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Black Belts vs Ninjas – The Fight for Innovation

In recent weeks I’ve talked to many business owners, partners, directors and mangers to try and gauge their confidence within their company and chosen sectors.

This has been a fascinating exercise which highlighted a number of interesting issues and quite a few common trends.

Following these discussions I’ve realised there is one area that I must highlight as a priority. There is a natural tendency for organisations to focus on costs, processes and efficiencies in times of recession and economic uncertainty at the risk of overlooking or mismanaging the search for innovation.

I too have evaluated in my business where cost savings can be made and how working smarter may deliver a better return on profits. The danger is that we become locked into a mindset that focuses on the internal mechanisms, processes and practices and don’t allow for the spark of innovation.

There are numerous examples of highly efficient CEO’s parachuted into struggling corporations to trim, tighten and improve the bottom line. When a business leader faces a change in the market, increased competition and potential threat to the customer base it can be comforting to fall back on tried and tested measures.

One such mechanism often used to great effect within process driven businesses is 6 Sigma. Originally developed by Motorola in the mid 80’s this set of clearly defined steps provides quantified financial targets for cost reduction and profit maximisation. I wish to stress that I am not anti Sigma as it has a demonstrable track record of success within many industries. The “Champions” of 6 Sigma or “Black Belts” become highly proficient in their roles constantly looking for the margin of improvement.

My concern, however, is that too many of the businesses I talked to have a 6 Sigma or equivalent focus on their business and bottom line. The long tail of our economic depression has resulted in looking inward for answers to survival rather than the “heads up” free innovative thinking that created the company.

Innovation should be a key part of every business but shouldn’t be confined to the measures and methods of 6 Sigma….some have tried this and it failed. You can measure innovation but as a process it should be allowed its opportunity to operate outside of conventional practices.

Creative thinking should also be within everyone’s job specification, not just the marketing and management staff. As humans we are naturally inquisitive and creative but often forget how to apply those aspects to our working days focussing instead on the tasks that need to be actioned but not allowing time for free thinking and putting forward ideas.

Encouraging innovation within a business is critical to its overall success and long term future, Apple, Starbucks, Red Bull and Dyson all place huge emphasis on the innovative core of their organisations and as a result reap the benefits.

But how do you encourage innovation? The obvious and rather blunt instrument is financial reward. That can work but often can prove divisive if an idea is, as is often the case, borne out of collaboration. Quite often the biggest motivator is recognition by senior management and perhaps a benefit or gift to reflect the effort.

    Top Tips to Introduce Innovation

• Set clear vision and goals
• Communicate to all staff – provide examples of innovative solutions
• Encourage participation – inject enthusiasm and make staff accountable
• Consider appropriate motivational hook
• Introduce a sense of urgency, positive stress
• Continue to communicate
• Measure the financial impact of ideas taken forward
• Celebrate and reward success and the effort even for the failures
• Maintain momentum – avoid complacency
• Enjoy the process

suited man martial arts

Senior managers should actively encourage discussion among employees around innovation and be open to the wild and whacky. Not every idea will grow legs and become the next “big thing” but the process and input of fresh thinking from all corners of the organisation will stimulate a level of creativity and engagement with the firm.

Those discussions should also focus on an overall sense of urgency or as I would prefer to term it the delivery of a level of positive stress. Without the positive stress complacency can set in and momentum quickly lost.

The hardest part of delivering an innovative organisation is in maintaining that sense of urgency and motivation beyond the first and second story of success. The business should constantly be looking for the “what’s next” and have an eye firmly set on the horizon.

What staff need to know from management is the simple outline of the direction of travel, ethos and core goals of the company. They need to know what they can expect for creating a “good” idea. They can then be set free to join the dots, brainstorm, scribble down ideas as innovative ninjas thinking and moving fast solo or in groups to invent the future of your business.

The great bonus of creating a focus on innovation is the fun you can have in developing ideas. Shot selection and picking winners is critical but the process can be and should be an enjoyable one for all staff.

