How to leapfrog your competitors

A new business development story

Through the course of a long and quite varied career, I’ve had many very interesting challenges and some very satisfying moments in bringing projects to their conclusions. Some of these you can read about here in the Case Studies section, but there are many others that I recall with pleasure, including the work I did for Smiths Medical – a world leader in the design, manufacture and distribution of medical devices.

Prior to hiring me, the company’s range of intravenous drug pumps was at serious risk of losing business to competitors for the simple reason that these competitors were able to offer products with features which were much better at integrating their equipment with the hospital computers, holding clinical care records and other information. These products therefore stood to offer improved patient care because of the fact that they could provide automatic, computerised audit trails, thus reducing risk of errors arising from the set-up of equipment.

The first thing I did when I was taken on, was to undertake a study of all competitor activity, looking carefully at the marketing methods and the technology they were offering. This led quite logically to the development of a business strategy which I then presented to the Board of the company. Following this, the Board approved resources and finance to conduct a more in-depth study.

Phase two of the project involved some restructuring of the design and marketing departments, allowing for the creating of a specialist team to help in formulating a product development proposal. The proposal we created was put before a key hospital customer who was, at that time, considering a replacement purchase. The meeting went very well. Among other things, it gave us some vital feedback, allowing us to further refine and improve the proposal.

This key customer’s interest made the Board feel able to approve a product design mock-up or ‘demonstrator’ and this was duly developed. The work was enhanced by several sources of clinical and technical expertise from outside the company – compensating for areas that were not regarded as being required continuously within the company.

The product design mock-up that we produced impressed the key customer – to the extent that they placed a £3million order for the proposed medical device, all based on the marketing and development plan. A hospital representative put it like this: “You have demonstrated a cost-efficient and innovative way of meeting our requirements. Your proposed solution is different from the solutions being offered by the competition and more relevant to our needs.”

This comment shows just how far we had come from the time that I was originally taken on. Our discussions with other hospital customers showed us that many were not clear about the best ways to integrated this kind of medical device, so with this in mind, we styled future presentations to help them more with their thinking processes.

From this we received some serious interest, which increased further so that within twelve months, there were sufficient orders to justify the cost of the complete product development programme. One of the company’s senior salesmen said to me:

“Your plans and demonstrations opened doors for us that we thought had been closed for good.”

An independent pharmacy expert told me that the product design we had developed showed features which put us ahead of the competitors.

As I’m sure you imagine, this successful outcome gave me a lot of satisfaction. As always, the key for me was developing a good early grasp of the client company and its USP and how this could be brought to bear in working with its teams to develop a product that took it back to the forefront in the field of intravenous drug pumps.

Mentoring for a new career path

Mutual benefits of Independent Mentor Service

When two engineers were matched as mentor and mentee through the Institute of Mechanical Engineers’ Independent Mentor Service, there were mutual benefits to be derived. James Glover drew on Mark Harris’ experience and expertise to help him on his way to a new career, while Mark took advantage of the opportunity to give something back to the industry.

Mark Harris has operated as an interim manager specialising in delivering successful new technologies and products since 2004. Graduating from Imperial College in 1985, he has since gained experience spanning several sectors: office equipment, technical consultancy, medical devices, industrial design, automotive electronics, industrial scanning and printing equipment and automated beverages.

Mark says he decided to take part in the Independent Mentor Service as he wanted to help others progress in their engineering careers:
“I was informed of the scheme via an email and got in touch with the Institution. They responded quickly with details of the scheme and I was asked to fill out a professional profile. I only had a few weeks to wait before I received an email telling me that a suitable mentee had been found.

“I’ve now worked with three mentees. Some I have met face to face and others have Skyped me from the other side of the world. Each had different requirements, but in general I got to know them and helped them to answer various questions they had about their careers; everything from matters related to applying for membership, to changing career direction, to setting up in business.”

James Glover, a senior design engineer for medical devices company Convatec, is Mark’s most recent mentee. James spent ten years working for universities, designing joint replacements and the machines that test them. As far as he is concerned, taking part in the Independent Mentor Service was about finding a new career:

“In particular I wanted to move from an academic environment to an industrial one, and I was looking for advice from someone who was independent, impartial, and had experience in the medical engineering sector.

