TANDBERG breaks the engineers' monopoly on inventing by bringing its leaders, sales people, channel managers and sales engineers into "soft R&D labs." Their inventions are new "moves" that get an organization of just 1,700 people closer to the mission of changing the way 850 million people communicate.
TANDBERG was started 17 years ago by a couple of Norwegian entrepreneurs with a crazy idea -- why not start a company manufacturing video conferencing equipment? At the time the market was small but profitable and dominated by two American companies. They proceeded to set increasingly ambitious goals ("if people were not saying we were crazy, it meant we were not ambitious enough") and became the world's market share leader in 2007, accounting for more than 40% of the market. In 2010 it is a $1 billion business that has just been acquired by Cisco.
For many years, the name of the game for TANDBERG was technological innovation as engineers were inventing their way into the networked world of IP and proudly adding to the ever expanding list of "TANDBERG firsts." As technology was getting better and easier to use, adoption rates were going up, market was growing at double digits. Until one day, the market got big enough to get on the radar screens of the giants like Cisco and HP. Then fewer than 1,000 people, TANDBERG was faced with an entirely new competitive landscape. The likes of Cisco and HP had the resources to close any technology-based advantages within a 6-12 month window. They also had the sales power that was 10-100x bigger than TANDBERG.
By the time I joined the management team, one of the key questions on the management agenda was how TANDBERG could realistically compete against the giants. The strategy had several legs like a daring R&D strategy and clever alliances. It was clear that this type of "cleverness" allowed TANDBERG to create a temporary window of opportunity until competition copied it. The only source of sustainable advantage was going to be about how fast TANDBERG could open new windows and what our people did with those windows of opportunity. Inside the R&D and in the field. And in line with TANDBERG's cultural tradition, whatever we did had to be fun.
As TANDBERG's Chief Competence Officer, I was charged with the task to solve the field part of the equation. Over the last four years, we have developed a set of ideas and practices that can be best described as "soft R&D."
TANDBERG already had an unusually strong culture high on energy, enthusiasm and evangelical passion for video. Our task was to channel that energy into reinventing how the field works at the speed of or faster than the market. Our ideas evolved considerably over time. Below is a snapshot of our current thinking.
How can a relatively small organization stay ahead of the market when all parts of its business context are on the move: technology is getting more complex with each product release, who buys it and why is changing as technology moves up the adoption curve, competitive landscape is changing as competitors of different breeds and creeds are clamoring to join the growth party, solutions are outgrowing the competence of old partners and require partnerships with new types of organizations… Setting ambitious goals and recycling best practices does not cut it. What constitutes a best practice today, sometimes becomes a dangerous mental lock-in tomorrow. People need an entirely new way to relate to their work, a way that is not defined by the contents of what they do because the contents needs to change and change fast.
So instead of looking at work as, well, “work,” we started looking at it as an infinite game, a martial art that is permanently under development. Every employee is a “Player” in that game which means they have an unconditional responsibility for inventing new “moves” in response to or anticipation of changes in business context. In high tech product R&D no new product release is the end of the game but a stepping stone towards a new, even better or sometimes radically new solution. Engineers are expected to keep inventing, to keep playing. That’s precisely the mindset needed in the field, too. In that sense, engineers are charged with “hard R&D” and the field is charged with “soft R&D.”
The complication with the products of “soft R&D” is that unlike the products of “hard R&D” you can’t touch them, they are intangible: they are mental constructs people use to make sense of what’s going on and to decide on their course of action. But to tinker with something, to improve it, to take it apart and create something new, people need to see it. The good news is, the products of “soft R&D” might be intangible but they are not invisible. So, to jump-start the “soft R&D” game, we need to help the participants of the game see what the current state of the art “product line” looks like.
