30 years in HR, part 13: Do NOT ask the customers what they want..

In the past 30 years I have been lucky to have been involved in many training programs. My believe in the positive effects of formal training programs is not very big.  Especially when it concerns management and leadership development programs. But …. Personally I have learned a lot from some programs. Number one on my list is the course I developed for Product Managers, when I worked for Philips Consumer Electronics (CE). Improving product management was key, and the question was if I could design a program to train the next generation of product managers. The program was launched in 1991, and we ran a couple of times before I left Philips in 1994. We developed the program in a team of three. Per Jenster (in those days Marketing Professor at IMD), Mario van Hamersveld (Philips CE Marketing Communications) and myself. We were able to attract world-class faculty to appear in the program. Jean-Philip Deschamps, who worked for Arthur D.Little, taught the principles of a structured approach to product management. Daniel Ofman, who later became famous for his work on “core qualities”, directed a module on “Personal Influence and Teamwork”. Dominique Turpin, now Dean of IMD, lead a great session on what we (Philips) could learn from the Japanese competitors. There were a couple of lessons I learned in the CE Product Management course, that were very applicable to HR.

1. Do not ask your customers what they want

The last thing a product manager should do, is go out in the market, and ask clients what kind of product they want. Generally clients do not know. Product Managers should certainly be out in the market. To sense trends. To know the latest technologies. To learn what competitors are doing. To see how customers are using current products. As a product manager you will hear many different requirement, and there will be many different ways to go forward. The task of the product manager is to use all the different input to develop a personal point of view. And then to take some risks in steering the development of new products or generations of products.
In HR too often HR professionals make themselves too dependent on the opinion of their customers. The customers (management, employees, shareholders) express different wishes. They ask for HR solutions, when the root causes have not been properly analyzed. HR has to act as good product managers, as good HR professionals. Design interventions with high impact, of course in close collaboration with their customers, but not always doing what their customers say they should do.

2. Get moving on the learning curve, fast!

Illustrative story in the product management course was the story of the Walkman. When Philips engineers bought the first Sony Walkman, and investigated the interior, they had a good laugh. The Walkman nearly exploded when they opened it. All the components were more or less pushed into the Walkman before it was closed with some screws. The Philips engineers agreed this was lousy design, and in Philips they would never allow this. Philips was still working on their prototype, when Sony launched version nr. 2 and quickly thereafter version nr. 3 and so on.
Sony got moving on the learning curve, and Philips was never able to catch up.
For HR: do not strive for perfection. Get moving, and learn while moving. Social Media is a good example. While some companies are still discussing their global social media policy (“and please, do not take any action before the policy is issued!”), others are experimenting and moving up the learning curve.

3. Be persistent, never give up

The key lesson Dominique Turpin taught the product managers was: be persistent, never give up. Being a product manager is hard work, and do not expect instant success. Recently I read an article about the developers of the Angry Birds app. They had brought fifty apps to the market before Angry Birds. None of them was successful, but number 51 was. They had not given up. Although the lesson is simple, it is not so easy to apply. In the early nineties at least the Japanese were for more persistent than the western companies. The example in the case Turpin presented, by the way,  was not about electronics, but about a French pillow manufacturer that tried to enter the Japanese market.


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