Omnichannel on the Inside

I’m pleased to be able to share this illuminating report on a recent conference hosted jointly by OCC and Microsoft on the important question of ‘Omnichannel’ and how retailers can take advantage of many different channels to create the ideal customer experience.

This article, underlining the vital importance of organisational change, stakeholder engagement and customer focus in achieving technical innovation that is both lasting and successful, is nicely summed up in these quotes:

“How do we bring transformation to the boardroom? It’s not just a technology problem, it’s also a business one that we need to change.”

“Don’t just put digital everywhere for the sake of it. Technology investments must be based on core customer needs.”

I hope you find this article just as challenging and insightful as I did,



When it comes to retail in 2017, a positive shopping experience is fundamental to attracting new customers, and engaging and retaining your loyal ones. Those retailers who offer customers a way to positively engage with their brands – seamlessly across mobile, online and the store – will set the foundation for customer loyalty and unlock the benefits that follow.

As Mike Lynskey, Retail Specialist, Microsoft, says: “The ability to reach customers in the most critical moments is what separates a run-of-the-mill retailer from a memorable one.”

Retailers recognise there has been a massive power switch to the customer and the need to deliver exceptional customer experience at every touchpoint has become more important than ever.

The term ‘omnichannel’ has been around for a while, but beneath all the hype lies a very serious proposition. In an age with countless customer channels, and where a customer journey will likely end on a different channel from where it begins, retailers must be able to stitch together all interactions to form one seamless customer experience.

To achieve effortless customer engagement, across digital and physical touchpoints, retailers need to instil a customer-first mindset across all teams and departments. Such a customer-centric approach will boost advocacy and loyalty, while ensuring innovation is measured accurately to generate a positive ROI.

But it’s easier said than done. It takes vision, incentives, technology and process – not to mention financial investment – to create an omnichannel utopia where everyone works together and pulls in the same direction.

How well are retailers responding to the growing demand for omnichannel shopping?

Last month, OCC and Microsoft hosted 20 top-level retailers at The Gherkin for a thought-provoking workshop dedicated to Omni-Channel on the inside: Customer first business models.

The session tackled retail’s big talking points:

  • The people, process and technical transformation to meet customer demands
  • How to remove “non-value adding activities”
  • Data analytics and the next frontier of innovation
  • Building effective partnerships to deliver a customer- led retail experience


 “Everyone in the organisation should be obsessed with the customer.”

Mark Wright, Digital Managing Director, Jack Wills


As customers demand increasingly convenient and personalised ways to shop, the workshop represented a golden opportunity for retailers to share and discuss the necessary steps to improve the customer experience. Here we share the key talking points.

People, process and technology

Omnichannel is the idea that all the different channels offer the same customer experience, ensuring that a customer can start a journey on a mobile, reserve a product online, and purchase in-store – all with minimum effort.

As Mark Wright, Digital Managing Director, Jack Wills, says: “You must focus on who your customers are and how best you communicate with them.”

A growing number of today’s customers are happy to flip-flop between digital and physical touchpoints in this way. A typical shopping experience sees a customer research product reviews online, compare features with friends on social networks, reserve the product through an App, before picking it up in the local store.

But this presents a problem to many retailers, who haven’t necessarily been investing resources appropriately in the people, processes and technology to deliver seamlessly across touchpoints.

It’s a headache, says Fabrice Khullar, Lead Product Owner, Sainsbury’s: “The customer is far more complex than we give them credit for sometimes. Knowing where to place internal teams, so we deliver a united retail experience, is a real challenge.”


 “It’s about the culture of making staff feel empowered.”

Paul Frost, Operations Development Manager, Sainsburys


The fundamental challenge is that retailers need to shift from product centric, to customer centric thinking. This demands the adoption of a new customer centric mindset across all departments – from eCommerce, to Operations, Sales, Customer Service and beyond. This alone is a huge mountain to climb as many teams are used to only thinking about one element of the customer journey (i.e. the much talked about silos within retailers).

