Some may frown upon the term Corporate Agitator. Many may classify this type of person as someone who always challenges the status quo, criticizes new ideas, or points out the flaws in others vs. themselves. It may be more fitting to the define Corporate Agitator as a catalyst who forces an organization to look at a problem in a new light. Someone who brings to the surface the most simple concepts or the most obvious inefficiencies (that are often sacred cows) and asks the organization why not do this better. The classic definition of an Agitator is: one who stirs up public feeling on controversial issues. Often the term agitator is used in the context of Politics. However, in a corporate setting the term is very applicable and had been embraced by the start-up community already. This is important, as each one of those start-ups is aiming to disrupt or said better, agitate your business.
In today’s world where companies are being forced to move at the speed of light, there simply is not time for an organization to sit back and wait for a trend, competitor, or fiscal quarter to pass them by before acting. Many companies that are trying to adjust to an always shifting landscape and a socially connected customer base and workforce are burdened with mindsets and leadership rooted in a different era. Perfecting products, services and the customer experience before introducing something new is no longer acceptable. Done is often better than Perfect. Companies have to adjust their corporate cultures to fail fast and fail often. This includes training their customers to be acceptable of trial and error and engage them in improving or even building the next set of products and services. Few companies can get away with the Apple model and mantra of “The customer does not know what they want until we give it to them”.
Starbucks had taken this to heart and made huge inroads into mobile payments because of their willingness to leverage their customers as beta users of their applications. The Starbucks mobile application and Square integration has positioned Starbucks to generate hundreds of millions in sales, capture customer habits and their credit card information all which can be used to refine future products and services that can drive revenue. Critics of the Starbucks approach say that they could alienate their customers with poor customer experiences as they perfect their products and services. Starbucks should be viewed as being brilliant in that they can iterate their products and services faster due to direct customer feedback. In addition, they are highly motivated to correct errors quickly as their customers have only so much patience. Finally, by pushing the envelope on how consumers think about payment types, Starbucks is paving the way for other companies to take advantage of mobile payment opportunities.
Too often, leadership puts out to pasture those that push organizational boundaries for the betterment of the overall company. The basic reason that this happens is simple: self preservation. External forces such as quarterly earnings goals, internal forces such as long range plans, and personal forces such as bonuses or job protectionism all play into the killing of corporate agitators. For public companies, the concerns to brand image, earnings, and sales numbers can prematurely kill any agitation within an organization. Wall Street rewards consistency. They have little tolerance for unpredictable results. Only one company of note that has successfully countered this behavior is Amazon. Jeff Bezos’ crowning legacy is that he re-trained Wall Street and convinced them that the long-term goal of taking over the world is the end game. If that means his earnings are inconsistent as he strives to make this a reality, than so be it. Amazon is rewarded by Wall Street for its bravado vs. its quarterly performance.
So how do you enable corporate agitators to thrive in your organization? Here are several steps you can take to encourage your organization to embrace agitation vs. fear it:
- Start Small: You don’t have to revolutionize your business through agitation and put your brand, customers, and revenue at risk all at once. Pick one small product or service to test the concept on.
- Empower Your Team: Hand-pick your agitation team and focus on building a team that has the normal bureaucracy removed by enabling them with a finite budget and autonomy to make decisions. Co-locate the team, bringing Product, Technology, Marketing, Sales and Operations together blurring individuals lines of responsibility. Ideally, have this team report directly to the CEO or a key executive to validate the work they are doing and to provide direct line of sight into their progress.
- Focus on Outcomes: Agitation can be costly, so instead of green lighting an open checkbook, fund the work based off of key outcomes initially agreed up front. For example, fund just enough to get a working prototype, then based upon customer feedback provide the next phase of funding to iterate and improve the product or service. As learnings are gathered though, be willing to be flexible and change the outcomes if necessary.
- Engage your Customers: Allow direct access from your agitation team to your customers. If you can, embed a customer advocacy group into the agitation process. Think about how you will prepare your customers to accept products that may not be perfect and why their feedback is critical. Think about ways to make this a branding or public relations win vs. worrying about customer negativity. Remember, one or two negative comments does not make a trend.
- Be Willing to Fail (fast): Not all agitation will produce a winning product or service. Know when to cut funding and shut a product down, but base this decision on customer feedback vs. internal perceptions of the work. You will have to manage plenty of internal naysayers, so don’t let that influence your decisions. Let your customers tell you when a product or service just isn’t viable. They will vote with their money.
Change is hard and corporate agitators can simply be annoying to deal with as they often point out why you need to change. Agitators bring solutions to the table, not just problems. When you identify a potential agitator that does this, embrace them. Take them aside and have frank and honest discussions with them on their ideas. Bring them forward to your broader leadership team and embrace the agitator and why the company needs them to stay competitive. Corporate Agitators can quickly become another tool to win in your market. They are not an end all be all solution, but should be viewed as a key tool to be integrated into your other tools that you leverage to stay competitive.