About a year ago, Sanjay Razdan transformed a multi-million pound new technologies business, including the space sector, using his ‘innovation recipe’. That’s impressive, but what if I told you he’s repeated the same recipe every few years for the last two decades, in unrelated industries, with similar results?
If you’re a leader in charge of innovation and turning ideas into profitable growth, this article’s for you, regardless of your industry. But before we get into why the recipe works, let’s itemise Sanjay’s ‘ingredient list’ and what it covers.
Combining these ingredients means Sanjay keeps the company’s cash flow steady over the first year, brings in profitability through innovation in the second year, and finally, in the third and fourth years, finds replacements to grow the team and achieve sustainability.
Sitting with Sanjay in a large open hallway (he doesn’t believe in closed offices) I asked why he qualified as an authority in taking on ideas and making them happen. Without pause he confidently tells me it’s because he has a ‘very strong scanning power’ to understand his team’s and his own competencies – a sharp focus on what competencies exist and are missing when he joins a new project or company.
It doesn’t matter what business or technology you’re selling, Sanjay believes everything has to grow. And by growth, he means profitable growth. “I don’t believe that any business can sustain by not making money. It’s so black and white to me, and I discuss creating value very clearly with partners. And because of that, trust is built very quickly, within the team as well as with partners or customers … then we can make it happen.” With each new project, Sanjay asks ‘What is our core competence? Is what we do unique?’
For example, he’s applied this to his current assignment, where the main product is the company’s high calibre scientific people. “We created some unique technologies, but our customers pay for access to our people; the technology is a by-product. It’s the competence of our people to provide the technology. This is very unique in a commercial environment; we were basically a scientific research organisation. So, once we get an idea of understanding competencies, we align those with customers that value those competencies.”
Over the past 20 years, Sanjay has worked with many organisations, ranging from very large B2B companies to start-ups that went on to become multinational companies. “Regardless of size, the core challenge is always the same: how can we create value for senior management, mid-level management, and operational management? The answer: by understanding product value, business value, and personal value.”
Tangibly, how do you sell a new idea to those three levels?
Let’s illustrate how with an example. Before his current assignment, Sanjay worked in the bank note printing industry. When he came into the business he saw that, besides printing capabilities, the business had valuable, untapped technology. The printing business was the cash generator, but Sanjay realised that nobody knew what to do with the technology. However, the technology was an important part of the total solution, because the company wasn’t selling central banks merely the capability to print bank notes; it was providing the technology, too.
Sanjay was brought in to shake up the business because the competition was way ahead: “They had market share and were growing, whereas we as a company had lost focus. Employees and customers had been told ‘This is a done deal – we’ll sell the business, etc’. So then I stepped in and said ‘Let’s see what’s still working here. What competencies do we have?’ Then I went back to the existing customers and listened to them, to understand their needs. ”
So, I started putting teams together, keeping day-to-day promises. If our customers were still shouting at us and talking to us, that’s good news; it meant we still had customers! So, I took that as positive, and made sure, immediately, to get our teams working. ‘Guys, there’s a contract – get on and do it.’ Then, I started to understand.” To start understanding, Sanjay went to the executive team of one of the central banks and began researching their people: “What were their personal values, what were their challenges?”
For one of the countries, the challenge was how to reduce inventory of cash and increase security. For one client, the challenge was how to reduce inventory of cash and increase security. Sanjay understood that talking about machines didn’t make any sense to the senior executive. “He would have immediately put me down to an operation level and told me to work with them to sort it out. And then I started to think: first, he could lower his costs by improving or decreasing the inventory; secondly, he could gain knowledge about his inventory and understand at any given moment where the cash was. That’s a security-side improvement.” Sanjay reframes the solution by talking about the challenges, and communicates at the right level, i.e. not by telling him how fast their machines are or how great their technology is.
“The conversation at the executive level begins like this: ‘Hey, we did some homework. Today you have 60% inventory in the country and because of X reasons, the industry has been keeping between 40-60% cash reserved, yes? But, you have the potential to bring it down to 20%. By doing that you will make X amount of saving, without even touching your staff levels.’ That creates a wow for a senior executive. Then you tell him that he can also identify which cash centre has what. Now you’re selling it in at the managerial level. Your solution improves management. You can even help manage where the cash went. You can see the life story of the cash.
“Next you talk to middle management about their return on investment – what is the business value in it. And then at the operational level you talk about the technology: ‘Hey, you can have 2,000 used bank notes sorted in a minute. That will improve your productivity’. So, to sell your product like a professional, you need to do your homework about each level.”
Besides solving their challenges, Sanjay offers solutions that appeal to their personal values: “In the banking case, the main personal value was about corporate social responsibility. What impact would it make for the Chief Exec to be able to talk about corporate social responsibility? Could the company’s carbon footprint be reduced by using our product? Might it improve the security of the country? In one of the largest countries in the world, we actually reduced the bank’s cash centres by 50%. Now the company can use fewer security people and has created centralised key hubs. Our product actually created a new banking policy for them.”
Many innovators hit ‘focus failure’. So let’s have Sanjay take us through this common challenge.
