamic, ongoing flow of the music, can sense when the woodwinds are too soft, or the brass section too loud, and can guide the delicate adjustments that put the performance back into balance. When people in your group find themselves at that kind of nexus, there’s one way for you to be sure they can act with full ownership of the wellbeing of the organization: make sure they are fluent in the strategic plan and involved full force in the creative dialogue. Remember to keep everybody at the nexus: fully informed and informing decisions.

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NVTC is inviting members and industry leaders to serve as guest bloggers, sharing insights and information on trends or business issues relevant to other members. In part three of her Engaging Your Total Enterprise Series, Board member Marta Wilson of Transformation Systems Inc. shares ways to gain the best human capital management skills.


Managing human capital as a resource is like assembling a kind of jigsaw puzzle using talent for pieces and a strategic plan for the box top. If you want results, you need the best human capital management skills possible. You either have these skills or you hire expert skills. The experts either provide a short-term infusion or become embedded in your organization to uphold the human capital endeavor. No matter how well you manage human capital or how you choose to incorporate the process into your business, human capital strategy is doomed to be just one more plan— indeed, just one more empty ritual—unless it plays out in a vibrant cultural dialogue that motivates, inspires, and magnifies greatness in all your people.

As you devise a human capital strategy, you are aiming for the multipliers. You want to plan for the ineffable quality that gets you to a sum of five when you start with two and two. What is that? The best human capital management professional may have theories, but ultimately no one individual can provide that surprise extra, the multiplier. That’s because people magnify each other. As the Hawthorne Studies found in the early twentieth century, bonding among people has a magnifying effect on productivity and even a quotient of happiness. These days, the team may entirely co-locate in the same office or be connected across time zones and continents. It doesn’t matter whether people share projects or knowledge. What matters is that they share the dialogue and exchange the ideas. They thrive in the dynamic. People in a successful dynamic do more in ways that are leaner, faster, better, and smarter. That’s exactly what you need in today’s economic climate.

We all see shifting environmental drivers, tumultuous innovations, and advancing technologies that can undermine a stable and able workforce. Human capital, that underpinning of all the production in an Ideas Economy, is itself churning and unpredictable. Human capital risks can manifest themselves in different ways. One is the sheer lack of knowledge and leadership depth across the organization. Or, there can be a protracted and unclear development path for entry and journey level staff. There can be poor alignment of talent to priorities and strategic objectives. One of the greatest risks is when nobody is talking to each other about possibility, knowing, and change.

So, your first question when it comes to your talent mix must be, “Do I have enough of the right people in the right places performing the right work at the right time?” The immediate follow-up question must be, “Will I have that in five years?” My answer to either question is another question. “Who’s talking about what?” There’s one proven way to make sure the dialogue in your business isn’t idle chatter or bitter grievance motivated by boredom.  It’s collaboration. Of course, collaboration, while an art in itself, still relies on the baseline art of dialogue where business is concerned. In the end, whatever drives the conversations that magnify the potential greatness of your team is exactly what you want people to be discussing.

Steve Case, most widely known as co-founder of America Online and retired chairman of AOL Time Warner, spoke at an NVTC Titans Breakfast that I attended.  That morning, I was inspired when I heard him say that his focus is to “invest in people and ideas that can change the world.”  So the question for you remains: Are you prepared to be a dynamic partner? Are you ready to partner with your employees, your vendors, your investors, and your community? If so, that’s excellent! You’re setting yourself up to thrive in the future economic realities, which are upon us already.

Are you tentative about launching a human capital strategy initiative with so many priorities competing for your time and attention? If so, here are some questions for quiet contemplation:

  1. Is an effective performance management system in place and understood by all employees?
  2. Do employees have knowledge of the results their actions produce?
  3. Do we have a full complement of strategies to initiate, direct, and sustain desired individual and team behavior?
  4. Do we have enough of the right people in the right places performing the right work at the right time? Will we in five years?
  5. How many key people are likely to retire or leave in the next five years?
  6. What strategies will entice my best people to stay?
  7. Are we motivating staff with career paths?

