I’ll always be thankful for my time at Salesforce both because I met so many amazing people and because I learned so much. I learned about the importance of Trust in a SaaS company (and was drilled in the mantra, “nothing is more important than the Trust of our customers.”) And I learned about shoshin, the Zen concept of the Beginner’s Mind.
The Beginner’s Mind
It’s not unusual when working at Salesforce to hear about Zen concepts or get an email reply from Marc containing only a Zen proverb. But of all the concepts I learned about, the most powerful and elusive was shoshin, a concept that Benioff says he adopted from Steve Jobs. Per Wikipedia:
Shoshin (初心) is a word from Zen Buddhism meaning “Beginner’s Mind.” It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner would.
Shoshin is powerful because it enables you to take a fresh look at an old problem. Shoshin is elusive, however, because it requires you to step outside your paradigm — the filters through which you see the world — which perhaps sounds easy, but can be incredibly difficult. In fact, in what I all the paradox of knowledge, the more you know about something the more difficult it is to break out of your paradigm, to get outside the metaphorical box.
As an example of this, our head of products, Sanjay Vyas, recently went to a silent, ten-day vipassana meditation retreat. Vipassana means “to see things as they really are” and is a technique that has been passed down from the Buddha by an unbroken chain of teachers to the present day. At the retreat, the first phase is three days spent simply trying to calm the noise in your mind. Only then, after three days of silent meditation, are you ready to start to attempt to see things as they really are. Such is the difficulty in breaking free from a paradigm.
The Problem We Approached With a Beginner’s Mind
What problem did we try to see with a Beginner’s Mind at Host Analytics? End-user planning, budgeting, and forecasting (three key pieces of enterprise performance management, also known as EPM). Why did we do it? Because despite decades of great success within finance organizations, we believe that EPM has under-penetrated the overall market.
Far too many people rely solely on Excel for planning/budgeting and far too many EPM end-users build budgets in Excel and mail them to finance as opposed to using the EPM system. The same is true for reporting, where far too often users drop out of the EPM system and into Excel to make reports and charts. (This is less true of Host users due to our strong reporting, but the trend remains true at an industry level.)
While as EPMers, we take great pride in our category and, at Host, in our ability to move enterprise-class EPM to the cloud, we must recognize that at some level EPM has failed to deliver against its broad vision of accountability and empowerment. To get to the bottom of this, as Clayton Christensen has often observed, you can’t just talk to your customers to understand your market, you need to understand non-consumers as well. All those Excel-only or primarily-Excel users are Christensen’s non-consumers, so we decided to talk to them. Here’s an example of what we heard.
“I hate budgeting. They made me attend the meeting to look at these tools. I don’t want to use any of them.” — Chief Legal Officer
We heard this over and over. The average business user would seemingly prefer a root canal to working on the budget. Yet we knew these same business users were passionate about metrics, empowerment, accountability, and performance. So where had the whole category gone wrong? Thus was born Project Orion.
By Finance For Finance
We realized that for forty years EPM has been designed by finance for finance (or even more specifically, by FP&A for FP&A). EPM vendors did a great job of listening to EPM customers. And EPM customers, particularly EPM buyers, often had job titles like Vice President of Financial Planning & Analysis (FP&A). These were the people who selected the tools. These were the people who bought the tools. But, these weren’t always the people who used the tools. An important part of EPM is to roll it out broadly across an organization, meaning to put the tool into the hands of business end-users, budget owners, in all the various departments.
The Perils of “Configuration” to Dumb Down the Interface
The universal answer to the end-user question was dumb it down. Configure it. Take the product that was built for a heavily analytical, highly skilled, finance professional — and FP&A people are whip smart — and dumb down the interface for a business end-user. Hide some menu items. Remove some toolbar buttons. Take away some tabs.
That was the conventional wisdom. Take a product built for one person and configure it for use by another. Now some EPM vendors were better than others at this bluff, some had slicker interfaces that would be relatively more appealing than others. But amazingly, nobody ever said, “wait a minute, what if we designed the product for people who actually used it?”
Thank to shoshin, that’s exactly what we did with Project Orion at Host Analytics.
Instead of starting with what we had, a template-oriented product built for finance people, and a desire to twist/configure into something else, we started with a blank sheet. We asked business end-users what they wanted to do with an EPM product. Those end-users gave us a three-part answer:
- We want to be able to quickly figure out where we stand relative to the plan.
- We want help in determining where we are going to land on the current quarter — and to optimize that result. (Not an easy problem, mind you.)
- We want to get the next period planned in line with objectives and targets.
And we want to do all of the above quickly and easily because, much as we love this stuff (and we don’t), we’ve got a business to run. This idea, what we came to call the stand / land / planned message, became the center of Orion design.
How We Knew We Were Onto Something
We noticed quickly that people had strong reactions to Orion, which typically fell into one of two types:
- Reaction 1: “Holy Cow, why didn’t I think of that? It’s kind of obvious in 20/20 hindsight.”
- Reaction 2: “That’s not needed. You just need to configure your way out of the problem.”
In the early days, we got a lot of reaction 2 — particularly from our internal EPM experts, who were somewhat blinded by the paradox of knowledge. The internal resistance was, at times, intense. But that resistance told me that we were onto something. We were challenging the conventional wisdom in a way that could lead to a major breakthrough. And the more we asked people outside Host, and the more we showed Orion to business end-users, the more convinced we were that we had made such a breakthrough.
The same chief legal officer who said “I hate budgeting” above, said this:
“When I look at Project Orion, it’s clear that you are the only folks thinking about me. I could and would use this tool.” — Chief Legal Officer after seeing Orion.
Tips on Adopting a Beginner’s Mind
We’re launching Project Orion today and proud both of the software we built and how we came to build it. We believe Orion is a breakthrough product that is going to change the EPM market. All because we looked at an age-old problem in EPM with a Beginner’s Mind.
I’ll finish the post with some tips on how to take a shoshin approach that we learned along our journey — and which happily don’t involve 10 days of silent meditation.
- Put a mix of veterans and neophytes on the project. This will reduce the paradox of knowledge and naturally bring in some fresh eyes.
- Confront tough facts. The data says lots of people still use only or primarily Excel despite 40 years of EPM. That’s a fact. The question is why?
- Challenge the team to document hidden assumptions. Configuration as the solution to the end-user problem was one such huge assumption. You can only go outside the box when you know its edges.
- Talk to non-consumers. Talking to customers is great, but it can create an echo chamber. Talk to non-consumers, too, particularly when fishing for breakthroughs, and ask them why they have not purchased in the product category.
- Embrace resistance. View resistance as a good sign, as a sign that you’re changing something big, and not just as a yellow flag.
- Test early and often. Go back to the non-consumers you interviewed and ask if your prototype would change their mind. Iterate in response.