Entrepreneurship

In late 1999, times were good for twenty four year-old John Friess.  He was living in Los Angeles and pulling down a decent wage in a product marketing role.  His employer, a contractor to Kozmo.com, was helping to revolutionize the retail experience by providing Internet consumers with instant gratification.  Kozmo.com offered one-hour point–to-point delivery of small ticket items like movies and groceries in eleven major cities in the United States.  With Kozmo.com headed toward what seemed like a near certain and red-hot initial public offering, John looked forward to celebrating the holidays with his new fiancée.  Then, John got a call from his older brother that changed the course of his professional life.

John’s brother Mark, a second year medical student, was watching the dot-com bubble build and wanted in on the action.  Though they did not have a concrete business idea, the brothers spent the next couple of months brainstorming ideas for a startup in healthcare technology that could make a difference in people’s lives.  Ultimately an idea struck them.

When he went on hospital rounds, Mark noticed that physicians spent precious little time with patients – on average only about seven minutes.  Patients needed a lot more information to give them comfort and reassurance.  Compounding the problem, many doctors could not communicate directly with non-English speaking patients.  Seeing an unmet need, Mark and John decided their business would provide multilingual healthcare videos streamed over the Internet into hospitals and doctors’ offices.  The clips would provide patients with valuable information on the diseases they were diagnosed with, treatment options, and what to expect during and after medical procedures.

A great idea is only the smallest part of the battle.  If John and Mark were going to make their concept fly, they would need to give up their day jobs.  Mark went to the dean of his medical school at Oregon Health & Sciences University and asked for a two-year sabbatical figuring that they could build and sell the business in a flash.  John took a comparable risk, quitting his job and moving back in with his parents in Oregon.  Fortunately, his fiancée stuck with him.  They started out with little money in the bank and a mere ten-thousand dollars in seed capital from Mark’s trusting father-in-law.  In March 2000, wired.MD was incorporated by its first two unpaid employees.

The Friess brother’s dream of a quick and lucrative exit did not last long.  In the six day period from March 10 to March 15, 2000, the dot-com era came to an abrupt end as the NASDAQ lost nearly nine percent.  Venture capitalists scoffed at the idea of streaming Internet video, telling the boys they should stick to physical media like DVDs and video cassettes.

Despite the darkening clouds overhead, they went on to raise another $100,000 in September 2000.  Even in a bust, companies with real products that have tangible benefits can thrive.  All told, they raised a total of $2.9 million.  After nearly eight years with each of the founders logging 3000 hours annually, wired.MD produced 410 patient education videos in eight languages sold in 48 states.  On January 15, 2008, the company with its thirteen employees was sold for $7.4 million to MediMedia USA.  Kozmo.com, which by comparison had raised $250 million only to fail spectacularly in April 2001, was but a distant memory.

I asked John what advice he would give himself if he could send a letter back in time to his 24-year-old self.  His lesson number one: entrepreneurs need to participate in a peer mentoring support group where they can share advice, resources, and human networks.  He added with a mix of humor and earnestness, “Sometimes you just want to know that there is someone out there that is worse off than you.”  To give other entrepreneurs what he lacked starting out, John co-created Starve Ups, a not-for-profit organization that facilitates peer networking in a confidential, founders-only environment.

John’s second lesson is that you need to have the appropriate level of financial resources.  The problem of too little capital is obvious.  However, John rails against over-capitalization as an even greater evil.  He may just be onto something.  Cambridge Associates, an investment research house, reported that ten-year annualized United States venture capital returns for the period ending June 30, 2010 were a depressing negative 4.2%.

His third and final lesson is that everyone in the company, not just the founders, needs to be “selling, selling, selling” every day.  He added, “In the end, if you are selling well, you will find a way to get past your problems.”

Every entrepreneur would likely give their younger incarnation slightly different advice.  Below, I have captured a set of principles that would make a compelling addition to any time capsule.