Here is how we go about it: We pick a role, say channel managers, and gather a number of perspectives on how people in that role think, what they do and the impact they have. We talk to people in that role (the best, the average, the mavericks), to their managers, to people in other roles that interface with channel managers inside TANDBERG and people inside the partner organizations channel managers look after. Based on these conversations—we had around 60 of these in the case of channel managers—we distill what seems to be “the state of the art” of channel management at three levels: (1) assumptions people in that role make about business context, (2) how they conceive of their role, (3) the key “moves” that make up the role. This becomes “TANDBERG Way of Managing Channels” version 1.0. Now we have something to tinker with.
The next step is to architect a process that creates physical and mental space for tinkering. Although lots of incremental improvements are possible in the field, in the heat of the action, the really big breakthroughs tend to happen when people get a chance to put some distance between themselves and the grindstone and reflect on what they are doing. That’s why we created the idea of the "Lab.” The main purpose of the Lab is to tinker with the current version of a “TANDBERG Way of…” If the Lab does not produce product updates or breakthroughs, it’s considered a failure. Here is how the Lab works: Each Lab would consist of 15-20 people in a given role, 1-3 executives, 2-3 senior managers responsible for people in that role and 2 professional facilitators. Participants are usually a mix of people from different geographies. Each Lab lasts 2-3 days. During this time, participants
- First fire-test and revise current assumptions about business context and current conceptions of the role. Here is a sample revision in current assumption about business context: from “Cisco is a giant whose market power dwarfs us “ to “Cisco is our marketing arm! They create a major wave in market awareness about telepresence and we are going to ride it.” Here is a sample revision in the conception of channel manager’s role: from “I am a go-to-person for all partner related business” to “I am a chief strategist and commander-in-chief of joint TANDBERG-partner forces.”
- Then fire-test the current repertoire of “moves.” The best way to do this is by trying out all of the moves—typically each role is distilled into a system of 9-12 moves—in the current context. In the case of channel managers, they would be trying out all the moves in the context of their current partner portfolio and the most important partners. “Trying out” means going through one or several Lab experiments specifically designed for each move. Depending on the move, experiments are done either individually, in a small team or as a whole group. Each experiment is followed by a de-brief and collective reflection on the validity and importance of the move given what’s happening on the ground at the moment. Some moves are discontinued, some moves are upgraded, new moves are introduced. Decisions are made on the spot. Continuity and relevance of the upgrades for the entire community in a given role (and not just for the people participating in the Lab right now) are ensured by the permanent members of the Lab, i.e., executives, senior managers and facilitators.
By the end of the current Lab, the people who are leaving the room are the only ones privy to the latest and greatest upgrades because they are the ones who invented them! So, how do the upgrades get disseminated to the rest? The really big changes—and there have been a few, including changes in overall strategy—are communicated immediately through the line. More subtle revisions are sent as email updates to the community and shared in person as fresh lab participants get back into the field. Everybody can also go to a dedicated website that hosts the most up to date version of a “TANDBERG Way…”
Between Labs, facilitators and content developers incorporate all the revisions and upgrades into the content for the next Lab, so that the next cohort of inventors tinkers and builds on the most recent version. For each role participating in the “soft R&D”, there is about one Lab a month or more, depending on the speed of market changes.
So far, four communities have been setup with the infrastructure to play the “soft R&D” game—leaders, account managers, channel managers and sales engineers (>80% of people outside “hard R&D”). The corresponding tracks are “TANDBERG Ways of Leading,” “TANDBERG Way of Selling,” “TANDBERG Way of Scaling through Partnerships” and “TANDBERG Way of Engineering Growth.” All four tracks have gone through countless revisions, the first three have already gone through major “product line revamps” (the forth track was only brought on-stream a few months ago). And although there are still some roles without a formally developed and centrally managed infrastructure to support the game (i.e., operations and support functions), every single person inside TANDBERG gets an introduction to “Player mindset” through a New Hire Workshop when he/she joins and learns to play the game with or without the supporting infrastructure. In fact, some communities have taken the initiative and have already developed their own “way” without any support from the central team.