A company is struggling – let’s say there’s a plethora of ideas but they’re losing money, bleeding. They need someone who can identify a game plan to get back to profitability. What are the common things that are often failing? Is there a common thread amongst companies regarding why things are not happening?
Sanjay believes the common thread is: too many initiatives. “Learn where to say no. I go even further and put it on paper what we will not do, because as human beings we rationalise everything. So write down what you’ve decided not to do. It’s the grey zones on the edges where most people spend too much time. It can be hard to decide if something is within your strategy or outside it. Have the clarity to not waste time in these grey zones between yes and no.”
I mused that it must upset people, though, when he goes in with that approach. Some people will say, ‘Well, you’re completely dismissing our ideas’. There’s a bit of a kick back, isn’t there?
“Yes, absolutely, there are even people who will leave. So, what I’ve done in the last ten years of such assignments is to go in and quickly select the executive team. Establish what is the core strength still left in the organisation? And then I find out what the need is for that technology, service, or product. And who is the existing customer? First and foremost, I always try to focus on getting back to existing customers who are still willing to talk to us. And then rebuild their confidence levels and trust: ‘What we say, that we will do’.”
And the second phase? “In parallel or in sequence, determine what other needs of the customer you can meet. Are there some interesting technologies, or a new solution? But, again, I will go only to my existing customers first. And in the third phase, I will go to new customers with my company’s original solution.”
Sanjay said it, and I think there’s a huge point to be made here: too many initiatives.
If there are lots of promising ideas, management might think they all sound fantastic so why say no to any of them? Is Sanjay saying that in a given year, you should have one core focus with perhaps a few others on the side? Or just a small handful of things? How does this focus appear, realistically?
Initially, all of Sanjay’s activity is aligned with profit and loss: “There is limited time and limited resource. How can we fit and maximise value within those limits? I tell my team that in everything we do, there are four main areas on which to focus and improve. The first I call profitable growth; the second, productivity improvement; the third is people development; and the fourth I call innovation of technology and organisation.
“I tell the team members that if they’re impacting any one or more of these four focus areas, then go for it. If there’s something outside of these, then we need to discuss. In this way, you start having very clear messages within the team, and discussions based around common problem solving, which I like to call Organisational Alignment workshops; we talk about opportunity gaps and performance gaps, and about key success factors, vision, and strategy as the top three offerings that make us unique.
But what makes the difference, says Sanjay, is culture: “I ask the team what are the top three to five behaviours we need? Not ideal behaviours, but the behaviours to achieve what we defined as opportunity and performance gaps in our organisation alignment model. And what is the leadership style required for that particular team to meet and exceed our deliverables? Once you get this down on paper – together as a team – then my responsibility is to walk the talk.”
“I believe every person has to contribute something. Now, once we define what we’re trying to solve or what we’re trying to grow, we need leadership as well as management. So, there are basically four critical pillars of personalities I need in a team.” Sanjay defines these as:
And Sanjay uses this ‘team recipe’ over and over. “Regardless of the product, I’ll always do psychometric analysis profile testing of the team to ascertain which category people fall into. Once they’re all aware of each other’s strengths and know each other in that way, the team dynamic changes: they build trust and immediately start to practice continuous improvement.”
Sanjay changes, too. “The more I’m with a customer, in the field, the more I change without even thinking about it. Then the challenge is the senior people with functional roles, such as managing director, HR director, finance director. I believe their roles should be rotated every three to five years, otherwise there is no reason for them to change or grow.”
Do teams have better success when they already know each other from a previous project? Or doesn’t that matter, as long as you assemble those four personality types? ”
As I mentioned, I believe the more that team members know each other, the better it is – and if they know each other from the past, brilliant. But if they don’t, they must get to know each other fast. Being together more, doing the psychometric analysis, and understanding their personalities helps. They respect each other’s behaviours.”
Is the way that Sanjay builds the team – especially with those four personality types – applicable to you, the person reading to this article? If you lead a small or medium enterprise, with anywhere from a handful to 50 employees – is this approach relevant, or is this exclusively for large enterprises?
“Obviously it will be different in different levels of corporations; I’ve worked in large corporations and for start-up companies and the model is the same. You might have a person with two personality types fulfilling two roles; for instance, a good finance guy who also has the operations personality, so in the beginning can do both. Then, as the company grows, you can start building other people into the team. Usually that comes as the company becomes 50-60 people. Sometimes, the person that started the business is the people developer; regardless, the four personality types expounded in the model all have to exist if a team is to thrive.”
Here’s how this ‘innovation recipe’ comes together over time. Idea, Team, Focus, Time
Finally, some of you might be reading this and think to yourself ‘You know what, I could maybe run things a little better in my own company, or I could lead in a more impactful manner’. Specifically, for people reading this who want to immediately improve their leadership in innovation, what’s that first step? Is there one? ”
I would say, continuously create possibilities that will inspire, touch, and move people around you. The leader has to have integrity – what they say, they must do. To that I add that whatever environment you’re in – with family, friends, or at work – keep on inspiring them. Create solutions, create possibilities, and if you’re able to inspire five, ten, or 50 people, you’re actually creating solutions. Be bold, have that understanding of other people, be inspirational.”