Find an idea that inspires you, your team, and your customers

In at least one respect, the Friess brothers did something that would make most entrepreneurs cringe.  Rather than starting out with a concrete idea, John and Mark seemed to be as motivated by the opportunity to ride the early Internet wave as they were by developing innovative healthcare technology.  The more common recipe for success is having a BIG idea that you are passionate about.  However, they ultimately got their bearings just before they pulled the trigger on wired.MD with a concept that inspired them and would change people’s lives for the better.

Though focus is critical, successful entrepreneurs also share the wisdom that you should expand your mind as you mull over your overall idea.  Think of your initial solution as the first stage in a larger journey.  Instead of defining your business by what it is today, define it in terms of where it is going.

For instance, wired.MD’s initial product was appropriately laser focused on delivering healthcare video content purchased by doctors for patients in a clinical environment.  They could have broadened their ultimate scope in several ways.  One would have been to serve the greater needs of physicians seeking healthcare information within their specialty.  This might include access to journal articles, reviews of emerging drugs and medical devices, and peer forums.

Another direction would have been to expand direct patient access to healthcare information beyond the doctor’s office or hospital room.  This could be composed of services like doctor moderated communities, peer forums, physician referrals, and comprehensive guides to symptoms and treatments.  They could have taken things one step further by providing 24-hour access to online medical professionals to answer nagging medical questions when one’s own doctor is unavailable.  (This was the path taken by JustAnswer Corporation.)

In the long term, it is best to position yourself as addressing a societal need that can improve the lives of people or the planet.  However, starting out, many entrepreneurs recommend that you position against an industry leader.  In the case of wired.MD back in 2000, that would have meant finding niches that Healtheon/WebMD had not yet conquered.  Positioning against a leader allows the larger entity’s brand equity to wear off on you and helps customers grasp what you are doing.

Balance the what, the how, and the why

The overwhelming majority of entrepreneurs possess deep technical expertise whether it is baking cupcakes or writing software code.  They thrive on the adrenaline rush of their craft.  Unfortunately, failing to transcend the “what” is a death trap for any business, especially a fledgling one.  Great entrepreneurs build a team of A-player technicians to convert their dreams into reality.  Hire great people that can execute on everything that matters strategically and then outsource everything else.

The biggest first step for most entrepreneurs is making the leap from chief cupcake maker to manager of the bakers.  This is the step that elevates individuals from the “what” to the “how.”  As a manager, your job is to set and control scope.  Any reasonable scope should include a set of key milestones and at least some detail of the tasks needed to get there.  The result is that great entrepreneurs deliver the “how” by architecting business processes and systems that allow ordinary people to deliver extraordinary value to customers.

If technicians possess the “what” skill and managers possess the “how” skill, then leaders possess the “why” skill.  Fortunately, this is a step that most people find easier to take.  Though leadership is many things, a big focus for entrepreneurs is carving out the time to design the medium term and long term direction of the company.  This should include the path of incrementally expanding from one laser focused niche strategy to the next.

Know how you are going to make money

During the Internet bubble, far too many investors got burned because they never had a solid grasp on how their portfolio companies were going to make money.  The company that John Friess’s employer was working for – Kozmo.com – was a great example of this.

Despite raising a whopping $250 million, simple math could confirm that the company could never be profitable.  The company had sporadic orders, no delivery charge, no minimum purchase, and wafer thin retail margins.  Orange puffy jacket wearing “Kozmo runners” often made only three deliveries per hour.  Package delivery experts like FedEx and UPS were probably laughing rather than quaking in their boots.  The experts knew that the scale of purchasing would need to be many times greater than that required for next day delivery in order to be profitable.  People just don’t make that many purchases.  Moreover, the vast majority of people that live in dense urban areas can get truly instant retail gratification within a couple of blocks of their dwelling.

The moral of this story is simple.  If you start a business, then you should know from day one how and when you are going to make money.

Stop planning and start building

Spending time building a massively detailed business plan is more likely to turn you into a ‘non-trepreneur” than an entrepreneur.  Any plan you build will likely be obsolete within a couple of months, if not weeks.  If it is not, then you are operating with inadequate flexibility.

