How Visionary Customer-Centric Execs Keep Innovation Alive

Take-Aways from Patty’s Visionaries' Spring 2009 Meeting

June 18, 2009

Patty’s Visionaries are the people that Patricia Seybold profiles in her books and whose work she admires. They are influential change agents in their respective organizations. Many of them develop Internet-based strategies to empower customers and to drive change throughout their organizations. You’ll learn how these customer-centric executives are designing and evolving new solutions and business models in the midst of a worldwide recession.


Patty’s Visionaries are a hand-picked group of customer-centric executives that I meet with as a group twice a year. The tradition began in 1998, with the executives featured in my first book, We’ve kept the group going ever since, adding new members as people retire or change jobs.

What these people have in common is that they are all well-respected in their respective organizations and acknowledged as change agents. They carry P&L and operational responsibilities. They deliver great results.

Most are intimately involved with their companies’ Internet strategies. In fact, these Internet strategies typically shape their overall business strategies.

They are natural innovators and leaders. They are great listeners. They are also great story-tellers. It’s a privilege to listen to them compare notes and share their stories every six months.

Here are some of the themes and learnings that I took away from this Spring’s Visionaries’ meeting.


What’s keeping visionary business leaders from realizing their visions? Is it economic constraints? Not really. It’s lack of imagination on the part of traditional customers, technology-adverse business partners, and business colleagues who are afraid of cannibalizing their obviously-broken business models. This was the surprising theme that emerged in our Spring 2009 Visionaries’ meeting. Here we had a room chockfull of some of the most imaginative and visionary leaders on the planet, and they were bemoaning (but not stopped by!) the staid, old business models still embraced by their customers, partners and colleagues.

Change is scary. It’s particularly frightening during a major recession. Yet, for many Visionaries, the handwriting is already on the proverbial wall. They know how their businesses need to evolve in order to attract and retain new customers. They know that their traditional business models are broken.

Luckily, Visionaries may be frustrated by organizational or customers’ inertia, but they don’t give into it. They motivate, energize, and show the way. They create new platforms and solutions with new business models that radically challenge the status quo. These new approaches can miraculously co-exist in an alternative or parallel universe, because these Visionaries are talented and proven enough to have gained both credibility and air cover in their organizations.

What Do You Do When Your Customers Don’t Want Anything Different?

Visionaries understand that there are some customers and business partners who will never have the imagination to forge a new path. So they look for new customers who do have that imagination. They target a younger clientele. They reframe the offer. They don’t try to evolve a broken business model. They look for new frontiers.

Sometimes your team can see possibilities that customers can’t yet envision. What do you do in that case? You place a bet, you design a good enough offering quickly and cheaply (three months), and you get it into new customers’ hands and let them help mold it. You may not know what the right business model is yet. But if you create a flexible platform that can quickly evolve, you can morph it until you find the mutual sweet spots and monetize the perceived value.

What Do You Do When Your New Business Model Challenges or Cannibalizes the Current One

“You have to do both,” was the common wisdom the Visionaries offered to one another. You don’t throw out the traditional business model. You offer a new one with your new platform/capability. Let customers, advertisers, and business partners choose. Often you find that you attract new customers to the new platform/model. Existing customers and business processes continue to cling to the old one. But the new model becomes an attractive way to grow the business into new markets. And soon you’ll find different business units embracing it in order to move more quickly into new markets and/or to offer new capabilities.


Open Minds with Clue-Finding

In a large company, it’s hard to get people to think differently. One of our Visionaries heads the innovation practice in a division of a large company and has been struggling to get the innovative bug to spread outside of his small team. As he summarized many of the tips he had learned about fostering innovation in a large established, traditional company, he shared a simple, pragmatic bit of advice that may help you bridge the gap between the innovative creative thinkers in your organization and the majority of folks who prefer business as usual. He calls this technique “clue-finding” and he learned it from an innovation consultancy, “?What If!

Instead of sending experienced interviewers out into the field to gather customer requirements, send people who don’t have a lot of experience and training in doing customer interviews and ask them to ask open-ended questions. These can be executives, product developers, or virtually anyone from your firm. While the customer is answering the question, the interviewer looks for clues.

The clue-finder’s goal is to report back on something “you heard, you saw, or you read.” You report each clue as a simple observation. Instead of jumping to a conclusion about what the clue might mean, you report it as an observable fact. “Four dentists wore white shirts without collars but with pockets. Three students had sample exam test books on their desks.”

As a group, you then brainstorm a set of possible interpretations for each clue. Look for the common themes across all of your interpretations. This leads to new insights—often these are actionable.

Equally important, clue finding is something that everyone in your organization can do. Interpreting clues adds brainstorming and fun to any meeting. People begin to move from being set in their ways, to opening up to see new possibilities...

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