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Find business niche; align your employees

“Play Bigger – How Pirates, Dreamers and Innovators Create and Dominate Markets” by Al Ramadan, Dave Peterson, Christopher Lochhead and Kevin Maney (Harper Business, $28.99).

When you start a business, the odds of success are slim. They become slimmer if your business ascribes to a “build it and they will come” or a “me-too” plan. Nor should disruption be in the plan. The goal should be: Change the way the game is played by giving consumers a different way to solve a problem.

Successful startups begin changing the game by communicating the problem they solve. When people begin focusing on the problem, they also see the company’s solution. Uber stated a problem – “Taxi service sucks.” It provided a consumer-to-transport app to fix the problem. In doing so, it established a new market category. It built out the category by broadening the problem/solution to “getting around without a car.” Amazon started selling books; it expanded into full-blown retailing.

Competitors followed; none really challenged Uber’s market-leader position. Why? Almost as soon as the problem – the category – is well understood, customers flock to the market leader. “The perceived best takes most of the market share; second best manages to hold on to enough to keep going; and the rest get pretty much nothing.”

How do entrepreneurs create a new category? Answer “Dave’s Three Questions” (Dave as in Dave Peterson one of the book’s authors).

1. “Can you explain to me like a five-year-old what problem you’re trying to solve?”

2. “If your company solves this problem perfectly, what category are you in?”

3. “If you win 85 percent of that category, what’s the size of your category potential?”

The answers require insight that goes beyond the ‘why’ of the product. They delve into ‘where’ it will fit in the marketplace. Product, message and innovation mean little in a crowded, ‘loud’ marketplace.

Key takeaway: To be heard, carve out a new space. “Category is the new strategy.”

“Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work… and What Does” by Susan Fowler (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, $24.95).

Despite management’s numerous tactics and efforts to motivate employees, surveys show disengagement as high as 70 percent. Why? Management keeps pushing the same buttons (i.e. incentives, the carrot/stick approach) and expects different results.

Fowler asserts that these traditional buttons are “motivational junk food” because once the incentive is given or the stick is avoided, employees lapse into their old habits.

Her research shows that the key to engaging employees involves satisfying their psychological needs. “Human beings have an innate tendency and desire to thrive.” No one wants to come to work and be bored and disinterested. Management can tap their thrive psyche by focusing on three core psychological needs:

Autonomy – It shapes actions and attitude. When we’re told what to do and how to do it, we’re no longer in control of our actions. When we feel like we don’t have choices, motivation wanes. Regardless of workplace or personal context, people want to be heard. Managers need to give them a voice (choice?). People desire continuous improvement; if they continually improve, so will the organization.

Relatedness – How many times have we heard “It’s not personal; it’s business”? Business is personal. We need to know that what we do matters. When we know we are contributing, as opposed to just doing a job, our connection to colleagues, the team and the organization increases.

Competence – We find “joy in learning, growing and gaining mastery.” Focusing on training opportunities that mesh with challenging assignments shows that the company considers learning a long-term priority. When encouraged to learn, we become more curious, creative and innovative – and less likely to leave.

The bottom line: “Motivating people does not work because they are already motivated – they are always motivated.” What managers must do is align employees’ “want to thrive” self-interest with their jobs and organizational goals.

Jim Pawlak is a nationally syndicated reviewer of business books.

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