If you know what you are building, how you are going to build it, and have access to enough capital to just get off the ground, then it is time to start building.  The entrepreneur’s mantra is launch, test, iterate… launch, test, iterate.  A shortened form that is easier to remember is ‘execute and iterate.’  You have to suspend disbelief and accept that the fuel, the landing gear, and the runway, will appear in time for you to safely land the plane.

Sell continuously

Successful entrepreneurs are always selling.  They sell to customers. They sell to investors.  They sell to employees.  Even opportunities without a monetary outcome add another dime to the brand piggy-bank. Finally, as John Friess indicated in his third lesson, entrepreneurs should make sure that every individual within the organization knows how to sell at least on some level.

Recap

Here are the concepts you can immediately (well…) apply to become a successful entrepreneur:

  • Find an idea that inspires you, your team, and your customers
  • Balance the why, the how, and the what
  • Know how you are going to make money
  • Stop planning and start building
  • Sell continuously

Brainstorming

The mere mention of the Great Depression conjures thoughts of universal economic collapse exemplified by breadlines and soup kitchens.  However, a handful of companies including Procter and Gamble and Chevrolet managed to survive, and even thrive, during the 1929 to 1939 economic meltdown.  Though the successful companies come from a variety of industries, they share one very important characteristic; they ramped up advertising expenditures while their peers tightened their belt buckles and fell into a slow death spiral  Enough Procter and Gambles and Chevrolets existed to enable the print and radio advertising industry to expand by leaps and bounds.

The burgeoning advertising industry led to modern brainstorming as we know it.  To meet the increasing demand for ever more differentiated and innovative concepts, the industry needed to find a way to dramatically increase productivity.  A man named Alex Faickney Osborn had the answer.  Born in May 1888, Osborn founded the BBDO agency (he’s the “O”) that is now a jewel in the crown of media behemoth Omnicom.  More importantly, A.F. Osborn is regarded as having singularly invented the concept of brainstorming to maximize the generation of advertising ideas.  Having introduced the technique for internally at BBDO earlier in his career, Osborn originally shared his gift with the world in the 1948 book “Your Creative Power” and expanded on the concept in the 1957 book “Applied Imagination.”  Among other things, his work established four prescriptive rules for successful brainstorming that remain in widespread use today.  The rules are:

1.      Aim to generate the maximum quantity of ideas

2.      Avoid criticizing any ideas

3.      Attempt to improve upon previously generated ideas

4.      Encourage the generation of radical ideas

Over the years, social scientists have had ample opportunity to explore the nooks and crannies of Osborn’s theories.  Though a few intrepid explorers have attempted to study idea quality, it is practically impossible to measure with certainty.  Consequently, most researchers measure the effectiveness of brainstorming based on Mr. Osborn’s first rule – generating the maximum quantity of ideas.

First thing’s first.  The dirty little secret about group brainstorming is that it does not work – at least when the yardstick for success measures the sheer volume of distinct ideas generated.  A great many researchers have found that productivity drops as group size increases.  Hence, it is far better to have five people brainstorm individually and then merge their findings than to stick all of them in a room together.  This is due to a combination of people wasting valuable time interrupting each other and people holding back ideas for various social and psychological reasons.

Despite evidence of foolhardiness, group brainstorming is pervasive and highly valued.  But, why?  I believe there are two very good reasons.  The first is that idea quantity is not the only thing that matters.  Idea quality is important too.  It is hard to compare the effectiveness of individual versus group brainstorming on idea quality.  Remember Osborn’s third rule, which is to improve upon previously generated ideas during a brainstorming session.  If you have ever bounced your ideas off someone else, then you know the power of having more than one set of eyeballs on a problem.

The second reason that group brainstorming remains pervasive is perhaps even more important.  It has nothing to do with quality or quantity.  For an idea to truly be judged as great, it needs to make the journey from brain to successful implementation.  By synthesizing ideas in a group setting, great managers instill shared ownership and commitment.  This buy-in is well worth the price of a few less ideas.

If you are going to run a group brainstorming process, here are some essential tips for success.

