So…..What Exactly Is It You Do?

This is a question I get a lot – from friends, acquaintances, family members, people I meet at conferences, or other people I encounter throughout my personal and professional life.  I usually have trouble explaining it to those who are unfamiliar with the world of product development.  My one-line response is usually: I’m a project manager for a new product development and market research firm.  Most people have heard those words in that combination before, but don’t fully understand what it is, so it’s hard for me to go into any kind of depth.

I think I have my explanation of what I do down to under 5 minutes.  I thought I’d share it on here.

Essentially, new product development is taking an idea and turning it into a product or a service that a company sells.  There are different steps they take along the way: such as refining, prototyping, packaging, and developing a marketing plan before a company launches a product and it appears on shelves.  The process is usually a bit different each time, depending on the product or service being developed.

My company, Innovation Focus, helps before that process takes over, in what is called the “front-end” of new product development.  The “front-end” is the getting started period of product development, where a company doesn’t know what products or services they should be developing.  The company knows it needs these ideas to help drive their growth, reach their financial goals, and define their future.  This is when they call us, and we facilitate them through our process.

We use qualitative market research techniques to talk to target consumers.  We talk about their lives in general, then focus down on specific areas of interest for our clients.  We look to identify their unmet needs and ways they need help in that area.

From this research, we look for themes to emerge from the data we collected, and turn those themes into opportunity areas for our clients to create products and services to help these consumers.  We really try to bring in the voice of the customer and connect our clients to it.

We use these opportunity areas as inspiration for ideation sessions.  These sessions are targeted to generate beginning product and service ideas for our client based on the findings from our research.  We facilitate a creative problem solving technique to generate these ideas.  Typically, we end up with 100 or more new product and service concepts.

We use criteria determined before the session to identify leading concepts that best match the company’s goals.  We prioritize these leading ideas and build action plans around them.  A portfolio of these ideas is then handed off to our clients to develop using their new product development process.  Occasionally we go a little further with the concepts, such as concept writing or refinement, but typically this is where our project work stops.

I’m a project manager within this process, meaning I’m involved in pretty much every aspect of the projects we run.  I manage the recruiting companies that find the people we interview, the facilities where we hold our sessions, and the outside guests that come to our sessions.  I work with cross-functional client teams and internal project teams as well as the outside resources listed above.  I am responsible for time, travel and cost budgets and making sure the project runs smoothly without losing sight of our client’s end goal.

I am also trained in leading our creative problem solving process, and have training the Osborn-Parnes creative problem solving model.  I’m have led consumer interviews in the past and am refining those skills.  I train our other project managers in project management.  And I help with the marketing, branding, copywriting, sales and administrative aspects of the company.

Okay… it’s a little more than 5 minutes.  I need to work a bit to get it down.  I think this is the best explanation of what I do so far, and people seem to nod their head in agreement to it (if they haven’t walked away before I’m finished.)

Pay Better Attention With The Power of Science

This came up in my news feed the other day:

The article discusses some breakthroughs in the science of helping a person concentrate.  From gamma rays to hearing aids, it outlines some emerging technologies that are geared to take advantage of these breakthroughs (although I think it’d be funny and very creepy to see an office full of workers wearing the device pictured.)

Most people in business know how hard it is to concentrate in the office.  Distractions abound: from the phone ringing to unanswered emails to helping co-workers.  And that’s without naming any internet distractions.  This is why my most important learning from the article came from a low-tech tip the author makes:

“She recommends starting your work day concentrating on your most important task for 90 minutes. At that point your prefrontal cortex probably needs a rest, and you can answer e-mail, return phone calls and sip caffeine (which does help attention) before focusing again. But until that first break, don’t get distracted by anything else, because it can take the brain 20 minutes to do the equivalent of rebooting after an interruption.”

I think this tip is extremely helpful, and it fits perfectly with how I plan my work day (not to mention justifying my coffee habit.)  By only planning 6 hours out of your work day, as I suggested, you’re allowing yourself to take that break after 90 minutes to do those unexpected tasks that require a response, such as email or phone calls.  You can get complete or get a great start on your most important task right away, then refocus and complete that task or your next most important task for that day.