David Laud – Consultant, CEO, Mentor


When 1 + 1 = 0 or The Trouble With Mergers

crisis cufflinks

The state of our economy can create a number of responses from the corporate world. An increase in the number of companies in administration, change of strategic direction, the board retains a fixed course with no change or they actively look to merge with or acquire a suitable partner.

On the topic of merger this can, if managed well, with clear vision and talent be a very positive step. Unfortunately the catalogue of merger histories is well stocked with its fair share of failures.

The original spark that created the merged business is typically founded in solid logic and should have all the ingredients for a successful outcome. Unfortunately the complexity and challenge of putting organisations together can dilute and lose the benefit of economies of scale and combined resources.

Critical to the success is a clearly articulated strategy delivered consistently by an effective leadership team. The focus at all times MUST be on the customer, lose sight of that key fact and matters can start to unravel fast.

Not many employees relish change and mergers present plenty of new challenges and potential threats to personal job security. Keeping the talent engaged is important as is the need to motivate the business to achieve the new goals.

There are many positives to be borne from mergers but before being charmed by a suitable partner it’s worth looking at theirs and other track records. We can and should certainly learn from the mistakes of others.

Interestingly in the world of telecoms there are 2 examples of where we appear to be seeing history repeating itself.

At the end of 2004 US telecom company Sprint announced its merger with Nextel. They were at the time the 3rd and 5th largest mobile phone operators in the US. The potential of such a merger was obvious and had the likes of AT&T and Verizon looking closely at the deal.
Sprint’s acquisition of Nextel ultimately was a financial disaster. In 2008 the company wrote down $30 billion of the $36 billion sum it had paid for Nextel in 2005, wiping out 80% of the value of Nextel at the time it had been acquired. The write down reflected the depreciation in Nextel’s goodwill since the date of acquisition.

CEO Gary D. Forsee was removed in 2007 marking a remarkable and rapid fall from grace. He had in 2004 been lauded as a “best manager” by Business Week only to become regarded as one of the worst CEO’s by Fortune magazine in 2009.

Why did this happen?

Despite much talk to the media of new technologies CEO Gary D. Forsee focussed on the financial savings to be gained out of the merger of the two corporations. He was heavily criticised for initiating programmes of micro management and cutting out costs from the business. The emphasis shifted from churn of customers to profit enhancements through cost savings. Claims of monitoring call centre staff toilet breaks only served to highlight the maniacal zeal Forsee had for getting every possible cent worth from his staff.

Complaints increased, 1,000 customers contracts were terminated by Sprint Nextel as they sought to rid themselves of persistent complainers. But many more followed putting the company at the top of the churn list as customers rushed to join the competition. There were also technical network issues which didn’t assist but overall the lack of investment in bringing customers over to the merged firm and inability to respond to the worrying customer indicators led to disastrous figures.

In the third qtr of 2007 Sprint lost a staggering 337,000 customers.

EE Olaf Swantee

Fast forward to 2010 and the UK. Orange and T-Mobile announce their merger. A new brand of Everything Everywhere is announced and last year shortened to EE in an attempt to bond the networks together.

It’s a little early to state categorically that this merger mirrors the Sprint Nextel debacle but the signs are not good. Being a once satisfied customer of Orange I have seen a dramatic drop in customer service, lack of knowledge from front line staff and farcical cost management of rebranding high street neighbouring Orange and T Mobile shops to EE.

Efforts to communicate with CEO Olaf Swantee have not been successful – his army of executive office helpers must be very busy handling his inbox traffic too as they take a while to respond.

The @EE twitter feed is full of angry customers who can’t get a signal, or get help in an EE shop, have other technical issues and unable to get a response from the customer service helpdesk. The EE Facebook page is also loaded with frustrated customer comment. It’s worth a browse – raises the question of the logic of having such a facility when it provides such s public shop window of customer dissatisfaction.