Set the environment so that people clear their minds

When people walk into my office, the first thing they notice is its operating room sterility.  My gleaming desk, free of photos and paper, is surrounded on all sides by equally gleaming whiteboard walls.  Creative types would tell me I have it all wrong.  I have to admit, they are probably correct;in fact, one of the most creative people I know has crafted an environment that is diametrically opposite.  For better or worse, his office is so different from everyone else’s that it is a frequent topic of office gossip.  He has turned off the stack overhead florescent light and basks instead in the glow of warm desktop lamps.  Music plays softly in the background.  His walls are adorned with serene landscape photography.  All of this pays off for him since he is the one that frequently comes up with the ‘damn, why didn’t I think of that’ idea.

Just as it is for my creative colleague, a warm and slightly different setting is highly conducive to productive brainstorming.  If you can afford the time and expense, then it is a good idea to run brainstorming sessions at offsite locations.  This takes away the emotional intensity of corporate conference rooms.  More importantly, it puts people in the right mindset by removing the distracting possibility of leaving for a few minutes to take an important call.

If you cannot leave the confines of your office building, then you still have many options to alter the setting.  Start by rearranging tables and chairs.  Though some social scientist has no doubt studied optimal configurations, it is most likely the case that the important thing is just that the arrangement is different.  You can further alter the setting by dimming the lighting even if subtly, or like my colleague, playing music.

One of the more interesting though intuitive findings of brainstorming research is that the presence of an authority figure in the room has a strong negative impact on idea generation.  When the boss is around, employees take less risk and are therefore generally reluctant to offer radical ideas.  Hence, if you are the boss, get out of the room. Have a third party facilitator or qualified member of your staff run the show.

Share Osborn’s Rules and an aggressive quantity goal

In 2008, Washington & Jefferson College researcher Robert C. Litchfield set out to determine whether or not Osborn’s rules actually matter.  He was wise to do so since there is a great deal of entrenched conventional wisdom that is either a waste of time or outright destructive.  To answer the question, Litchfield gave 264 undergraduate students a version of what is known as the “thumbs problem.”  Specifically, all participants were given ten minutes to “generate ideas about the benefits and difficulties that would arise if everyone born after 2006 had an extra thumb on each hand.”

Good thing for us and for him, the professor was actually interested in two things.  The first was the impact of Osborn’s rules and the second was the importance of providing a specific but difficult idea quantity goal.  To study these two effects individually and in combination, Litchfield divided the participants into for four categories.  Though each individual brainstormed in isolation, he or she was given one of four sets of additional instructions.

The first two clusters were given either Osborn’s rules or a vague quantity goal.  Those with the vague quantity objective were told: “Your goal will be to do your best to generate as many ideas about the ‘’thumbs problem’ as you can within ten minutes.”  The vague quantity goal folks did the worst in the entire study, generating only 7.3 ideas on average in the ten minutes allotted.  Not far ahead, the Osborn’s rules only crew came up with 7.9 on average.  These results are statistically equivalent given their means, sample sizes, and standard deviations.  In other words, you are going to get the same rather poor result if you provide your brainstorming team with either a vague quantity goal or Osborn’s rules. Good thing, then, that Professor Litchfield had two more tests up his sleeve.

For his third test, Litchfield tried something different.  He gave sixty seven individuals a specific and difficult quantity goal, but did not include Osborn’s rules.  Fifteen years previously, two other researchers had determined that sixty-five ideas represented an aggressive but attainable goal for a twenty-five minute version of the “thumbs problem.”  Pro-rating this for a ten minute task works out to twenty-six ideas.  Litchfield gave his subjects an even more aggressive objective of thirty ideas.  In his words, “I rounded up on the side of difficulty.”  This group outperformed the other two thinking up 8.7 ideas on average.

Professor Litchfield’s last and final test is where things get exciting. The last group was given both Osborn’s brainstorming rules and the 30-idea aggressive quantity goal.  Their explicit instructions were “Previous research indicates that it is possible to generate 30 ideas in 10 min.  Please try to generate 30 ideas in this session.’’  This cohort trounced the other three, delivering 10.3 ideas on average in ten minutes.  (Incidentally, the best any of the 264 students did was 25 ideas, just shy of the aggressive expectation).