Even if you don’t plan 6 hours of your day, try focusing on your most important task for the first 90 minutes of your day then taking a break.  I do this already, but I’m going to make a more conscious effort of this to see if it improves my performance.

How I Plan My Work Day

In client services, work can be somewhat unpredictable.  A client can call at any time and disrupt whatever plans were laid for the day.  Pile on top of that a small business atmosphere, much like the one I work in, where co-workers may need help proofing a proposal or the copier could go on the fritz.  All of these factors make planning out my day difficult to nail down.

Through my 4 and a half years in client services, I think I found a strategy that works.  I try to plan for 6 hours worth of work in any given work day.  This might sound inefficient and lackadaisical, but it works!  I find that it offers the right amount of structure and flexibility that I need.

In the 6 hours that I plan, I try to write down all the tasks that I need to accomplish in my planner.  This usually happens the day before while it’s fresh in my mind.  It includes more than 6 hours worth of work, but I only plan on accomplishing 6 hours worth of it.  I then prioritize the list, making note of the most pressing tasks and tasks that I didn’t finish the day before, followed by my less time-sensitive tasks.  Client work and important internal tasks such as the newsletter usually rise to the top of my list.  Cleaning my desk and emptying my trash are usually pushed to the next day.

The other 2 hours of my day I use for emails, helping out co-workers or other unexpected tasks.  Keeping these 2 hours unplanned helps me be very responsive to out-of-the-blue requests.  Now if I client calls with a task that will take me an hour, I can easily accommodate that within the flow of my day.  I also have time to help out a colleague if they need me or advise the project managers I supervise with their requests.  It helps make me a better co-worker and client service provider by being able to respond quickly to these assignments.

These 2 blocks of time are not blocks at all – they’re fluid and can be switched on and off as needed.  Knowing about how long the tasks I have planned helps.  If I know a task I need to finish only takes 15 minutes, I can easily get it done before I move on to a request from a co-worker.  If no requests come in a day, which usually happens, I just move further down my list to my less-time pressing task that I can get off of my plate.

It takes a little getting used to, but I think the benefits are there once you get over the learning curve.  It’s definitely not for everyone, but it really works for me.  I find that it really gives me the flexibility to handle urgent client and co-worker requested tasks effectively and responsively.  I feel that I am a better employee because of this.

The Value of Design in Everyday Business

Everyone knows that design can add a heck of a lot of value to a business.  Apple, Kohler, and Jawbone are all examples of how superior design can define a brand and motivate consumers to buy a product.  The principles used by these companies can be applied to everyday business.

You’ve seen it before – a document that looks like it was thrown together 5 minutes before you received it.  The fonts change through out, images look placed without any rhyme or reason, and you might have even gasped a little bit when you opened it.  Unfortunately, this happens more often than not in business.  Either that, or you receive a document that looks like any other document you’ve ever received.  I know I get a few of these a day.  Nothing stands out, and the documents just get filed away just like any other.

The other day I received a document from a vendor that really stood out.  I opened it, and I actually said “Wow.”  It was a regular document (I think it was just a bid or something), but it looked like someone definitely spent some time on it.  The graphics were great but subtle; it was laid out in a simple, easy to read way; and I actually went back to it when I didn’t have to just to look at it again.  I ended up sharing it around the office because I thought it was cool.

It got me thinking that every day there are multiple opportunities to impress through design.  Basically any document sent to anyone is an opportunity to impress the recipient.  It could get passed around the office just because it looks nice (much like I did with the document I received.)  Spending the extra 5-10 minutes to make something look nice can lead to future opportunities (or at least keep people talking.)

I think 3 basic principles can be used to help enhance documents to try to impress:

  1. Keep It Simple – The document I received wasn’t overly wordy.  It was well-written but succinct.  I could easily gather the information I needed from it.  It also didn’t over-do it.  It wasn’t loaded with graphics or call out or anything.  It was a rather elegently laid-out.
  2. Use Graphics – Although this document didn’t have a lot of graphics, it did have some well-selected graphics.  They were very simple design elements that added value without taking away attention from the main message.  Although they weren’t the focus of the document, they definitely added value through making an impression.
  3. Fit With Brand – This document was very branded, meaning it definitely looked like it came from their company.  It fit with the experience they were trying to convey.  If I had to look at the document without knowing who it was from, I could definitely tell who made it.