Is the CEO of EE presiding over the same drive to save costs, cutting service and technical resource but using the smokescreen of new technologies such as 4G to cover the cracks? All I know is that at the sharp end as a customer things are far from healthy for the UK’s largest operator.

Dutch CEO Olaf Swantee doesn’t take any prisoners in the corporate world. On his first day he fired six of his most senior managers. He then informed a further 120 vice presidents and directors that their jobs were at risk. Not long after a tour of call centres he announced a further 1200 to be put under risk of losing thrir jobs. He’s quoted as saying; “I don’t have an objective to make myself popular,” He’s not wrong there, it’s not a popularity contest but it is an interesting way to generate goodwill and motivation.

EE’s problem is that it’s not as profitable as its competitors, O2 and Vodafone, and Olaf has stated that he intends to close the gap by 2014.

Of course the trouble is you still need revenue, that’s customers and satisfied ones at that. EE need to balance a high level of technical and personal service with a drive to reduce cost. Concentrating exclusively and aggresively on cost will potentially see Mr Swantee joining that Fortune league – do you think he can “Forsee” that?

On the upside mergers can and do deliver, but best look at an equation that gives 1+1 = 3+ not 0.

If you’re considering growth through merger we’d be happy to discuss.

David Laud


How Many Social Media “Experts” Does It Take To Turn On A Lightbulb?

We’re all under pressure for one reason or another. This ever developing technology has not delivered its promise of greater leisure time and standards of living; well not for most of us anyway. Instead we’re expected to task like a multi armed, dextrous ninja; responding to e-mails, calls, texts, skype and of course schedule in good old fashioned face to face interaction.

No surprise then that I’m often met with a more than cynical sneer when its suggested that a business owner take some of that valuable time and engage in or make more resource available to develop their social media presence.

I get it. I truly do understand that the thought of “tweeting” baffles and bewilders, facebook’s not for everyone and Linkedin, whilst appearing more suited to the business professional; is not easy to see how you benefit.

Too many evangelical so called social media “experts” have fallen in love with the various platforms and the ego trip of growing followers, connections and responses and forgotten that for most they’re not seen as essential in the battle to grow their company. There’s an awareness of the staggering demographic statistics but not how they can be used to benefit a business.

Many of my clients are very sharp individuals who’ve typically built successful businesses by meeting the needs of a targeted customer base. They’ve kept a step ahead of the competition, invested in their company and know their business inside out.

They also have no fear in challenging the call to join the social media bandwagon. They didn’t succeed by following a flock but they’re curious enough to ask the direct questions everyone should pose to a new medium.

How does it work? What are the benefits? What are the costs? Who needs to be involved? Where are the opportunities? And my favourite which covers all the aforementioned, Why should we do it?

If practical answers to these key questions are not forthcoming it’s unlikely the business owners will engage, and who would blame them?

Each business is unique and no one solution can possibly “fit all” which is why my advice is qualified by researching the specific sector, understanding the issues and the behaviours of customer groups and industry influencers.

We’ve now experienced over ten years of social media activity, it continues to move very rapidly yet within this timeframe you can find a multitude of examples where companies have positivley engaged with their customers. These examples are quantifiable, real and very often prove to be the “lightbulb moment” for MD’s VP’s CEO’s Directors and Partners especially if it’s a business operating in the same sector if not a direct competitor.

From Insurance and Aflac running an XFactor styled voice talent competition to Airlines and KLM’s “meet and seat” facebook campaign.

Of course it’s not just big businesses that can afford to make the most of social media and most towns, sectors and networks have their own shining examples of “best practice”.

We strongly believe in encouraging ownership and participation “in house” to develop the understanding, not outsourcing social media activity to third parties.

As professional marketers our objective should be to build confidence for our clients and employers through practical planning, suitable resourcing and measurement; all prepared as a specific project helping to make best use of everyone’s time. Social media’s a serious business development tool but we should make sure we factor in time for some fun too.