What was the Litchfield study’s crucial takeaway? To get the most out of your brainstorming session, share both Osborn’s rules and a specific yet difficult quantity goal.  Since every situation is different and you are not going to have the luxury of having someone else figure out what difficult looks like, you can assume that 25 ideas, give or take, for every ten minutes is sufficiently aggressive.

Minimize group size

As highlighted earlier, larger brainstorming groups are less productive than smaller ones due to a variety of social and psychological impediments.  Consequently, you have a few options to catalyze idea generation.  The first option is to ask individuals to ‘pre-brainstorm’ so that they can hand in a written copy of their ideas at the start of the session.  Providing anonymity is useful as that encourages more radical ideas, albeit at the expense of individual recognition.

Since people are busy, ‘pre-brainstorming’ may be a lot to ask.  Fortunately, you have at least one more good option.  Rather than brainstorm in a large group, you can ask people to brainstorm in smaller groups of between two and four individuals and then reconvene to aggregate ideas.

In the extreme, you can have an initial period of silence in the room where people jot their ideas down on paper.  As awkward as a partially silent meeting seems, research has proven that people generate a greater volume of ideas when they write them down rather than vocalize them.

Provide visual idea capture

I can vividly remember the most frustrating brainstorming meeting that I ever sat in.  This meeting had about thirty people sitting in a large, high-tech conference room with another ten participants on a phone conference line.  Compounding the exasperation for everyone involved, the facilitator was one of the individuals on the phone.  However, far and away the most disappointing aspect of this experience was that there was no one visually capturing ideas as they were generated.  That our ideas were falling on deaf ears was confirmed by the fact that a follow up summary of ideas created in the session was never shared.

When you run a brainstorming meeting, make sure that you do three things.  First, appoint a person to act as a scribe for ideas, letting everyone know who this person is.  Second, have the scribe capture ideas in a way that is visible to the entire team.  Options include using whiteboard or projecting on a screen.  Third, send a summary of the ideas generated to the entire team soon after the brainstorming session.

Recap

Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become great at running brainstorming meetings:

  • Set the environment so that people clear their minds
  • Share and follow Osborn’s Rules and an aggressive quantity goal
  • Minimize group size
  • Provide visual idea capture

Client Interviewing

Whether you are developing a new product or managing an existing one, your ability to learn from your clients and prospects will be the deciding factor in your success.  The techniques in this chapter will help you extract the maximum amount of information in the minimum amount of time.

Develop and refine the interview guide

As with pretty much everything else, the single characteristic that most sharply delineates exceptional interviewers from average ones is the amount of time spent planning.  To plan effectively, start with the goal and work backward.  Identify the fundamental decisions, often framed as tradeoffs, your team will need to make.   Only then can you form questions that provide unambiguous answers to the most pressing issues.

I once worked on a product development project where the goal was to drive revenue growth for a quantitative information product.  This product was a database of market forecast information that clients could use to make fact-based decisions on which new markets to target.  My team expected revenue growth from three sources: winning new clients, increasing purchases by existing clients, and improving retention among existing clients. With a development budget in hand, we set out to determine which new features and enhancements would have the biggest revenue impact as we migrated the product from an offline database to a rich online experience.

Consider just one feature – online data visualization.  At the outset of the project, there was raging internal debate about the importance of providing clients the ability to generate rich graphics through our web experience.  Of course, as a complex feature, this would consume considerable time and money, forcing us to drop other product attributes from scope.  Moreover, this was an emotionally charged (and entirely opinion based) issue.  In short, it was perfect fodder for inclusion in a client interview.

When we asked clients to rate this feature and several others, we learned that users on the whole just wanted pure data and lots of it.  These largely technical clients preferred to analyze the data using their own charting software.   With this information in hand, we were able to significantly lower the project risk and focus on features that would delight our customers.