New products is not the only thing that the Labs produce. They also produce a tangible surge in focused energy and a new kind of excitement about what was formerly thought of as work. Many organizations talk about empowerment, but in the Labs people delight in what empowerment produces. The personal impact of big decisions made on the spot because of a new idea or a new way of looking at things you volunteered does not wear off easily. Neither does the first-hand experience of meritocracy of ideas. Equipped with a Player mindset, people don’t wait to be invited back into the Lab to volunteer new ideas. After the Lab, “work” is not quite what it used to be. It’s a game of “soft R&D.”
Challenge #1: Business language does not engage people
At first, we thought that the quality and precision of "version 1.0" did not really matter - after all, it was meant to be just a stepping stone to a much better product. We were wrong. To engage people, "version 1.0" had to be a good representation of their current experience and be expressed in a sticky, fun, controversial language. After all, language is the medium through which we share our mental constructs. Conventional business language simply led to sub-optimal results. We had to learn to talk like "normal" people and let go of our ideas of what is "politically correct." We had to learn to listen very carefully not just to what people say but how they say it and then invest hours into fine-tuning the language and sometimes intentionally pushing it one step beyond what is considered acceptable. Color and intentional controversy became part of our engagement formula.
Challenge #2: Getting people out of the field is hard at first
When we started out, taking people out of the field and getting them into the Lab was an uphill battle. As was getting senior managers and executives to spend 2-3 days of their time locked in the Lab. The first Lab is a very hard sell because people have no way to label it other than some form of training. The associations people had with training is that it tends to be somewhat interesting, only loosely related to what they do, delivered by facilitators unfamiliar with the business context...in other words, something that often turns out to be a colossal waste of time and should be done online, if possible. First, we spent months trying to explain that the Lab wasn't about training. Then, we changed our approach - it didn't matter what people thought it was as long as we got a chance to run our first Lab. It also helped that all the people who contributed their insights and helped create "version 1.0" were curious to see how it all turns out in practice. After Lab #1, things tend to change fast. Participants leave the Lab on fire and cannot help but spread the stories in the field. Senior managers and executives learn more about the field in 2-3 days than they sometimes do in months or even years, big decisions are taken on the spot. The Lab stops being that other extra thing on their to do list and becomes *how* they go about managing.
During the last three years TANDBERG not only became a market share leader but also consistently beat the giants in the field, even at their own game (e.g., Cisco's telepresence). Attribution is always tricky because there were several initiatives contributing to this track record. Most people would agree that "TANDBERG Ways" have galvanized the field, created a new language, created communities united by the purpose of inventing new moves, led to several significant shifts in direction and put TANDBERG executives--already a non-hierarchical and highly engaged bunch--in the lab and busy inventing like everyone else.
The thrill of invention is not the prerogative of engineering geeks alone!
"Soft R&D" products cannot be put in the box and shipped to the customer, but their business impact is enormous. Investing time into giving these products shape and color and creating the mental and physical space away from the grindstone for people to tinker with them, to take them apart and to create something new, better suited for the challenges in the field can change how people make sense of what's going on around them, how they conceive of their roles and what they do every day. Playing a game and thinking of yourself as a Player with an unconditional responsibility to invent is just so much more fun!
In the high tech industry where everything changes very fast ("change is the only constant") and inventors are seen as "rock stars," framing the work of people outside "hard R&D" as "soft R&D" works. A different language and a way to frame this might be needed in an industry with a more stable business context and less of an R&D cult. Also, in a more stable business context, less emphasis might be needed on new product updates and releases. This approach could simply be used to codify and disseminate best practices, create a common language and a consistent way of doing things in any given role.
My role in developing the concept of "soft R&D" - first as TANDBERG's Chief Competence Officer and later as an external consultant to TANDBERG as part of the Source Integral team - was to come up with the initial ideas and help develop version 1.0 for all of the four currently active tracks. That is about 5% of the job.
The credit for the 95% of the job - selling the Labs, running and facilitating the Labs, managing countless product updates and major product revamps, building the infrastructure and the team to support the game, installing Player mindset as a permanent feature of TANDBERG culture, just to name a few things that go into it - goes to two people: Annicken Rod, TANDBERG's Chief Cultural Officer, and Patricia Stang, VP TANDBERG University.