Back to the business battlefield: Did someone forget the map and compass?

Business is part of a stakeholder chain – an ecosystem of competitors, communities, the environment and clients. Olivier Fourcadet, Professor of Strategy at ESSEC Business School, contends that the benefit for the wider perspective starts with the customer and their aspirations. This is where a map and compass may come in handy.   

The business and corporate worlds are inherently rife with military terms. We all are all familiar with strategy, objectives, campaign, recruitment, leadership, task force, guerilla marketing, fighting uphill battles and taking the flak, to name but a few. Even the word ‘company’ has its roots in an old French term cumpaignie (XI century in the Song of Roland), meaning a ‘body of soldiers’.

But somehow, among the business warriors, someone forgot two of the most basic and most important of all features that revolutionized the art of war centuries ago and that still exist today, albeit in digital form – the map and compass.

Not Olivier Fourcadet, Professor of Strategy at ESSEC Business School and the developer of an innovative system of business topography. How did he get there? His journey, as with many great innovations, begins with a failure.

A pig of a job

You can’t always get what you want

Some years ago, Prof. Fourcadet, freshly out of studies in veterinary science, joined a company in the marketing of health products for animals. The company came up with a highly effective antibiotic specifically developed for the pig farming sector which looked set to earn a herd of contracts on the French market. However, sales remained limited despite a considerable effort in marketing the product. Intrigued, Fourcadet decided to find out why a technically effective and superior product wouldn’t sell. Only to discover that it was not so much the health of the livestock that mattered most but their breeders’ end-of-year financial statements.

He then attempted to estimate the economic impact of using the new product with a representative sample of pig breeders, discovering along the way that the antibiotic had a very positive economic impact on certain pathologies. To develop sales, all that had to be done was align the sales pitch with the aspirations – in this case economic – of the pig farmers when confronted with the pathologies in question. In short, the maker of the wonder drug, lost in its enthusiasm for its technical benefits, took a completely wrong path and forgot what mattered most to their potential customers: the economic impact.

 Aspirations can be inspirations

I want to get from A to B – fast…

The argument is all about customer aspirations. These, asserts Fourcadet, primarily correspond to a customer’s main life projects which may take several forms. They can, for example, be looking for a change in their activities (professional, clubs and charities, personal), the results of these activities, or even getting better in what they do – and it is simple human nature to strive to improve these dimensions. These primary aspirations then break down into secondary aspirations – for example, professional aspiration may lead to someone enrolling in a training course in order to achieve a primary aspiration.

The problem is, states Prof. Fourcadet, that customers often experience difficulty in expressing their expectations towards a product. Take the example of a young couple who have just bought an apartment and who want to change one of the rooms into a study. A visit to the DIY store reps leave them totally confused, mostly because carpets and floorboards are often presented according to their intrinsic characteristics, not by their aptitude to contribute to the client’s dream of changing the room into a study. As such, even if the store’s products are excellent quality, their offer remains incomplete and imperfectly aligned with the aspirations and constraints of the young couple. The moral? A company that concentrates exclusively on its vision of the quality of its products  increases the risk of developing an offer with a moderate or even sometimes zero interest for its customers.

On the other hand, taking into account customer aspirations very often pays off. An example is Chopin Technologies, an equipment manufacturer in the field of agro-food analysis. In itself, their product was excellent and the quality of the analyses produced was unquestionable. However, it was the use of the results obtained that was the issue, for error of decision in the agro-food industry has large-scale negative repercussions. The manufacturer therefore decided to add a personalised digital decision-aid module to its equipment, a development that until then hadn’t featured among the core competences of the firm. The new generation of equipment that resulted from taking into account the customer’s aspirations, fears and constraints met with huge success and the manufacturer repositioned itself in decision-aid solutions, something that also opened up other markets. The lesson to be learnt here, states Fourcadet, is that it is essential to explore customer aspirations – why a consumer buys or doesn’t buy a product, or even why he/she has planned to buy it. Often, the customer mindset is wider and more complex than that of the company and this is where open-mindedness, a positive approach, a capacity for observation and questioning are required. As Louis Pasteur once said, in the field of observation, luck only shines for prepared minds.

Where there is a map, there is a way

You take the high road, I’ll take the low road

Prof. Fourcadet’s initial interest was sparked not only by lending an ear to customer aspirations, but also by the observation that modern business clashes are less and less linked to wars of positioning – the trenches of the First World War – but increasingly linked to wars of strategic movement. And to remain with the military simile, contrarily to armies, companies do not possess maps enabling them to assess the geography of the areas in which they will have to manoeuvre. Moreover, very often they are blind, or at least partially, especially when in a defensive position on the market. Combining this with customer identities and aspirations, the idea was to develop a series of business maps. Several years’ work together with colleague Patrice Pourchet – Head of academic programs in purchasing and supply chain at ESSEC – have seen the development of a multi-layered business topography, each map acting much like a set of tracing paper that can be superimposed to increase the sharpness of vision and understanding of a company’s environment and strategic opportunities.

Initial experiment with the agro-food group Avril and the purchasing function has proven their utility. Rather than focusing interest on purchased products, Fourcadet and Pourchet focused interest on the users, their professional and personal aspirations, their constraints and doubts. The map that was developed using this method enabled purchasing to be oriented towards new product families and opened new perspectives in the optimized management of team output.

Other map layers include the identification of the territory covered by a given technology in order to improve its diversification – for the territory of a technology is the set of markets in which a given technology is a source of competitive products. In addition, competitor territories and their positioning can be represented and added to the layers of the map. Further developments underway include assessing area geography to identify tipping points – a market being much like a hike along a crest: towards which side of the slope will it go? At what moment is an industry likely to switch to a new direction and what are the factors inherent to these tipping movements? are some of the key questions covered. This plotting of the business landscape results in a network composed of these various components (the nodes of the map) and links between them (the roads).

The path not taken – until now

Who maps, wins

So companies look twice. On the road to innovation and wider, dove-tailed benefit, there are paths to success that remain to be explored. What stopped them from doing so in the past, explains Olivier Fourcadet, can be attributable to two factors: failure resulting from using the wrong mindset – the gap that existed between the thinking of the company and that of its clients. And too much confidence companies show in their own products, according to their own criteria, vis-à-vis rival products. A first step along the path not taken is being interested in your customers’ aspirations – themselves a powerful means of navigation, states Fourcadet. A second step would be not to seek validation of your offer or idea: open your eyes, but also your ears – knowing your clients’ aspirations is all about learning about clients in order to serve them better. Essential to the task is the mastering of the semi-directive interview. Only then can you begin to map out your next moves.

In our field, states Prof. Fourcadet, maps are objects which permanently change and redraw themselves. Moreover, aspirations change and add new dimensions to old maps, new technologies redefine new areas, and competitors make their latest moves. For prof. Fourcadet this is fascinating – and a line of battle that calls for a map and compass to orient both innovation and teams in the right direction.


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