Time is precious during an interview so you need to make every question count.  I have seen many interview guides that ask for information that could be obtained in advance through other means.  Some examples include probing for biographical information (‘What is your job title?’) or for usage information (‘When did you last log in to our system?’).  If your systems do not provide this information, then seek only the minimum necessary and move as fast as possible to the heart of the interview.

People new to interviewing tend to draft overly quantitative and overly long question guides.  If you must, you can ask at most five ‘rate on a scale of 1 to 10’ style questions in a thirty minute interview.  Such questions sometimes irritate the person you are interviewing since it makes the discussion feel more like a survey rather than a conversation.  In fact, many people, especially senior executives, will refuse to provide a quantitative response .  In their wisdom, they are trying to protect you from yourself; they know the color commentary matters far more than the rating.  In those circumstances, it is perfectly acceptable and expected that you form an estimate and not probe for a number.  For those people that do give you a number, always follow their response by asking two more questions.  The first is why they assigned that rating.  The second, a crucial best practice, is to ask what would be a ten.

To expand a bit more on controlling interview length, you can develop extremely effective interview guides that have as few as three or four questions.  If you are trying to develop a new product, you can ask three simple questions.  First, what do you value?  Second, if we deliver the specific feature you value, how will that drive success in your job?  Third, if we deliver the specific feature you value, will it make you more likely to buy?

The “what do you value question” has its proponents and its detractors.  Occasionally, you will be in unchartered territory with a product or service that is both new and experiential.  Henry Ford faced this in the early days of the automobile and advised “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.”  You have two options in this circumstance.  First, if your concept is far enough along, then you can assess the value of specific product attributes.  Second, you can explore a variation on the ‘what keeps you up at night?’ theme.  To prevent eye-rolling, rephrase the question into something not quite so cliché.  One possible approach is to ask: ‘What are the critical issues that you are currently facing?’ Then, you should probe for what they do today as a work-around and what they would prefer as a long term solution.  Another approach is to ask a person what defines success in their current role.  This most certainly fuels insomnia.  Yet another variation is to have people identify the most valuable activities they currently do and to follow up by asking which of those they would be willing to offload or outsource.

There is a parallel set of streamlined interview questions for an existing product.  One, what were your expectations when you first purchased our product? Two, which of your expectations were and were not met?  Three, will you renew and why?  Four, what would you change?  The final question can be further refined by probing clients to describe their ideal.

Once you complete a draft of the interview guide, you should expect to spend several painstaking iterations refining the questions.  Mercilessly remove any questions that do not provide guidance on key decisions that further your overall objective.  Shorter is always better.  Also, regardless of whether the survey is qualitative or quantitative, pilot the survey qualitatively with a few individuals before you launch to work out any final kinks.

Source interview candidates

In one-on-one qualitative interviewing, simply finding good candidates is the longest lead time component of the process. Hence, to ensure your success, start recruiting and scheduling early.  In fact, an efficient best practice is to source interviewees at the same time you start developing the interview guide.

The answers that you get in your study undoubtedly will depend on the people to whom you talk; so, segment them.  For example,  say you are conducting a study to determine the best practices of effective sales managers.  Rather than asking the manager’s managers to rate performance based on opinion, you should actually determine which sales managers are most effective based on objective, unbiased data.  A best practice from an underperforming individual may not be what it seems.

Candidate selection is especially important when talking to customers and prospects.  Generally, the lowest hanging fruit are existing customers, as they are more likely to take your call and you have their contact information at hand.  If you pick only there, then at least make sure to separate your profitable customers from those you would like to fire (the last thing you want to do is to develop enhancements that will drive away loyal customers and lock in unprofitable ones.)  However, you can and should go a step further.  Make the effort to interview prospects as well as lost customers.

Additional considerations often arise during client interview selection.  Specifically, be careful to not disrupt an active sales cycle.  Before you solicit a client in this circumstance, reach out to the assigned sales executive to make sure that your discussion will not slow down a win-back or renewal opportunity.  In my experience, sales people appreciate the courtesy and are all too happy to have another person engage their client.