As Alan Bateup, Senior Director, Digital Experience, McDonalds says: “Everyone in the organisation should be obsessed with the customer.”

While Fabrice Khullar, Lead Product Owner, Sainsbury’s says, in a market that is ever changing, the solution is organisational:

“We can’t predict the future, but all our old silos are killing us. We need to instil collaboration and cross-functional activity to be more agile and move with more flexibility. We can no longer build a business case purely in one team. We need to present cross-functional expertise as one piece of the puzzle rather than separately. Teams must start to build the business case together – there needs to be a mindset shift in the industry.”

Charles De Clerck, IT Customer Relationship Manager, Waitrose agrees. It all boils down to organisational structure, he says.

“Our major challenge has been recognising the importance of each, and every channel. It’s about joining-up eCommerce and store business at the board level. Because until you join them up, you’ll always have a fragmented experience.”

As Alan Bateup, Senior Director, Digital Experience, McDonalds says: “Everyone in the organisation should be obsessed with the customer.”

While Fabrice Khullar, Lead Product Owner, Sainsbury’s says, in a market that is ever changing, the solution is organisational:

“We can’t predict the future, but all our old silos are killing us. We need to instil collaboration and cross-functional activity to be more agile and move with more flexibility. We can no longer build a business case purely in one team. We need to present cross-functional expertise as one piece of the puzzle rather than separately. Teams must start to build the business case together – there needs to be a mindset shift in the industry.”

Charles De Clerck, IT Customer Relationship Manager, Waitrose agrees. It all boils down to organisational structure, he says.

“Our major challenge has been recognising the importance of each, and every channel. It’s about joining-up eCommerce and store business at the board level. Because until you join them up, you’ll always have a fragmented experience.”

And it’s not just a challenge for the big supermarkets.

Establishing a customer-first mindset across the entire organisation is one of our biggest priorities, adds Anne Alderton, Business Development Manager, Marks and Spencer.

While Michel Koch, CMO, Time Inc. says: “It’s important to ask the eCommerce teams to regularly live a day in the life of a store manager, so they can understand the overall customer journey and look to translate that experience online.”

Boots stands-out as a success story when it comes to bridging cross-functional teams. Dave Robinson, Head of Loyalty & Personalisation, Boots, highlights the company’s unique approach to incentives and communication for overall business success.

“When an online order is collected in store, the sale is attributed to the store team, based on the customer postcode. This strategy has made a real difference to our broader culture.”

To fully embrace a customer centric approach then, retailers must adopt a complete omnichannel business strategy – externally and internally. To truly deliver faultless shopping experiences, it’s not just about being there across customer facing touch points, but re-evaluating how internal processes, communication and technology can better reflect modern customer expectations.

As Fabrice Khullar, Lead Product Owner, Sainsbury’s muses: “How do we bring transformation to the boardroom? It’s not just a technology problem, it’s also a business one that we need to change.”

In this sense, retailers must make sure there are clear, open and two-way channels of communication between the eCommerce Team, Store Team, Senior Management, Marketing, Analysts Content and Suppliers.

Without such open communication the struggle to win the customer will only grow. By managing certain key areas of communication you can enhance the customer experience even without new technology or additional resources.

In other words, to be customer-centric, you must first be employee-centric. Win the hearts and minds of staff by harmonising priorities and help to create an agile, innovative service culture across the entire organisation.

As Stuart Eames, Operational Improvement Manager, Waitrose, says: “The more you listen to your staff, the more you’ll move in the right direction.”

Learning how to effectively communicate your message will never go out of style. Agility is the key. An agile, customer centred strategy requires a cultural change across the organisation that emphasises lifetime value, the removal of “non-value adding” activity to spend what hours you do have serving the customer, outcome driven innovation and customer satisfaction as a core KPI.

To achieve this attitude shift, it is crucial that everyone; (a) must be aligned on the same performance targets and measures of success (to focus on what is right for the customer, not what is right for a specific P&L); and (b) be supported by the technology and data needed to provide contextual customer service (irrespective of touchpoint, or where they are on their journey.)