If you’d like more information or arrange an initial consultation please drop me a line david.laud@i2isolutions.co.uk

David Laud – i2i Business Solutions LLP

David Laud
i2i Business Solutions LLP


Real-Time Re-election and Re-tweets

As Barack Obama appeared through the huge curtains at the Chicago Convention Centre his smile said it all, the crowd nevertheless said it for him, over and over again, a little like a re-tweet, “four more years, four more years….”.

With the economy far from recovery and very tough times forecast the US electorate have remained faithful to the Democratic Presidential incumbent.

Obama’s feisty Republican opponent, Mitt Romney had but one task, admit defeat gracefully and in a very public address he did just that.

No doubt the networks will be poring over the multitude of statistical data that such events spew out but for me there is one clear set of statistics that left me in no doubt of the outcome.

The evidence was part of our modern history.

In the Spring of 2011 a political wave started, initially overlooked by those in power. All too soon their underestimate of the strength of this wave became apparent due in no small part to the turbo charge push of social media platforms.

But four years before the Arab Spring, back in early 2007, a relatively unknown senator was running for president against Democratic nominee and household name, Hilary Clinton. But on November 4, 2008, Obama then 47 became the first African American President winning an election against Republican candidate, John McCain.

Mr Obama turned to social media platforms to gather support, raise funds and engage with volunteers the essential foot soldiers of any successful campaign.

Fast forward to the US election of 2012. Presidential wannabe Romney was trying hard to compete on twitter, facebook and Linkedin but unfortunately for the Republicans he was up against an opponent who is a natural social media communicator with a team of dedicated experts supporting his social media broadcasts.

Enough of this blogging rhetoric what about the facts?

On Twitter Mitt Romney has a respectable 1.7 million followers and has made 1,350 tweets. But just compare that to Barack Obama’s 22.7 million followers and 8,000 tweets.

As if those figures weren’t bad enough Michelle Obama has more followers than Mitt at a very healthy 2.2 million.

On Facebook Mitt has worked hard to match Barack but even his 12.1 million page likes pale compared to the re-elected presidents 32.8 million page likes with over 3.5 million actively talking about the content.

Google Plus – smaller numbers, but we’d guess at that. Obama 2.3 million +1’s with Romney less than half at 1 million +1’s.

Of course it’s not all about the numbers but if your message is being broadcast at those levels through these channels you have a major advantage, especially if your demographic fits the profile of the more active social media users.

As if to prove the point Obama’s victory tweet showing his embrace with wife Michelle and the quote “four more years” is now the most re-tweeted tweet of all time, so far RT’d over 650,000 times beating someone called Justin Bieber (you know who he is you just don’t want to admit it – ed) who’d held the record at 223,000.

Whether it proves to be the right decision for America only time will tell but one thing’s for sure, if a politician has any serious ambition they need to understand and harness the true strength of social media.

David Laud – Marketing Consultant
i2i Business Solutions LLP

e-mail me at david.laud@i2isolutions.co.uk follow me on twitter @davidlaud

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How to be Smarter with your Smartphone

Smartphone sales indicate that we’re now far more likely to have one of these technological marvels than not. Be it an iphone, HTC, Samsung, Google or other wannabe market leader they all offer a range of tools that take us way beyond “making a call”.

Recent research by Samsung indicated that making a call ranks 5th or lower in the list of things we do with our devices taking only 12 minutes a day on the task that was the original purpose of the mobile.

These days we would far rather browse the net, check our social media feeds, play games or listen to music but what else can these treasures of technology do for us?

If you’re on the go, often out of the office and need to stay in touch then it’s likely you’ve synched your work e-mail to the Smartphone.

Perhaps you’re responsible for making an impact with social media for your business. Couldn’t be easier to download the LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter apps and post on the move. They don’t all offer the same functionality as the PC based version but the convenience and immediacy of of posting and reading feeds whilst out of the office can be invaluable, especially if you’re using twitter or Facebook to monitor customer feedback.