Documents and other everyday business activities can be opportunities to impress through simple design principles.  All it takes it 5 to 10 minutes to seperate yourself from everyone else and possibily develop more opportunities for your company.

Start Small, Then Keep Going

This popped up as I was perusing Lifehacker the other day:

Its a tip from a Do-It-Yourselfer that says when working on a complex project, the best way to get started is to tackle the simple, easy tasks first.  It gets the small, easy stuff out of the way early, and it gives a few quick wins towards solving the bigger problems.  This positive momentum goes a long way in making the tough task look solvable.

This is similar to the way I like to plan my work.  I break a task into smaller, more managable steps, then plan to complete those steps.  It helps make a large task less daunting, and helps give me smaller goals that don’t take up my entire day, leaving me time to get other things done as well.

The best example of how I do this, and how I realize I do this, is my World Religions final from college.  For our final, we had to answer 4 questions in a 10 page essay.  I had other finals that week as well, so I was sure I had the time required to write a 10 page paper.  Plus, it was my second semester senior year.  Most of my attention was pretty much elsewhere.

I devised a plan, and I didn’t even know it.  The paper was due Friday, so starting Monday I began answering 1 question per day and trying to write 3 pages per question.  So, come Friday, I’d have 12 pages written and all 3 questions answered.  Plus, I could still enjoy myself during the week since I only had 3 pages to write instead of 10.  It turned out to be a pretty good strategy too – I got an A on the final and an A in the course.

So the next time you’re facing a daunting, complex task, try to break it into smaller, more managable tasks, and solve the  easiest ones first.  This will get you going on solving your problem and space out your tasks so they don’t consume all your time.

My Personal Brand Story

When I decided to build this website in January, I knew I was undertaking quite a task. I wasn’t just building a website – I was building my personal brand.

Some people may laugh when they read that line. But it’s true – you as a person have a brand that’s unique unto you. It’s how you present yourself as a professional. Just like an interaction with a company, your coworkers and colleagues interact with your brand every time they work with you. Not everyone takes it to the extent that I have, but everyone definitely has a brand. I used this site as a launching pad to begin developing my personal brand, specifically the visual look.

I started building my brand back in 2006. I was unhappy with my current job, and iwas considering a career in freelance copywriting. Believe it or not, the thought that got it going was “I need something to put on an invoice if I send it.”

I began developing my logo. I knew I wanted it go be a take on my initials because of how unique they are. I wanted the colors to reflect this as well. After a few iterations, I settled on the logo you see at the top of every page on this site.

Next, I needed a tagline. Playing off my initials again, I used “From A to Z and everything in between.”  This also keyed in on my rather unique work experience. I really liked it, although it fell by the wayside for the much more self-deprecating tagline you see above.

I didn’t go the freelance route, so the logo remained saved on my hard drive for some time. It was until I decided to create this site that I dusted it off to be used.

I knew I wanted the look and feel to this site to build off the work I put into my logo. This is when I realized that this was the start of building my brand. I looked at the site as a whole and knew it was the front door to my brand. Every part of it -from the layout to the font to the documents that would be available to download – had to reflect this brand I was building.

It took some digging but I was able to nail down the exact colors I used in my logo and realized that it would have been a lot easier if I had written it down 3 years ago. Luckily, the other colors in the logo besides the green were black and white, so that was easy. I picked an alternate green to use as an accent color and built a Color Guidelines document. This document listed all the colors I use and there mixes in CMYK, RGB, PMS and web colors.

With my colors en tow, I set out to build the site template. I never dabbled in CSS before, so this was a big undertaking with a huge learning curve. It took a bit, but I was able to find and modify all the colors and image placeholders to get the site where I wanted to go. It wasn’t easy (it took over a week) but I knew I needed to keep my personal brand reflected throughout the site.

So far, things have been going well!  I think this site is a great representation of the personal brand I’m trying to convey. I’m very happy with site and the image of myself that it conveys.

And it’s starting to spread.  A brand needs to be represented in every place it can be interacted with.  Whenever possible, I try to modify what I can to match my brand.  Some great examples are:

I have future plans of using my brand on personal business cards, decorating my personal office, and possibly a few other avenues.