Elicit attitudes and ideas

Though this chapter is titled “Client Interviewing”, remarkable interviewers are more precisely focused on eliciting.  The main difference is that interviewing ends with merely understanding the answers to the scripted questions that you have posed.  In contrast, eliciting draws forth attitudes and ideas When you elicit, the person to whom you are talking should be doing eighty to ninety percent of the talking.

To maximize the value of the live interview time, you should make it a practice to send the interview guide or any supporting material to the interviewee in advance of your session.  This will save much wasted time explaining background information and allow the individual to think through his or her answers before speaking.  If you are paranoid about competitors getting hold of your interview guide, then you are worried about the wrong thing.  First of all, if your competition has strong relationships with your clients, then they are going to find out what you are planning by word of mouth.  Second, if leaking your interview guide to competitors dulls your competitive edge, then you should think about working on projects that enhance your unique differentiation and are strategically hard for your competitor to replicate.

Interviewees will provide more insightful feedback if you explain your goals upfront.  In addition, they will benefit from knowing what they stand to gain.  For example, if you are evaluating a set of enhancements to an existing product without a price change, then let the individual know.  For many folks, being able to provide creative input, and then seeing those ideas come to life, is reward enough.

With time pressure and a need to have the interviewee dominate the conversation, you should seek to glean answers in as few questions as possible.  Unsurprisingly, word choice determines efficacy.  .  The least efficient questions begin with “how” or “what”.  Questions commencing with “why” are much more revealing.  Asking a succession of deeper and deeper ‘why’s’ can be very illuminating.  The ultimate question starter is “what if”.  A query formed this way allows the interviewee to imagine themselves in a future where the topic of discussion is a reality.

Where possible, you should guide the person with whom you are speaking to provide actual anecdotal answers rather than pure aspirations.  I can vividly recall interviewing an information technology professional about features associated with a new product.  While she provided feedback enthusiastically, I could sense that her language was somehow too conceptual.  When prompted to describe how she would use the product in her own organization, she quickly replied ‘Oh, this offering is not right for my team.’  She viewed herself as a valuable adjunct (and eager to please) member of the development team when what we really needed was her candid reaction as a potential user.

As you interview, you should be as unbiased as possible.  You must disconnect yourself emotionally from your company and think of yourself as an objective third party consultant.  To that end, resist the temptation to defend yourself, sell, educate, or problem solve.  I once conducted an interview where the other party articulated the value proposition of our business as influence peddling.  This touched a nerve at the core of my personal values and our corporate identity.  However, that was the person’s candid opinion and this was not the forum to challenge them.  If you uncover a similar issue, or a more innocuous, though still important, service problem, it can always be addressed responsibly after the interview.

As a matter of respect, manage the discussion so that you end on time.  An amazingly effective best practice is asking the following question about five or more minutes before the end of the interview: “Is there anything that I forgot to ask?”  This query usually opens the floodgates of creativity.  When you ask this question to the right person at the right time, you will get out-of-the-box ideas that can transform your business.

Pan where the gold is

I have had the good fortune to coach people to become skillful interviewers.  Almost without fail, when these individuals begin the process, they start with a perceived need to get through every question on an interview guide.  Unfortunately, this means giving short shrift to any individual topic of discussion.

A better approach is to view interviewing like panning for gold.  If you are working a riverbed and hit the mother lode, then you keep panning in that spot all day and all night.  In the world of interviewing, that means that you should only shift gears if the person is way off topic.  It is always better to go extremely deep in an area for which an interviewee shows insight and passion, even if it means not getting to some of the other prepared questions.  You can always cover other portions of the interview guide with other people if there are questions left unanswered.

Send thank you notes or gifts

Interviewing people provides an opportunity for you to demonstrate grace and charm and even to build new relationships.  To that end, you should make it a practice to send thank you notes or gifts in a timely fashion.  Merely thanking someone for their time is better than not thanking them at all.  An off the charts show of gratitude should capture specifics of the creative ideas the individual provided and should articulate the value those ideas have to you and to your business.

Recap

Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become a great interviewer:

  • Develop and refine the interview guide
  • Source interview candidates
  • Elicit attitudes and ideas
  • Pan where the gold is
  • Send thank you notes or gifts