By breaking down silos, sharing information and creating a united vision in this way, staff at all levels will be empowered to deliver better service (which in the long run drives more revenues for the brand.)

Having witnessed huge success, Sonia Hudson, Head of People – Supply Chain and Wholesale, Morrisons, agrees.

“Listen hard and respond quickly is the mantra of our CEO. I’ve never worked in an organisation where someone has meant something so much. And, because we’ve got results from it, I think that makes it really stick!”

Paul Frost, Operations Development Manager, Sainsbury’s adds:

“It’s absolutely about the culture of making staff feel empowered. We must allow colleagues to do their job as friction-free as possible so that when they have a customer interaction they feel they have time to dedicate to that customer, rather than seeing it as something that’s getting in the way of the day job.”

Outside of groceries, fashion retailers identify similar findings. Mark Wright, Digital Managing Director, Jack Wills, says: “The key is empowering the front line and enabling innovation from the bottom-up because that’s where the great ideas are, and where people are more in touch with what’s going on”

It’s clear that to create a customer- first culture it requires buy-in at every level, from front line store staff, to the board room.

Non-value adding activities

Many retailers assume that their digital-savvy customers are the most proftable. This is largely due to a lower cost to serve and a greater opportunity to wow them through personalised content. Such a belief has led some to overinvest in digital channels so they can give customers (specifcally millennials) the digital experiences that they ‘crave.’ But this assumption is not entirely accurate.

Customers who see-saw between channels are in fact the most profitable. And these profitable customers don’t want purely digital interactions, they want experiences that deliver the results they seek using unpredictable combinations of digital and traditional channels.

John Lewis recently reported that shoppers who take advantage of its full omni-channel offering spend on average three times as much as people who are still using single channels for purchases – supposedly because the improved convenience encourages them to purchase more.

Dave Robinson, Head of Loyalty & Personalisation, Boots, shares similar findings: “Our omnichannel customers are worth-up to four times life-long value, compared to a single channel customer.”

In this light, it’s all about the need to focus on meeting customers’ needs, looking at what is best for them, rather than letting technology solutions dictate the overall strategy.

Customer first, not technology first. Allow digital to seep into the business only where benefits are clear. Do not innovate for innovation’s sake, but rather think about what’s useful for your customers. There must be a solid business case first. Think about the experience you’re trying to deliver, and how that aligns with your brand and strategy.

Our group stresses the risk of technical investment without real justification.

As Sarah Jones, International Omnichannel Manager, Body Shop, says: “Don’t just put digital everywhere for the sake of it. Technology investments must be based on core customer needs.”

“It’s about how people engage with your brand, rather than where they are at a specific time” adds Mark Wright, Digital Managing Director, Jack Wills.

Design with the customer in mind, says Alan Bateup, Senior Director, Digital Experience, McDonalds.

“It’s important to understand the journey. Technology must solve a real problem. Start with the problem that you are trying to solve, and then think about what technology is the best way to solve that problem. It’s not about one solution, it’s about continuous improvement.”

Looking to the future, the group agrees that it is important to arm staff with enough information to provide relevant experiences for each, and every customer. In the grocery sector this could take the form of a multi-functional device, says Stuart Eames, Operational Improvement Manager, Waitrose.

“How do we make it so our staff have the information and ability to do their jobs? A multifunctional device, that allows for stock checks and to place orders online for instance, would allow store colleagues to do everything from one handset. In this way, every-time a customer interacts with our staff, they should be able to deal with them from that location (and not waste time).”


Ensuring consistency of message is fundamental to providing good customer experience. To achieve consistency, it’s crucial to shift thinking to a customer-first strategy, supported by leaders who foster a culture able to change and drive innovation.

Our group highlights that culture is not a one-off project, but something that constantly evolves over the years.