So far, it’s been a fun, enlightening journey building my brand. Co-workers have actually remarked about how “branded” I am. Hopefully I can continue this and turn it into something great.

How I Keep Myself Organized

Working for a small agency who offer client services, my day can be pretty hectic. I’m currently the project manager on 4 different projects, all of which are at different stages in our process and require me to accomplish different tasks. Plus, since we’re a small agency, I have internal roles and responsibilities I need to accomplish, such as writing the newsletter or building trainings.

All in all, I have a lot of different tasks with different due dates and time frames.  I need to keep these tasks organized into order to make sure they get done when they need to be.  If I didn’t keep these tasks organized, my projects would fall behind and potentially fail, and the company would suffer.

Obviously, I can’t let myself slip on accomplishing my tasks.  Here are some things I do to keep my work organized so I can accomplish it effectively:

  • At the end of each day before I left, I write a to-do list of my tasks to accomplish the next day.  This makes me write down what I need to do while it’s the freshest in my mind.  Writing down these tasks while they’re top of mind is extremely helpful.  I’ve tried to write them down at the beginning of the day, and I found that I would miss one or 2 tasks that I would have remembered if I had written them down the day before.
  • I write my to-do list in a planner. This keeps all my lists in 1 place for future reference.  It’s nice to be able to go back to lists from a week or a month ago to make sure I didn’t miss a task.
  • Not only can a small notebook help boost your creativity, it can help keep you organized as well.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out on a weekend and suddenly remember that I have to do something at work.  Having the notebook gives me a place to write down what I forgot in a place I’ll have with me in the office on Monday.
  • In the same theme as the small notebook, my iPhone is a great resource to remind myself of tasks.  I simply open the Notes program, type in what I need to remember, and email it to myself to have for the next business day.
  • For the projects I manage, I write weekly and sometimes daily emails to update everyone involved with the project to the project’s progress and what needs to be accomplished.  These emails help me organize the tasks that need to be completed for the project.  Not only do I remember my own tasks, it helps me organize the other project participant’s tasks as well.
  • I also try to manage my Outlook Calendar for tasks that are time-sensitive.  I usually do this for task that need to be accomplished a few weeks or months out.  Putting it on my calendar gives me a set reminder that I need to get something done.  It’s nice to rely technology as a reminder.

Using all of the activities I outlined above help me keep the tasks I need to accomplish organized in a way that helps me get them done.  I don’t always us all of them, but it’s good to have them at my disposal should I need them.  Hopefully you’ll be able to use them in your work as well.

Teaching A Man To Fish – Training

As part of my promotion, I was charged with training the 2 new project managers my company recently hired.  I was pretty proud to be given this task, as it meant the company trusts me and wants to see me share my accumulated knowledge with the younger staff.

I started this task by examining the company’s existing project management training.  These decks centered around the 6 different processes a project manager is regularly managing.  I had been trained using these decks, but I didn’t remember them being what I wanted them to be.  My goal was to find their shortcomings and eliminate them to the best of my ability while adding in the knowledge I gain over my 2.5 years there.

After reviewing them, I realized what I didn’t like about that: while they were good, they were pretty high-level and written more like tips to keep in mind than a training.  They didn’t give a step-by-step process that showed what tasks and responsibilities needed to happen and what order they should occur.  I never had this type of training in project management, and I felt it would be extremely helpful for our 2 new hires, who have never managed project before.

So I set out to re-write our training decks to include the correct processes that need to be followed every time we manage the type of project being trained.  I didn’t completely disregard the material that was there, and I agreed with the way the trainings were broken up.  There was a lot of good material already written, so I just fit it into the training where I felt it was appropriate.

I really tried to add in what I learned during my time with the company as well as the best practices I learned from previous trainings.  I also wanted to build the decks to be a resource that the new hires could refer back to if they had any questions about what they should be doing next or if they needed to find the right document they need to be using.