“The process was very simple; I found all the information I needed on the website. I sent an application email which outlined who I was and what I was hoping to gain from the service. Within a few weeks the scheme paired me with my mentor, and we were each sent an introductory email to get the ball rolling.”

Mark and James both devoted a total of about one day per month to the Independent Mentor Service. About the workload involved, James said:
“The workload is very much up to you and your mentor. Like many things, the more you put in the more you will get out of it.
“For me I set aside a few hours each month to the task of re-orientating my career direction. This involved anything from tailoring my CV to identifying companies which shared my values. Mark and I would meet up every few weeks to discuss what progress I had made and what future goals should be.”

Mark feels that mentoring has allowed him to give something back to the engineering profession:
“It gives me a good feeling that I have been able to help others.
“I would recommend the Independent Mentor Service as a good and satisfying way of giving something back. I think anybody who has progressed to member and has formed a stable engineering career would be able to help others through the scheme.”

Speaking about the experience overall, James said:
“The Independent Mentor Service had a huge impact on me; I had become disenchanted with orthopaedic engineering, and wanted a fresh challenge. Mark helped me reframe my issues with the field, and focus on what I wanted from a future role. He was also able to provide great insight into the value of my skills and where they would be beneficial. Within four months of starting the IMS I had joined a new company (Convatec) which matched my aspirations, and I am thoroughly enjoying my new position.

“I would definitely recommend the scheme to anyone who is looking for guidance and advice to help them develop professionally. I think the knowledge and experience of senior engineers is a hugely valuable resource which the IMS helps bring to young engineers.

“I also found it a great way to connect to other engineers, and gain insight into the huge variety of career paths professional engineers can take.”

Ensuring maximum positivity in a team

What do you do if you are confronted with a poorly performing team?

A good team needs to be given its head, but within controls which discourage it from stepping beyond certain boundaries. When a toddler is on his or her reins, for example, the parents want that child to make its way around to explore and discover. But they also want to keep it safe, so when there is danger, the toddler is reined back in. As leaders or managers, we want the personalities within our teams to express themselves; it is important that they be ‘who they are’ – so long as things stay focused and in control.

Certainly, when we try to put too much formality into a team, we risk skewing it by forcing it to go in certain directions that it doesn’t naturally want to go in. When we’re overly coercive with people, our actions as managers can very quickly turn counter-productive. The greatest and most successful managers are those who can harness the potential in their people and make it work for them.

Businesses often struggle to get enough feedback and suggestions from their teams. I think one of the main reasons for this is that people do not feel that they have anything useful to contribute or that nobody will react to what they have to say. Or perhaps they have a fear of saying the wrong thing – something which could compromise their chances of promotion. But in my experience, this two-way communication is key to giving that team authority and motivation.

I think this scenario probably says as much about the listener as it does about the talker. Perhaps the management is putting up barriers unwittingly. In a work situation where employees are negative, there often exists an environment where people are not being given opportunities to express or extend themselves.

Summing up, I think there are five key aspects to creating and maintaining a positive team:

  1. Create an environment in which people are encouraged to be open and honest about what they think.
  2. Ensure that people have a real sense of purpose by giving them something that they know and that they can deliver.
  3. Give people a clear vision or objective; an understanding of where the whole project is trying to go.
  4. Give people the tools and the processes to deliver. This includes training, personal development and the actual physical tools that they need to get the job done.
  5. Put the processes in place and control the boundaries so that things don’t go out of control.

Ensuring positivity is one of the key tasks of the good manager. With the right approach, I believe that most groups can be made into a successful and powerful team.

‘Spirit of adventure’ in business

Almost all children love the idea of adventures. The excitement and the thrill of risk – losing everything to gain the ultimate reward – is central to most children’s approach to their early years. It is this love of adventure that helps children embrace new experiences as they grow older. And children brought up in a secure environment can imagine all the risks they want, secure in the knowledge that they will always be safe.

In the process of becoming adults and assuming responsibility for the security of ourselves and others, it is easy for that spirit of adventure to be lost. People who lean much more naturally than others to adventure are often those entrepreneurs who go on to create or innovate.

Key personalities at the top of a company help to shape its corporate identity and these people need to have a desire for adventure if they are to lead the business to innovate. Sometimes a leader has just one big idea which works so well that it enables them to sell their business and then go on to do something different. Other times it is a journey marked by several small innovations. Either is good in business innovation terms.