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NVTC is inviting members and industry leaders to serve as guest bloggers, sharing insights and information on trends or business issues relevant to other members. In part two of her Engaging Your Total Enterprise Series, Board member Marta Wilson of Transformation Systems Inc. provides eight leadership qualities that have great impact on bottom-line success below.


Leaders who are able to transform enterprises into rapidly responsive and adaptable groups tend to share similar qualities. Now everybody in the organization needs to foster the same attributes. These qualities, summarized below, have great impact on bottom-line success. How? Through the bonds they create among everyone involved in your business. By fostering these collaborative bonds, leaders have access to all the best each person has to offer.

We notice in the workplace what academic research points out: These qualities are desirable in all employees and others who are in a position to help your business. These key attributes should no longer be reserved to official leaders.

Leadership Qualities for Everybody

Long-term View

Big Picture

Vision

Delegation

Motivation

Inclusivity

Self-awareness

Resourcefulness

Leaders take a long-term view. Certainly, from time to time they may set aside a grander view to complete a project on time and on budget. Largely, however, leaders balance schedule and quality with people’s needs. They understand how retention and engagement serve the organization as well as its employees.

Leaders see the big picture. They grasp how actions by one can affect many others. They also inspire others to think beyond their current domain of responsibility and gain a working knowledge of the greater system in which they work. This way, leaders inspire the leadership mindset in others.

Leaders provide vision to unify people’s energy and to inspire their actions. By being consistent, they also help align all work decisions. A clear vision permits people to act innovatively, because they have aligned their view and goals with the larger system.

Leaders delegate, but they don’t stop there. They also provide support and necessary resources while avoiding micromanaging and abandonment. Among colleagues, the person with leadership qualities is supportive and encourages bold, reasoned choices and actions.

Leaders motivate; they rally emotional energy in teams. They motivate through personal connection and through sharing the image of a total system. They understand that emotional energy can be fueled by vision and clarity.

Leaders are inclusive. They engage diverse interests and activities by establishing goals and fostering a shared awareness. Here, their work is like the conductor of an orchestra, including an appreciation for the social aspect of a group endeavor.

Leaders are self-aware. They have a keen sense of their greatest strengths and growth opportunities, and they continuously work for personal and professional improvement. Also, to increase their self-awareness, they consistently seek feedback from those around them.

Leaders are resourceful; they know their system. They are skilled at maneuvering around yet complying with policies and procedures. They don’t give up until the right thing is done right.

These qualities in people who have some stake in your organization can lead to a surge in innovations and solutions: a lineup of expert support worth encouraging. As a first step, I suggest getting a grip on your total system and beginning to understand the unique human factor that is changing even the classical solutions for organizational growth and change.

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NVTC is inviting members and industry leaders to serve as guest bloggers, sharing insights and information on trends or business issues relevant to other members. In part one of her Engaging Your Total Enterprise Series, Board member Marta Wilson of Transformation Systems Inc. shares her insights on adopting a total systems perspective below.


When Neil Armstrong’s foot dropped off the last step of the lunar module and onto the surface of the moon, he coined the famous phrase that his one small step was a giant leap for mankind. A single footstep had advanced human achievement. In the same way, any one person involved in your entire enterprise can move it forward
GPN-2000-001209exponentially. This post is about identifying those individuals and choosing the right steps.

A whole team of unseen people stood behind Armstrong. Besides his family and friends, Armstrong relied on a close partnership with colleagues at NASA. That NASA A-team, in turn, was building on the expertise and achievements of many others who preceded them. Armstrong stood on the shoulders of giants long before he took his one small step. The key is getting to the small steps in your organization—those instances that are, indeed, watershed moments of success—in the only way possible: by creating teams of giants.

Around the world and close to home in Northern Virginia, our organizations have become more networked. Our macro and micro challenges are ever more complicated, and our technologies are constantly advancing. The expertise of each individual is even more critical for shared knowledge and the innovative exchange of ideas.

