One of our clients did something really neat.
Last week was AWESOME! I’ve been dying to share what I did last Thursday, but I had to wait until I got permission. And, although I have permission to share what I did, my client wants to remain anonymous.
A few months ago I was contacted by an HR person that works for a client of mine. She explained that a few dozen vendors have been selected to participate in a relationship-building trial program. I was one of the first vendors to be officially invited to the program. To participate I needed to have one free workday that I can devote to ‘shadowing’ one of the organizations leaders I’ve worked with before. Essentially, a virtual take your vendor to work day. There were 20 leaders from the organization who’ve offered to spend a day with a vendor; they ranged from c-suite to vp-level. By the time I was invited, the entire c-suite was booked. I landed a day with the VP of Product Innovation, which was last Thursday.
My experience was absolutely awesome. I don’t know why every organization isn’t doing this. I feel like I better understand my client and have a ton more empathy for them. After spending a day with my client, I fell in love with her job; if I ever went back to working full time, I would love to find a job like hers. Here are a few things I learned from my experience:
- I’m not the only vendor: I knew I wasn’t the only vendor, I mean a Fortune 100 company must have a ton of vendors. Well, I had no idea how many they have. 100’s and 100’s of vendors, probably 1000’s of vendors. Some big, some small, a lot of mid-sized shops who offer every service under the sun. However many vendors you think your client has, they probably actually have 20X as many — and probably have a lot more options than you might expect. So, if you think your “lucky” to be selected as a vendor; you probably don’t know the half-of-it. I saw vendors who I know (and aspire to) and are industry leaders. I had no idea they selected a small Canadian shop relatively few people know about, over large organizations who’ve literally created some of the techniques and frameworks I use.
- Projects battle for funding: The innovation team consists of a hierarchy that my VP sits at the top of. Below her sits a number of innovation directors and managers; these people present new projects to the VP on a monthly basis; I got to attend the meeting. It was an impressive meeting, which reminded me of an episode of Shark Tank. Each manager that was scheduled to pitch a new project, presented it to the team. Each presentation was 5 minutes, with 5 minutes of questions. We did 10 in a 2hr session. I was told 1 project will be green-lit, 2 projects will be given funds for further exploration, 2 projects will be allocated an internal team for further exploration, and 5 will be parking-lotted for later consideration. Every innovation manager has a couple projects on the go at once, and is expected to bring at least 6 project ideas to the table each year. They have a huge apparatus and Hostile Sheep plays such a small role when you look at everything the organization is up to. (And our client makes us feel so special, it’s easy to forget we’re a drop in the bucket.)
- Procurement is not a science: This client has always seemed very rigorous when it comes to procurement; they issue tenders for even small projects. And their tenders are always complicated and very detailed. It was a surprise when I heard the team shuffling and dealing out vendors and internal resources based on ‘best fit’. “This vendor is our go-to for producing taxonomies.” “This one is our go-to for developing a new brand.” “This is the best for a cinematic video experience.” — I can only imagine a new web-based project gets approved and someone suggests “Hostile Sheep is great for producing a rapid prototype.”
- Reality doesn’t matter to innovation: During the new project meeting, no one from engineering or design were included. The reason was that “If it’s a good idea we’ll build the technology and invest in the design.” I spent almost 5 years working with General Electric’s Research and Development division and I never heard such blue-sky product ideas than attending my clients ‘new projects’ meeting. (And they have one of these every month.) They do a great job at separating what can be technically done, from what customers want.
- Mental health is a big issue: During my day with my client, I was surprised how we spent our lunch. There was a “professional development” lunch my client wanted to attend, regarding mental health and self-care. It was fantastic, full of insights I may share at a later date; suffice it to say, some of the stuff that was discussed will make its way back into Hostile Sheep. The mental health of my employees, and the partners we work with, has not been top-of-mind; this has nudged me toward changing this.
- Big decisions, few minds: I firmly believe that innovation can come from anywhere within an organization, but this isn’t the mindset of my client. Although innovation CAN come from anywhere, my client believes most people within the organization have specialized skills they’re utilized for. Most people don’t have time (or shouldn’t have time) to really think about innovation. So, innovation managers are dedicated roles (that anyone can apply for) for people to devote 100% of their time to thinking about innovation. One of the responsibilities of the innovation managers is to interface with various internal teams to explore innovative ideas and conduct workshops to co-create certain initiatives. Ultimately, the big decisions about what projects get funded are made by a handful of people.
- Don’t cold call: The VP of product innovation is a leadership role with several levels of gate-keeper. That said, I noticed dozens of cold-call emails and social media messages that made it through. She was constantly dismissing notifications from random vendors telling her that “her time is very important so [they’ll] cut right to the chase…” I’ve been caught sending cold-call messages when I first started Hostile Sheep, so I know it’s a tempting way to try to build business. That said, it doesn’t work 99% of the time; especially if you’re pitching an organization with a vendor-list of 1000+ different vendors for almost anything one could want. On the up-side, most of the cold-calls were dismissed immediately without even taking note of the company being pitched. This means, if you do get your foot in the door, it’s unlikely anyone will remember your cold-call or hold it against you. My advice, don’t waste your time don’t cold-call clients you really want to work with.
So, I got to spend a day with a leader who basically spends her days listing to different project ideas and determining where to spend a huge annual budget. She told me that some of her projects turned into some of the most used products and some of the largest revenue streams in their organizational history. Although her job sounds amazing on the surface, there is a lot of pressure to ‘invest’ in projects and products that users/customers WILL want. It was a great experience to hear about all the new projects my client may be embarking on; and all of the project ideas that were killed. It really gives me a good sense of the kinds of ideas they’re considering and have considered.
Hostile Sheep really isn’t in the innovation space but we’ve supported clients who are definitely in the innovation space. Our research and design help build on innovative insights and make them more tangible and real. Now I have some perspective on how this particular client approaches innovation internally, Hostile Sheep can think about how we can package our services and build out competencies to better support their team.
Maybe you can suggest a “Take your vendor to work day” at your company or at your clients organization. I think it’s a fantastic idea worth spreading.