Businesses tend to recruit people in their own image and so it follows that the more adventurous businesses tend to recruit people who are of a similar mindset.

So that’s it ?
Well ‘No’, there is another factor. As businesses grow they tend naturally toward being less adventurous because their stakeholders will work to reduce risk and control the amount of change that takes place. And this can stifle innovation.

In such scenarios, businesses sometimes adopt a ‘safe’ model of innovation by financing an ‘innovation’ fund separate from the business itself in the hope that this will engender activity adjacent to the company or sector and that this will ultimately prove beneficial to the business. For me, this is less likely to work than creating an innovation team within your own business – one that is somehow able to work independently in terms of both reference and their vision or direction. Perhaps by co-opting certain staff into a special task force. Or by spinning off a majority owned enterprise.

When I worked for Chas. A Blatchford & Sons Chas, the CEO of the company, felt that there may be something worthwhile looking at in the way that the business was operating and trading in China and he was prepared to stake resources on it, which is why I was brought in to act as an independent resource to move thinking forward in that new area. And again when I worked for Talaris there was an identified need for a signature product, and the company also knew they had to look outside for the skills required to make that happen. Similarly, my project with Novartis was about the company setting up a completely separate group focussing on Telehealth – which was actually quite courageous, since it involved investing significant money into the team. And one of my most recent projects at Costa Express involved taking managers out of the business, then backfilling their roles to enable taskforces to create something new in the business.

So interestingly, here we have four different companies, all in their own ways evoking a spirit of adventure, and all achieving it through different means, but in each case through a determination from the top that something needed to be done and would indeed be achieved. In each instance there was an element of risk and, to a greater or lesser extent, a leap of faith – something that is much easier to take when there is strong belief in the strength of the company brand.

The challenge of Brexit

Understandably, the prospect of Brexit is causing quite a few jitters in the world of business at the moment. But although Britain’s exit from the EU is bound to pose challenges for a significant number of businesses, I think it presents genuine opportunities too.

Making our own way
In attempting to understand some of the issues associated with Brexit, I think that the notion of family relationships can be a useful analogy. While some people have their children living with them until they’re 30 or so, others find ways to encourage them to go out and find their own way in the world. The second way is undoubtedly harder, on several levels – emotional, financial, in energy, in organisation.

But my view is that this act of ‘kicking out’ can trigger a stronger motivation to get on and succeed. Although painful in the interim, this process can lead to greater rewards in the long term. Looked at like this, the UK’s break from the EU can be seen as a challenge that can and should yield benefits.

Brexit is certainly going to be painful for a number of UK businesses, but when challenged in this way, I am certain that we are going to see just how resilient and how resourceful these businesses can be. In this context, Brexit offers a challenge to be actively embraced.

EU – a community that works for some
This is not to say that I don’t fully appreciate the EU and what it continues to do. The difficulty as I see it, is that not all member states have equivalent levels of economic advancement or industrial sophistication. The EU is a community that works well at the level of a trading community, but when it attempts to level off economic values it works better for some nations than for others. That is not necessarily where everybody wants to be, going forward.

Tying nations together under these circumstances reminds me of all those family get-togethers at Christmas. A lot of people come together in one tight space, there’s friction, tensions rise and it is only traditional family ties that often prevent things from boiling over. After a short time, given their choice, most people would rather go their own way and be back in their own homes. For me, the EU has this kind of feel about it.

I think this analogy applies to the scenario of globalisation, too. Is it necessarily a good thing that we are all part of the same systems, doing the same things together and thinking in a uniform way? Surely we would benefit more from the opportunity to appreciate what it is that makes us different – our individual culture – and the contribution that this can make to the global community?

I think we benefit from changes that challenge communities to improve and try to resolve things in different ways. I think leaving the EU will provide a better result for us and the EU long term. More than if we just carry on, maintaining the status quo.

The easiest path is not always the best
And I accept that this makes it harder for business. Commercial organisations will naturally find the easiest (least hard) way to make a profit. Familiar, successful ways of operating can blind us to the fact that there are other, potentially greater opportunities out there and being forced to think outside the box can open up areas of investigation that had not previously been considered viable. Brexit presents such opportunities by challenging companies to go out and look for new markets.

Companies which put serious investment into the new and the uncertain stand to gain. So while we all share the tension of uncertainty, I believe that we should also be excited by the opportunities that lie ahead for British industry.