It is very much part of the culture to have the right people that care and to recognise the good things people do. As Alan Bateup, Senior Director, Digital Experience, McDonalds says: “It’s not just about the latest technical skills or retail experience, but how you act within the culture of the organisation.”

It is also about having the ability to abandon what you are doing if it is not right. As Mark Wright, Digital Managing Director, Jack Wills, recalls:

“Two or three months into the role I made what I thought could be a career killing decision – to cut the App. It served no valuable purpose, it was ripping- off the mobile site, the conversion was poor and I needed a way to give my team more time to focus on where I thought we could really drive value.”

Dave Robinson, Head of Loyalty & Personalisation, Boots, agrees: “Don’t just do the shiny bits that people see, invest in the staff and backend technology to see the results you need.”

Charles De Clerck, IT Customer Relationship Manager, Waitrose, adds:

“As an industry, our front end systems, i.e. website and mobile technology is getting there. But the key to all this is the back end systems, i.e. the supply chain and transport management. It’s the expensive big legacy systems that ultimately help you fulfil your customer promise. Everyone forgets about these systems because it’s not the ‘sexy stuff.’ Investment in these systems is massively transformational to the business, but nobody yet has been brave enough to bite the bullet.”

“The technology has advanced enough, but our businesses haven’t advanced enough to adopt them and make the big investments.”

Fabrice Khullar, Lead Product Owner, Sainsbury’s agrees. “It’s all about investment in the legacy systems that we’ve all ignored for decades.”

But retailers are wary, says David Merricks, Food Supply Chain Development Manager, Marks & Spencer. “Whether its front end or back end systems these things require significant amounts of capital, and traditional retailers are still wary to spend that amount of money when there’s no immediate return on value.”

Foster an inclusive atmosphere, says Michel Koch, CMO, Time Inc. “We’re all in this together. Focusing on the customer is the right thing to do. Forming your strategy and your decisions with the customer in mind is vital. And, reflective of a start-up, informing all your staff of your decisions, will create real results.”


 “If you make it simple and intuitive, customers will use it.”

Anne Alderton, Business Development Manager, Marks & Spencer


Several retailers encourage their staff to come forward with ideas and promote new ways of thinking through cross-functional groups.

As Stuart Eames, Operational Improvement Manager, Waitrose, says: “We’ve introduced a Site Point of Contact (SPOC) in every branch to provide feedback around any new proposition, and how it works for customers and staff. It’s proving to be a really powerful tool.”

Data & Innovation

Data is transforming every industry, but it’s having a big impact on retail. Customer data and insights is a treasure trove of information that can be put to good use ensuring that optimum customer journeys are aligned to work flows, structures and given marketing campaigns.

Retail can no longer be a little bit digital. It’s important to remember that customers view services holistically and not through the lens of individual interactions or touchpoints.

As Claire Gillingham, HR Director, Vodafone, says: “We don’t call it omnichannel anymore, we call it one channel, because that’s the way customers see it.”

So, to make the most of data you must connect all relevant teams (from sales, to social, marketing and IT) at an early stage and outline the value and purpose.

The difficult questions retailers face include:

  • How much information?
  • What format do you provide it to customers to deliver best results?
  • How to mitigate information overload and appearing overly personal? 
  • Who owns customer data internally and how is this shared?

As Sonia Hudson, Head of People – Supply Chain and Wholesale, Morrisons says: “It’s all about how best to join-up of the channels and different data sets to deliver overall business success.”

Having accurate, timely and available data about how your customers respond to features and attractions in-store, on mobile or online, can hugely help the whole business focus on what works, and what doesn’t.

As Charles De Clerck, IT Customer Relationship Manager, Waitrose says: “Make IT a strategic priority at all levels, and help everyone to understand the real value of customer data to best exploit it. It’s all about the outside-in approach. Don’t focus on the latest and greatest technology, but actually focus on the customer problems that you’re trying to solve, and where does technology/data add value, and where does it not.”

But there is a balance to be struck. It’s all about using data in the right way, says Kirrie Kendall, Head of Internal Communication, Dixons Carphone.