Being mobile can create problems when trying to find venues for events, meetings etc.. No need to worry if you’ve a good map app connected and your location broadcast function is enabled on the phone. You can trace your progress on foot, in the car (if safely cradled and not in your hand) or on the train and even ask for a route to determine the time it will take.

Sharing information with colleagues and clients might be important to you but a problem if the all important project document sits on your office network. Fear not, cloud based services such as Dropbox can allow sharing of folders or links to specific documents with a few well placed taps.

If your life is so hectic you feel you’re not keeping up with the business world and areas that may affect you and your company I’d suggest revisiting the good old podcast. Finding the time to read trade journals, newspapers and magazines can be hard. These days there are a multiude of very informative and professionally produced podcasts. From wake up to money to the bottom line, most BBC business related radio broadcasts ara available to download and easy to subscribe to. Using the Smartphone as an aural digital box can be very handy. Listen to the podcast while commuting and get back in the know.

Perhaps like me you have the odd idea, recall of something that must be done or just want to put it in writing. You can use your Smartphone as a digital notebook recorder. Voice memos, notes and also software such as Dragon can allow you to talk to the device and have your words appear in document form which can then be saved, e-mailed or linked to social media. It can take a bit of practice.

On the subject of voice recognition a word of warning – you can look very silly having an argument with Apple’s “Siri” when it refuses to understand your command for the 6th time. Especially if you’re sitting in traffic apparently shouting at your dashboard. On a serious note Apple’s Siri – IOS.6 introduced a new array of functions and it’s expected to become the lead in voice recognition instruction leading to users asking for and relying upon responses directly from their phone. Google beware!

Our Smartphone’s have become almost indispensable items and as we learn to use more of their functionality and apps improve it’s very likely that the humble PC will take an even bigger step into the dark corner of the office.

Of course the beauty of these devices is that hey go beyond the pure work tool, they’re part of our every day. Hear a piece of music in an advert and want to know what it is? Just rewind and use your Shazam app. Miss the latest BBC drama just click on the BBC iPlayer app and you can catch up. Want to watch the match but you’re stuck on the train? Apps like SkyGo allow for immediate real time access to your subscribed channels.

On holiday you can get the Smartphone to translate menus and of course take high definition pictures or video which can be instantly uploaded and shared via social media apps. Looking for a coffee shop or cafe for lunch, the geo-location platforms such as FourSquare can help pinpoint the nearest offer and top tip.

Can they become addictive?….Oh yes, which is why it’s a good idea to have a schedule where you ensure its put to rest. Over use of the Smartphone can lead to sleepless nights, sore eyes and headaches let alone the ergonomic issues of thumb and finger use and a less gadget obsessed partner feeling jealous of the attention given to it and not them. I guess we’re not too far away from a gadget being cited as the other party in a divorce petition.

On balance they are proving to be far more help than hindrance but they shouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of a good old fashioned conversation, with eye contact and your mobile on “silent”.

If you’ve got an app suggestion that others might find useful let me know and we’ll share.

David Laud



Presentation Perfect – 10 top tips to give your presentation impact

Perhaps there’s something in the air or just a natural increase in demand for public speakers but I appear to be getting more requests to make presentations than I can ever remember.

Flattering as it is to receive the invitations there is then the dawning realisation that saying “yes” to these requests involves quite a lot of work.  But there’s no chance of winging it, putting off or leaving to the last minute. Professionally it’s not good form and personally if I commit I commit fully to the opportunity.

The upside to these requests is that it has focussed my mind on the essential elements that make good presentations and to not become complacent in either preparation or delivery.

Public speaking either within a company or externally can be one of the most stressful elements of your job or life generally.  There are very few “natural” untrained presenters most of us need to receive training and importantly learn from our own and others mistakes.  Hopefully the following tips will help organise your thoughts when you next get the opportunity to stand up in front of an expectant audience. 

  1. Research

Do your research and gather as much intelligence on the audience beforehand.  It can be very annoying and frustrating for a delegate at a conference to hear a speaker who patently does not understand their particular business.  Of course a good brief can really help too, don’t be afraid to ask the organisers for as much information and guidance as possible.  They should be more than happy to accommodate requests for further information.  The more you know about the context of the event and its purpose the better the chances of meeting their objectives; they want it to be a success just as much as you do.