We are choosing to experience each other in radically new ways. Our collective work in particular conjures up our ability to imagine context. As work grows more networked (or, in some industries, more “virtual”), our creative bonds are adapting to technology. Or rather, technology is leaving its imprint on our teams and on us as individuals. This shift offers an important opportunity, a new juncture where businesses can choose to build success from the individual up.

For example, it was always true that any individual might need to lead a group effort occasionally. In a bricks-and-mortar setting, every individual still finds him- or herself called upon to lead from time to time. This is not the same as the more visible, formally assigned role of leader. It is common for leadership to be informal and fleeting; people rise to meet the unexpected challenge and then resume business as usual. What defines the success of formal leaders is how well they empower everybody else to rise to the occasion. Are people around you ready and poised to apply their knowledge and abilities to forge a solution and achieve great things at a moment’s notice?

One person, one action has organization-wide value. This was true when the classic total systems thinkers were leading business into a new era of global competition, and it is truer now. The first step to unleashing the potential of individuals to improve your total organization is to get some concept of your enterprise as a working system, a total system.

When you see how one person can have organizational impact and how one task can have enterprise-wide impact, you can start to turn the formula around. Whenever you face a large-scale problem, you can begin by looking for changes that will solve many problems (or seize many opportunities) across the whole organization. That’s why it’s important to remember the special value of the human element in total systems. The human level is where continuous improvement occurs in organizations. Your role as a leader is to draw on each person’s fluency in one or two areas of a total system in order to improve the whole.

Consider suppliers. Their performance has profound impact on enterprise success. Their first-hand experience of your organization’s work effectiveness can provide feedback that moves from the point of contact all the way to affecting choices in product design or directions in service expertise. Suppliers are particularly central as strategic partners—and sources of market information. These key partners can actually bring their expertise to bear and create solutions to support success, if you take the time to explain to them your business needs and goals. This is total systems thinking in action. Have you talked with and listened to your key suppliers lately?

Customers are another great source for ideas to improve your products or services. Do you have a sufficient dialogue in place to discover ideas from customers’ unique vantage point? The same goes for your employees and contractors. Add to these the other stakeholders and people who interact with your organization in any way, from investors and media to the community-service groups with whom your staff may volunteer.

Each of these individuals has something to say worth hearing. They offer a comprehensive image of your total system at work. Here is where your quality of leadership is tested, even reworked. To begin, are you able to listen with an open mind to good and bad reviews? With a more updated approach, you also need to evaluate whether everybody in your business is listening, because everybody is asked to lead innovatively.

In the next three posts about engaging your total enterprise, we’ll move through some of the proven solutions leveraged today by successful executives. Along the way, I’ll describe how sea changes in our world are affecting the strategies you need in your business for the years ahead—and what you can do to get on the right course and navigate the whitewater of change.

 

 

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imageIn today’s workplace, a company must change to move ahead.  This requires a corporate culture that supports innovation.  (Whereas “invention” is the creation of a new idea, “innovation” is that new idea actually put to the test.)  And because experimenting with new ideas can sometimes lead to a dead end, a success-oriented company must encourage a tolerance for failure.

It’s really not hard to help your employees reach their creative potential.  You simply remove the barriers that impede their innovative ideas.  Here’s how:

  1. Build trust by telling the truth.
    Make sure employees know what is expected of them – then be consistent in your speech and behavior.
  2. Promote risk-taking.
    Use interviews or anonymous surveys to determine if employees hold back ideas – then explain why your company values creative thinking.
  3. Suspend judgment when employees offer recommendations.
    Say “yes, and…” instead of “yes, but…”
  4. Remove fear of blame for ideas that don’t work out.
    Explain that the company holds employees responsible for ideas – which is different from criticizing them when those ideas meet with failure.
  5. Help employees understand failures to prevent repeat occurrences.
    Involve those accountable in after-action reviews, and then make sure all employees understand why an idea did not succeed.

You cannot deny the need for certainty.  It’s only natural for the mind to predict and control the future.  But since the only certainty is change, the only companies who keep ahead of the curve are those which encourage innovation – even at the cost of failure.

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