In the end, I ended up modifying all 7 training decks:

  • Project Managers Overview
  • Managing The Project – what happens on every project
  • Managing A Facility- for recruiting consumers for projects
  • Managing A Session – ideation sessions, focus groups, etc.
  • Managing A Resource – an outside resource who is used for a project
  • Managing a Delphi – a phone interview with an expert
  • Managing Ethnographic Research – in-home interviews with consumers

I also added 2 more trainings on top of the 6 above and the other various skills and tasks a project manager for my company should know:

  1. An Organization Overview, where I talked about the organization, the way we do things such as timesheets, expense report, and itineraries, and other little things that no one officially told me and I found out on my own.  I felt this could be helpful for a new hire to know right off the bat.
  2. Managing The Budget, where I talk about managing the money and time budgets that are allotted for each project.

So far, the trainings are going very well.  I feel like the new hires are further along than I was at the point their at right now.  I’ve been running the trainings very collaberatively, where I’ve invited the other project managers outside of the new hires to share their experiences and the tips and tricks they’ve learned along the way.  Its been adding a lot to the trainings, and its giving the new hires a pretty well-rounded view of project management.  They’ve been using the decks as I intended, meaning they are going back to them for guidance and using it at a reference.

The next step is to get them som hands-on project management experience, which will come with time.  Right now I feel like I’m point them in the right direction and giving them the tools and knowledge to be successful with the experience opportunities arrive.

A Needle In A Haystack – Recruiting The Right Consumers To Interview

In the work I do, we often turn to recruiting facilities to help us find consumers for in-home (ethnographic) interviews, focus groups, or other forms of qualitative research.  We utilize the databases of these facilities to help us find consumers who match certain criteria we’re looking to research.  I write a screener, which is a list of questions targeted to find these types of consumers, and the facility uses it to call people in their database they think could potentially fit.

Depending upon the project, recruiting can range from extremely simple to almost impossible.  In my experience, I’ve managed 3 types of projects: easy projects to recruit, average projects, and very difficult projects to recruit.

The easier projects to recruit often have pretty general criteria that apply to a lot of people.  It’s usually looking for people who own a certain product, use a certain product every day, are regularly in situations or activities such as business travel, or other general types of criteria.  I consider projects like this to be easy recruits because these people are found pretty quickly, and it allows you to be picky about the people included.

For a project I was working on, our screener called for people who owned their home and had a household income of over $150,000.  The 2 markets we were holding the study in were able to complete this recruit in less than a week, and our client could essentially pick and choose who they wanted to be included.

The average projects don’t always allow for that type of flexibility in recruiting.  These projects are looking for the same types of consumers as the easier projects, but the requirements are less general.  The project could be looking for a specific brand of product or a situation that most people aren’t always in, such as recently making a major purchase or traveling for business at least twice a month.  There also could be constraints on the project from the client that hinder the type of recruit you can do.  I consider these recruit average because they’re usually what I encounter when I’m recruiting for a project.

The best example I have for this type of project from my experience is one I worked on about a year ago.  We were looking for Boomers (ages 55+) who ate applesauce on a regular basis (at least once a week.)  This doesn’t sound like that difficult of a recruit, except we were on a shoe-string budget and couldn’t afford a usual recruiting facility.  We ended up recruiting 6 local friends and family who met our criteria for half-hour interviews, and ended up getting a lot of great information from them.

Then there are some project who seem to be looking for a needle in a haystack.  These projects are the ones that are very difficult to recruit.  Not having a budget for recruiting isn’t usually the case; it’s usually extremely limiting criteria for recruiting that make these project difficult.  In my experience, most of these projects are medical or pharmaceutical research projects.  They can be looking for a person who has a certain disease at a specific stage or is taking a drug for a certain amount of time.

I have experience with the later portion of the statement above.  Recently, I was working on a medical packaging research project that was looking for heart disease patients that have been on a certain cardiovascular drug for less than a year.  This proved to be extremely difficult, as the recruiting facilities I contacted were having trouble finding people that met this criteria.  I ended up contracting with 3 recruiting facilities and still could not complete the recruit.

Having had the applesauce project under my belt, I decided to employ the method I used for that project.  I turned to friends and family for help.  After a lot of phone calls, emails, and searching, we were able to fill complete the recruit with people referred to us by our friends and family.  We actually ended up finding more people than the 3 facilities combine!  They ended up being great interviews, and my client was extremely pleased and came back to me for additional projects.

Recruiting for in-home interviews can be interesting.  A project can be an easy recruit, and average recruit or a very difficult recruit.  Having the right tools to recruit the right people can make or break a project.