As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Tony Ulwick. Tony is the founder and CEO of the innovation consultancy Strategyn. He is the pioneer of Jobs-to-be-Done Theory and the inventor of Outcome-Driven Innovation® (ODI), a proven innovation process with an 86% success rate. Tony has worked with dozens of Fortune 500 companies, helping them make innovation more predictable.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
“It was 1984, and I was a young engineer working at the computer giant IBM. Along with hundreds of colleagues, I was working on a new product called the PCjr that was supposed to revolutionize home computing.
So, you can imagine my surprise, when the day after we introduced the PCjr, I woke up to see a headline in the Wall Street Journal that read, “the PCjr is a flop.” In my frustration, I started researching innovation practices and discovered that product launch failures were far from uncommon.
Even today, it still holds true that around 9 out of 10 new product innovations fail. That’s a pretty staggering statistic, isn’t it? Can you imagine a production line with a success rate of 10%? Just think of a car company like Mercedes producing their latest model and only 1 out of 10 cars being driveable!
In 1991, seven years after the PCjr launch, I left IBM to set up my own product innovation consultancy firm Strategyn. I patented a process called Outcome-Driven Innovation® (ODI) which has improved that statistic to an 86% success rate.
The concept behind ODI is simple yet uncommon. By extracting the underlying desired outcomes that your customers are trying to accomplish ahead of time, you can determine exactly what your customers need before investing in a new product launch.”
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
“Given that Outcome-Driven Innovation helps you determine exactly what your customers need before investing in a new product launch, I made the mistake of assuming that our job was done once we helped our clients uncover those customer insights. However, the job is not done until they act on those customer insights by launching their product and gaining market adoption! Lesson learned: your job is done when your customer’s job is done.”
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
“I’ve been a subscriber of Harvard Business Review (HBR) for several years. I’ve come to trust HBR as a source for business insights because they actively connect with their audiences to figure out what burning questions need to be answered. One article, for example, is “Marketing Myopia” by Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt which discusses the common nearsighted focus on selling products and services, rather than seeing the “big picture” of what consumers really want.”
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
“When I started Strategyn, my vision was to “change the way the world innovates.” That’s still true to this day. I wanted to solve the root problem in innovation that causes 9 out of 10 new product innovations to fail. Our first success was with Cordis Corporation back in the early 1990s with the release of the stent — the fastest growing medical device in history. Over time, we understood that innovation is a process, and that process allows Strategyn to guide companies to conceptualize and launch breakthrough products like the stent which have an enormous impact on the quality of life.”
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
“No matter what: stay focused on creating customer value. If you can keep doing that, you’ll stay in pretty good shape. After all, ups and downs indicate, among other things, a change in customer needs. Find out what changes have occurred and adapt your offerings to continually generate customer value given the new constraints.”
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
“Any crisis shakes up your comfort zone. For the first month, I slept no more than two to three hours every night trying to think about what changes have occurred and how to best adapt. I deployed a “plan for the worst, hope for the best” mentality which enabled me to stay productive and hopeful. Staying productive and hopeful is important especially if you have others looking to you for a path forward.”
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
“Our challenge is similar to all businesses during this economy: adapt to changing customer needs (caused by social, regulatory and environmental changes) in a way that minimizes profit loss or sustains/increases profits generated. Strategyn is a consulting firm. Part of our work is done in person with our clients. Of course, this was no longer possible, so we adapted our methodology to enable our clients and our internal team to get the job done remotely.”
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
“Uncertainty is completely natural. One approach I take is to determine exactly what has changed. Then, I try to ground myself in anything that has remained constant, so that I have something sturdy upon which to create a path forward.
For example, the social, environmental and regulatory constraints surrounding the recent pandemic caused changes in customer preferences. These changes are certainly impactful. However, I know that to be successful in business, I have to stay focused on creating customer value, regardless of those changes.”
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
“Historically, recessions and traumatic economic events have shown to be moments of tremendous opportunity for entrepreneurs. The game board is reset and the ones who understand the new rules the fastest win. The good news is that while technology and products change rapidly, customers continue to look to solve problems. The only difference is that customers use different products or solutions.
The key for entrepreneurs is to not look at their markets through the lens of their product or technology. This product-centric lens is unstable and will cause them to feel anxious and miss opportunities, especially if their product/technology has been affected by social or regulatory constraints.
Instead, they should define their market through the lens of Jobs-to-be-Done. In other words, they should ask “what is the underlying job my customers are trying to accomplish? How else can I help my customers get their job done given these new constraints?”
Think about Zoom. Their usage has skyrocketed since social distancing has come into effect. Why? Because customers still need to connect with colleagues and loved ones. They have a job that needs to get done, and they found a way to get it done using Zoom!”
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
“We are all far more aware of the possibility of a pandemic and what that means to a society. We recognize the importance of adapting to changing circumstances which will influence how we respond to other crises that may happen in the future.”
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
“As mentioned before, we have adapted our methodology to enable our clients and our internal team to get the job done remotely. In addition to this change, we are continuing to research new business models that leverage existing technologies to help our clients accomplish their goals.”
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
“I would encourage others to define their market through the lens of Jobs-to-be-Done. In other words, they should ask “what is the underlying job my customers are trying to accomplish? How else can I help my customers get their job done given these new constraints?””
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“There’s a quote, often attributed to Albert Einstein, which says, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” This message is really the backbone behind our Outcome-Driven Innovation methodology. Once a business knows the underlying outcomes their customers are trying to achieve, they can focus with clarity and confidence on generating solutions that achieve those desired outcomes.”
How can our readers further follow your work?
“You can learn our Outcome-Driven Innovation® (ODI) methodology for free by downloading our eBook or audiobook at http://strategyn.com/.”