  1. Know your strengths and weaknesses

Knowing yourself and your weaknesses is also critical to delivering on the day.  It starts with the preparation and allowing sufficient time for creation of the talk and rehearsal.  If, like me, you have a very hectic schedule don’t leave matters to the last minute, you’ll become overly stressed and under prepared leading to a less than impressive performance.

  1. Supporting cast or solo performance – tools

The tools you can use for delivering presentations vary but many still work with the tried, tested and trusted PowerPoint slide show.  Nothing wrong with computer generated slides but then again everyone uses it.  If your aim is to stand out it may be time to think of a new innovative way to deliver your message.  I’ve seen fantastic “stand up” presentations with no slides where the presenter is the animation, the bullet point and the show.

  1. Tech Support

If you do use technology it’s always helpful to check with the venue or organiser as to what they are expecting.  You arrive with a memory stick and they expect a laptop and projector…..not a good start.  It may well be worthwhile investing in and bringing along everything you may need, just in case.  Even if it stays in the boot of your car you’ll know you’ve got back up. 

  1. Less is More

Slides should not be distracting but add to your delivery, keep word content light but salient and any images sharp, not offensive and not the property of someone else. Remember to give the audience a flavour of your talk first “what are you going to be giving them?” Follow this with the core content and conclude with a reminder of the key points.

  1. Bells and whistles

I’ve seen an increasing trend in presentations to use web links and embedded video.  These can be a great way to add sparkle to a presentation but a word or two of warning.  Be sure that they work, sounds obvious web links require an internet connection.  I once witnessed one of the UKs leading telecoms companies fail at this which completely ruined their presentation.  Also be careful that they don’t dominate.  Ideally they should be used to punctuate your presentation rather than be the leading attraction.

  1. Attention Seeking

It’s well known that an audience will typically have only a few minutes of attention time before their minds wander.  Get interactive part way through, throw out a question or two and get their adrenalin running too.

  1. A question of questions 

Do you let the audience fire away during your presentation or do you take them at the end?  My advice is to consider our event, audience profile and size.  Typically a large scale event is on a tight timeline and taking questions on the fly can take time out of your allotted spot.  Alternatively a smaller more intimate group perhaps an internal department presentation or pitch to a new client may lend itself to offering those attending to ask questions as you go.  Either way the audience must be clear at the outset.

  1. Handouts, notes and follow up

Handing out your PowerPoint slides ahead of you presentation is a definite “no-no”.  All you will be aware of when presenting is the gentle rustle of paper turning as attention turns to the slides ahead of where you are.  As with questions you can announce at the start that you will be happy to share the sides or notes or whatever level you feel comfortable with the audience if they drop you a line via e-mail, twitter, Linkedin etc.. contact details will be on one of your slides or they can take a business card from you or organisers. NB: Remember to go armed with business cards.

  1. Ready for your close up? Sound & Vision

Many events are now recording their presentations so don’t be surprised to find a camera pointing at you.  Be sure to look your best and essentially sound loud and clear enough for those at the back to hear.  Ideally if you can arrive early and have a sound check – if necessary use a microphone to help project in larger venues.

Having blasted this blog out in a few minutes I realise this topic could be covered in several posts but one final and very important point for an effective presentation….nerves.  If anyone ever tells you they don’t get nervous before speaking in public they are almost certainly lying.  I’ve had the good fortune over the past 20 years to present at major venues in the UK and overseas.  I can honestly say that the poorest performances have been when I’ve been too relaxed.  It’s normal to feel stressed and anxious about delivery just don’t let it get in the way of your performance.

If you have any additional tips, suggestions or comments feel free to add them below or drop me a line at david.laud@i2isolutions.co.uk or via twitter @davidlaud

David Laud – Partner i2i Business Solutions LLP