“It’s about identifying that sweet spot, where you’re using data, but you’re not letting it absolutely dictate and drive all decisions.”

Mark Wright, Digital Managing Director, Jack Wills, agrees. “Common sense is often one of the most important data sources.”


Omnichannel opens a whole new level of doing business, by putting the customer and technology in the centre of their strategy, retailers can collect the data, learn to understand their customers better, deliver more relevant content and measure an increase in ROI – across all channels.

With the rising number of channels and touchpoints, it’s difficult to keep up in a hype-neutral way, so, prudently, our retailers are focusing on striking a balance between innovation and proven ways of doing business.

The business case for omnichannel is such that organisations the world over will increasingly be exploring how they can better serve the omnichannel customer in the coming years. Early adopters are already seeing signicant benefits – with their efforts to support omnichannel customers delivering real commercial returns.

The business case is simple. To remain competitive, retailers must respond to the demands of the customer. Shoppers now expect to have the same level of service when they purchase an item in store as when they make a purchase online.

It’s clear that many of our retailers are placing the customer at the heart of what they do, as they continue their journey of transformation.

If you are a retailer, technology is not your enemy. It gives you the invaluable opportunity to deliver powerful and meaningful customer experiences. But focus on the problem you want to solve for your customer, rather than the shiny technology just for the sake of it.

No doubt retailers are under pressure. Digitised customers have ever-higher expectations of service and the retail experience. Today optimising customer experience across all channels should be a priority that colours the entire brand. The number one challenge for retailers is to understand the real value of digital investment (frontend and backend) and to deliver customer-centric thinking across the entire organisation.

But for a retailer to adopt a large-scale digital strategy, it needs to clearly understand how it will enable better connections with customers, leading to improved targeting and communications that deliver increased sales.

Shoppers expect retailers to deliver an amazing customer experience – compelling yet easy – across all stages of the customer journey. It’s no longer about online and store sales competing – but bringing the two channels together, to create flawless, enjoyable customer journeys that promote purchases (either in-store or remotely). But establishing a customer- first mantra is difficult. It’s all about taking the theory of putting the customer at the centre and making it a reality for the business.

Focus on what the customer wants. Customers should be seen as guests invited to a party, where you are the host. It’s your job every day to make every important aspect of the customer experience a little bit better.

In the next five years, they say retail will change more than in the past fifty. Now is the time to think and act differently. But once you’re started on the customer-centric journey, be prepared to make continuous investment and change.










Brexit and UK Engineering (Part 3)

Innovation in Engineering

The vital role of innovation for UK engineering in a post-Brexit world

In this, the third in my series of six pieces on the future of the UK’s engineering sector post-Brexit, I will be examining the vital role of innovation in preserving and developing the prosperity of British engineering.

Innovation has long been a factor behind Britain’s success as a world engineering leader. The extent to which it can take advantage of the opportunities afforded by Brexit will depend to a great extent on how successful the nation is in understanding, safeguarding and developing innovation within the industry.

Defining innovation

At the most basic level, innovation is about the successful creation and delivery of new ideas or major new improvements to deliver financial or societal benefit, and, subsequently, improvements in people’s lives. With so many new concepts and inventions today, it is highly unlikely that innovation can actually stem from just one person or even one small group of people.

The vital importance of collaboration

Successful innovation almost always depends upon a variety of groups and individuals who share appropriate skills and ideas and then work to deliver a solution to an end user who may never have seen the solution to be delivered, or indeed had any conception of how it would work. Successful innovation is also highly dependent on the extent to which there is, across every group and every process within a particular project, a clearly defined strategy to determine how the innovation will eventually be delivered to the end user.

British innovation has come to depend on the vast range of knowledge and experience available beyond its own shores, drawing on this expertise and know-how to develop and refine new ideas, concepts and approaches. This dependence is highlighted in a recent report from the European Startup Monitor which found that 25% of UK startups were founded by non-UK EU nationals, with 45% of UK startup employees coming from non-UK EU countries. The fact that many EU countries are now actively encouraging UK startups to relocate to EU countries should be ringing warning bells, as this presents a serious challenge to the future of collaborative innovation in the UK. The time to act on this is now.

