By: Michael McQueen
I’ve been a Dyson fan for many years. I vividly remember the day my wife and I purchased one of their iconic bagless cyclonic vacuum cleaners shortly after we got married. It was amazing. Everything from the packaging to the product design and performance were impossible to fault.
As a business researcher I have found Dyson equally impressive. When I was writing Winning the Battle for Relevance and identifying companies that were flourishing in the face of disruption, Dyson bubbled to the surface time and time again.
From their earliest days, Dyson have been the picture of innovation and inventiveness. The company’s founder and chief engineer James Dyson famously persisted through 5,127 prototypes over fifteen years before perfecting the vacuum cleaning technique that would make him and his company famous. Dyson’s very motto hinted at the innovative spirit that formed the company’s DNA; we solve the problems others seem to ignore.
Recent years have seen Dyson grow to dominate a previously saturated vacuum cleaner market and extend their product reach to include hand dryers, hair dryers, heaters and air purifiers.
Having admired the company from afar for so many years, I was thrilled to cross paths with Dyson Australia’s Managing Director Glenn Andrew at a recent conference where we were both slated to speak.
Glenn’s address was as inspiring as it was insightful. He shared how he had been posted to head Dyson’s Australian operations in early 2013 – at the time the company’s 4th largest and most successful market. However, despite selling almost 1 in every 2 vacuum cleaners nationally, the Dyson business in Australia was stuck and stagnant.
Realising that a culture shift was required to re-start momentum and growth, Glenn set about doing just this.
Here are 5 lessons he shared from a journey that has seen Dyson’s Australian business grow three-fold in the years since.
1. Assumptions exist to be challenged
In an early strategy conversation with the leadership team of Dyson’s Australian business, Andrew challenged the group to consider what the potential market share for their vacuum cleaners was.
His quickly discovered that the widely held assumption in the company was that the market potential was fixed by the number of households in Australia.
Challenging this assumption, Andrew asked what it would take for households to choose to purchase more than one vacuum cleaner. This question began to slowly shift the paradigms and possibilities for those leading the company and prepared the business mentally for the alternate vacuum cleaner solutions that would emerge in the coming years.
In many ways Andrew was doing little more than following the example that James Dyson had set years earlier. He recounted a day in early 2008 when Dyson’s executive team were gathered to discuss a strategy for navigating the global economic downturn. While conventional wisdom dictated that cutting research and development costs would be essential, James challenged this assumption pointing out that this is exactly what the rest of the competition would be doing. By increasing R&D spend rather than cutting it, he knew that he could set the company up for a significant competitive advantage when the economy recovered.
And he was right. It was this challenging of assumptions that saw Dyson enter a range of unconventional and hugely successful product ranges like hand dryers, fans and hair dryers.
2. Cannibalization is critical
When Andrew took the helm of Dyson Australia in 2013, the company was selling six full-size vacuum cleaners to every one battery-powered cordless unit. As the full-size cleaners were Dyson’s bread-and-butter, they received the lion’s share of advertising spend and attention within the company. The challenge was that the product was mature and under increasing attack from challenger players.
Rather than engaging in a marketing battle that would lead to only incremental sales increases at best, Andrew took the risky step of diverting almost all advertising spend away from their flagship product and instead focussed on cordless cleaners.
This was a nervous moment for the company. Selling cordless hand-held cleaners was an entirely new game. The proven marketing messages of superior suction, performance and reliability didn’t apply to these less powerful units.
However, what the hand-held cleaners lacked in power they made up for with utility and convenience.
After much deliberation, the team settled on a marketing message that emphasised how cordless units would transform the way customers cleaned their homes. It was a differentiation play – no longer was the cleaner simply better than the competition but was a distinctly new way to think about cleaning your home.
By early 2018, the numbers painted a fairly compelling picture. Now Dyson were selling 4 cordless vacuum cleaners for every full-size unit – a complete inversion from 5 years earlier.
Naturally, this cannibalisation of the company’s cash cow business was a daring move but it was both necessary and visionary. As Steve Jobs once observed, if you’re not willing to cannibalise your own business, someone else will do it for you.
3. Questions are the answer
Recounting the experience of Dyson’s launch of the Supersonic hairdryer in 2016, Glenn Andrew shared how asking questions was a critical success factor.
Rather than simply following the well-worn road of product releases in the beauty category (sponsoring fashion events and brand endorsements etc), Andrew asked his team a wildly ambitious question: How could we style 1.2 million people in the next 12 months?
As the real benefit of the Dyson hairdryer had to be felt by users to be believed, Andrew realised it would be vital for potential customers to actually use the product not just hear or read about it.
This question sparked a serious of audacious and creative ideas ranging from distributing the hairdryers to Australia’s top 1000 salons and installing them in the country’s most exclusive hotels.
Having seen this ‘How could we…?’ line of enquiry deliver similarly brilliant results with clients over the years, it’s clear that questions are a powerful way of sparking latent ideas and creativity that may otherwise be left un-tapped. In addition, it also re-casts what is possible – Andrew argued that dramatically shifting the measure of success powerfully shifted the scale of creative thinking in his team.
4. Risk-taking must be rewarded
Despite Dyson’s track record of inventiveness and experimentation, by the early 2010s, the company had begun mirroring other mature businesses and was slipping into maintenance and protection mode. A corresponding aversion to risk was becoming widespread.
Realising that cultivating a culture of risk taking required more than tacit encouragement, Glenn Andrew took deliberate steps to motivate company employees to be bold (even at the risk of failure).
His first step was to reorient the company’s incentive programs away from rewarding hard work to instead reward creativity and courage. Team members began to be rewarded for coming up with good ideas that nevertheless ended in failure.
One example Andrew shared was of an employee who had suggested the company partner with an apartment hotel chain and place cordless hand-held vacuum cleaners in guest rooms for them to use during their stay. By experiencing the convenience of the cleaner, she presumed, customers would be so impressed they’d purchase one for themselves as soon as they got home.
Despite the promise and merits of the plan, it eventually met with failure when it was quickly discovered that not even the most fastidious travellers vacuumed their rooms while travelling – despite how impressive the vacuum cleaner on offer was.
As a reward for her valiant yet failed experiment, the employee in question received one of Dyson’s coveted Spirit Awards.
5. Go with your gut
The fifth lesson Glenn Andrew shared from Dyson Australia’s 5-year journey under his leadership only emerged during the question time at the end of his presentation. When one audience member asked what data and research methodologies he had used when making strategic decisions, Andrew’s response was characteristically unconventional.
“To be honest, we didn’t much rely on data. We tended to go with our gut.”
He qualified the comment by saying that the company does a lot of market research but also pointed out that if you wait until a right path is 100% certain, you’ll probably miss the opportunity.
To this point, Andrew shared that James Dyson himself was strongly cautioned in the early days not to use clear canisters in his vacuum cleaners because market research indicated that customers didn’t like the idea. His hunch was to ignore the data and do it anyway – a hunch that proved spot on and has seen clear canisters become the industry-standard across almost every vacuum cleaner on the market.
I loved how refreshingly candid this response was. In an age where butt-covering and fear see too many leaders overestimate the value of data and underestimate the value of their intuition, Dyson’s experience is a lesson for many.
While growing a company three-fold in 5 years is an achievement in itself, it’s the manner in which Glenn Andrew realised this milestone that is probably most impressive. He hasn’t just overseen a growth in market share or an expansion of product range – he has also built a culture and mindset within the Dyson Australia business that should see the business flourish for many years to come. To me that is the real achievement.
Article supplied with thanks to Michael McQueen.
About the Author: Michael McQueen is an award-winning speaker, social researcher and best-selling author.