Observations: The Lasting Power of a Good Strategy…Or Two!
by Jim Lyons
[November 29, 2011] This is a story—actually two stories—about networking and the staying power that results from good strategy development. This combination led to one of my personal career highlights of 2011. The series of events, between coincidence and sleuthing, ended up leading to some much longer range reflection that resulted in some gained wisdom, at least as I see it, that is worth preserving and passing along.
I Have Seen That Somewhere Before
This past summer, I sat through an interesting presentation about the “future of work” and its implications for higher education. The webinar and the included materials were the result of work by the research branch of my employer from the education side of my life, the University of Phoenix, where I teach undergraduate- and graduate-level marketing and economics. Our Palo Alto, CA-based research group, with collaboration from Stanford University and the Institute of the Future, had produced the study, the first in a series actually.
As my colleagues and I sat through the presentation, the proverbial light bulb went off in my head as I focused on the presentation graphics—I had seen this formatting somewhere before. Post-seminar, I had to know if the slides were the work of David Sibbet and Grove Consultants International, who had served me and my team (dubbed the BLAST team) so well in 1994, when in the middle of my 25-year HP career, I led a team ruminating on and recommending plans for the future of the printer business (see image below).
Graphics from a Future of Work presentation started my sleuthing
An e-mail to the head of the Phoenix research group confirmed the graphics work had been led by the Institute of the Future (another consulting firm familiar to me from HP days but not from the particular project I had in mind). Some digging around with Google and then Amazon led me to Sibbet and a book he authored in 2010, titled Visual Meetings, with back-cover blurbs from Institute of the Future sources, so the trail was really warming up. Then finding my long-ago colleague on LinkedIn, I had a direct connection to at least satisfy my curiosity and potentially revel in the “small world” nature of having the same consultant working for a present employer as well as a previous one, nearly two decades prior.
The wait for a reply allowed me to go back to that 1994 effort with a talented, eight-member cross-functional team I had the pleasure and honor to lead, with great top management backing and interest. Over two months, and with the help of Sibbet and his magical “graphical facilitation” process (as well as other experts, both internal and external to HP), we came up with a meaningful historical perspective (on what was then the ten-year history of LaserJet) and blending that with developing trends in the broader market, came up with some recommendations for our business and its direction for the next ten or more years.
Though easiest to remember, I recalled that the strategy development was not just about the charts and graphs, although the oversized charts were invaluable communication tools in their final form. Rather, the many intermediate steps over the course of two months that involved the eight team members and many experts contributed to the foundation of the recommended strategies. With the internal experts’ input (and resulting buy-in), the recommendations were more-or-less “pre-sold” because they were the result of the collective process and not an “out-of-touch” external team of consultants.
As those thoughts began to galvanize for me, I got an exciting reply from Sibbet: he remembered me and my team and we just happened to be the subject of the first chapter in a new book, this one titled Visual Teams, that he was in the final stages of writing. Sibbet subsequently asked if I would mind looking the draft over and adding some edits/additions.
What Were Those Strategies?
Visual Teams covers the strategic development process at HP some 17 years ago, with recommended strategies still valid
Though I left HP a little more than six years ago, today, as senior editor for The Hard Copy Observer and with a close eye on the entire printing and imaging business and special attention on its perennial leading firm, HP, I felt very qualified to participate in the editing process and contribute to the content. Sibbet had done a masterful job in recalling the strategy development process flow, and I was able to add precision to the set-up (i.e. why was the BLAST team commissioned?) and the outcomes (i.e. what were the recommended strategies and how did they fare over the test of time?).
I have often recalled that the timing of that team’s work in late 1994 was fortuitous in providing the opportunity for the team to identify future trends, as they were just becoming apparent, especially with a closer look. For example, the appearance of the World Wide Web was becoming quite apparent (though commercial online services like AOL were much more prevalent at the time) after four years in its infancy, and e-mail was clearly kicking into the pervasive category. (Remembering that the first ten years of the LaserJet’s success had come in no small part from being a typewriter replacement for the creation of business letters provides a good example of the change at hand, as this transition to e-mail and other electronic forms of communication would seemingly leave a hole in demand for printing, that could perhaps, but not assuredly, be made up elsewhere.)
Even e-books were emerging on the horizon, with a little careful examination, and I remember we used a text copy of Project Gutenberg’s “Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” stored on a 3.5-inch floppy, to make the point that centralized printing, the model we coined “print and distribute,” was giving way to a “distribute and print” alternative. Beyond the technology, we also saw that corporate customers of HP printers were a different category and that the services side of things should be prioritized—the message was not just all about the best new products but rather providing a stable printing environment. We also helped flesh out, based on work at HP Labs and some other colleagues at HP’s Imaging and Printing Group (IPG), a “paper pie” that showed how a small, single-digit percentage of print was actually being done digitally and that a huge opportunity existed to capture traditional printing moving to one or another form of digital.
Fast-forward to 2011, and HP’s current printing and imaging strategies are very solidified around 1) printing content from online and mobile sources, 2) managed print services, and 3) the graphics-arts opportunity based around the analog to digital conversion of print. With a liberal interpretation of what the BLAST team came up with in 1994, those trends are very consistent with our recommendations after a two-month collaborative process.
HP’s strategy at the end of 2011, as expressed to Lyra Research (and others) at the firm’s HP Analyst Immersion Event in October, is based on four trends.
- content explosion;
- mobility and the Web;
- everything is going digital (analog to digital); and
- service-based business models.
Today’s strategists at HP are seeing much of the same, although more fully developed, of what we saw at the beginning of 1994 and are vigorously pursuing many of the same strategic initiatives we recommended. Does that mean that these trends are “old hat” and not the right ones? On the contrary, at least from what I see, these trends are the right ones. To go one better than our 17-year strategy span, none other that Sibbet himself just blogged about the 23-year-old iPad strategy, based on a recent Forbes piece (click here).
But back to the book, which came out in October and even includes a box with a “Note from Jim Lyons” at the end of the first chapter where I express a version of what I have recalled here, about how the Personal Press and Corporate Printing strategies from 1994 live on at HP in 2011.