An industry at the crossroads

The UK can and should act with assurance and confidence, drawing on its reputation as a leader in innovation to develop programmes which spread a wider net, drawing in collaborators from much further afield than the EU alone. Such ventures would rely heavily upon strategic management and upon ample funding. Britain’s very future as an innovative leader will depend on both.

My next article will look in closer detail at what is required to develop these kinds of projects.

Brexit and UK Engineering (Part 2)

People and Skills: the second of 6 articles by Mark Harris on how UK engineering can prosper under Brexit.


A key consideration when determining how Brexit will impact the engineering sector has to do with how we handle shared capital and labour as well as research & development. As discussed in my previous article, a looming UK engineering skills crisis means that we must tread wisely and decisively to ensure positive outcomes for the industry in the medium and long term.

Tapping new sources

According to the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s 2016 Skills & Demand in Industry survey, out of the 52% of engineering companies currently recruiting engineers at technician level and above, more than half are having trouble finding engineers with the right amount of experience.

A major recommendation for this report is that employers and educators forge stronger links to create more widespread opportunities for the kind of work experience that will address specific engineering skills gaps.

The report also recommends that businesses help to address the ‘experience shortage’ by taking an ‘agile’ approach to CPD (Continuing Professional Development), with a particular emphasis on the rapid pace of change within the industry.

Along with the necessity for quality work experience and continuing professional development, the report cites the need for a more inclusive engineering workforce which currently has only a “very small” proportion of women in it. It also points to the opportunity that exists in exploiting the untapped potential of recruiting from a range of more diverse backgrounds.

Beacons of excellence

It’s important to remember that the engineering sector generally has already been active in addressing skills shortages. The gradual shift in emphasis from manufacturing to service industries has led many companies to invest in programmes which promote engineering to young people.

The Royal Academy of Engineering’s ‘Engineering Talent Project’ has been set up to specifically challenge policy barriers to engineering education and it is expanding its ‘Tomorrow’s Engineers’ – a project that gives young people a hands-on experience of engineering at school. It is also pleasing to see teams from some leading UK universities among the 50 teams from around the world competing in the 2017 Airbus ‘Fly Your Ideas’ competition.

Programmes such as these are essential in mitigating any future skills crisis but they must begin much earlier. Engineering has to become bedded into the educational mainstream and this will only happen if the skills, processes and ideas are present as curriculum topics in subjects such as Mathematics and Design & Technology. And this means not only in the teaching materials, but also that the key teaching staff have a good appreciation of engineering. Otherwise, it’s just too late for many, who have already begun forming broad ideas for career choices.

Maintaining academic mobility

Up till now, the UK has attracted some of the world’s best researchers. According to 2014/5 figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 11% of the UK’s academic staff come from other countries in the EU, but in engineering, that figure is 15%. In terms of academic research, it is vital that UK academic institutions continue to be attractive for researchers, with support for the mobility of research staff, at least in line with academic institutions in EU countries.

UK researchers also need to have the facility to spend time in EU countries. If Brexit brings reduced access, we need other means to give researchers and students the international experience they need. It’s also vital to the future growth and health of our engineering industry that the UK retains access to world-class EU research facilities.

A successful Brexit is about developing a clear understanding of all the ways that the UK is currently dependent on the EU. For the UK engineering industry there’s a lot to get right. Besides exploring and exploiting new sources of talent and creating programmes of excellence to address highly specific skills gaps, we must take account of the benefits of our current access to European funding, labour and shared research – and ensure we have enough measures to replace them in a way that protects the industry and ensures its healthy future.

I hope you found this piece thought-provoking. My next article in this series about UK engineering post-Brexit is the first of two pieces examining the vital role of innovation.

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.