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Jared Simmons - Figure Out a New How

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Jared Simmons is the Founder and Principal of OUTLAST Consulting LLC, an Atlanta-based consultancy that helps companies bring an innovation mindset to their toughest business problems. Prior, Jared was a Strategic Initiatives Director at the Coca-Cola Company, responsible for creating and cultivating a pipeline of product innovation initiatives for various business units. Before joining Coca-Cola, Mr. Simmons was part of the Product Development and Innovation practice at McKinsey and Company, where he helped clients identify ways to improve innovation capability and outcomes. A chemical engineer by training, Jared’s career began in Research & Development at Procter & Gamble where held roles in market research, supplier management, and product development.

Transcript (Semi-automated, forgive typos!)

John: Jared, welcome to the show.

Jared: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

John: Oh, it's great. Thank you for being here. Alright, Jared. So before the call today, we were talking about something really interesting to both of us, which is a kind of risk management, which is especially relevant in today's environment. So I'm kind of just like, you know, good for our audience to hear your thoughts on risk. And, you know, you've been in many walks of life, like how have you seen risk and managed effectively, what strategies do you have? What advice do you have right now, especially for product developers, people interested in innovation in the current environment where it's maybe hard to assess risk?

Jared: Sure. I think the risk in our current environment is has been more revealed than it has been increased. So I think what we now know about our day-to-day risk is something that we've been living with all along but just hadn't been ultimately aware of. So to me, the conversation about risk is a combination, is a conversation about awareness and kind of taking a step back from that once as a data scientist or market researcher, consumer researcher, our job is to really help businesses, companies, data makers understand the risk of to acceptance of a product or so. And so in this environment, I think we have a unique skill set that can be brought to bear in unique ways. So the way we think about statistics and the way we think about presenting and arranging and organizing data can be helpful beyond just our own work environment to businesses and companies that are now exposed and under in aware of the level of risk that they otherwise haven't been.

John: That's interesting. Yeah. And I would say that it's as much a direction to kind of go in response to that. One thing I would say is that, okay, we're entering now a period where hopefully we've turned a corner in America. I mean, we as in other countries as well. But I think we've turned a corner. And, yes, we have to make sure we don't get some explosion of cases. But within reason, it seems like now it's a question of opening things back up gradually. What advice do you have for people who are in, you know, inside CPG companies, as far as you know, how do we manage to launch new products right now? How do we manage coming up with new product ideas? I mean, it seems like fear is the enemy of creativity and a lot of ways. And so I'm just kind of wondering, you know what? What advice are you giving your clients or what do you think people should be thinking about as they move forward with consumer goods right now?

Jared: Sure. Yes, I think that's the well phrase, that fear is the enemy of creativity. What does with fear also does is allow you to focus a bit. I think, you know, sort of leaning into the fear of your own personal fear a bit to make you focus and sharpen your attention to what problem you truly trying to solve. In our normal business cycles, in our normal business environment, the stakes aren't as high in terms of risk of a failure or risk of a flop, so to speak. I think the key now is to go back to your business cases, go back to the problem statements that were driving your innovation plans from day one. And don't throw those out. But now ask yourself those questions again. Put these new constraints, the new constraints that the world is placed upon us. It's not about taking a different approach. It's about applying new constraints to your existing business problem. I think it's a bit more of a creative license than, for me personally, it sparks my creativity more dampening my enthusiasm.

John: Right. That's a really deep point. Definitely that. Yeah. I mean, it is true that that's a really positive refrain I think that constraints can actually increase creativity. You know, you think about I know you have a kind of interest in music. We were talking before the call about Shakespeare, you know, so like take a Shakespearean sonnet. There are constraints, there are rules about how that sonnet is supposed to be constructed. And a lot of times when you embrace the constraints, you say, okay, what can I do within these constraints? It can be easier to invent new things than it can, you know that it is you just do whatever you want, right? Actually, for me, it's hard to be creative when there's no general structure, right?

Jared: I agree. Even the most open, you know, jazz tune has chord structures to it. And that's what gives the creativity shape and gives you a lens through which to focus it. And it's the same with market research, consumer research, sensory science, all of it is all driven. And those insights don't change. People haven't changed in this environment. Different aspects of their personality or their habits or behaviors have been revealed or altered. But fundamentally, what you knew about consumers is at its core or relevant and true.

John: Interesting. Yes. Okay. And so what are some of the key constraints that you would say we should be thinking about right now? We as the economy opens up or even as right now, some places are still under some sort of lockdown. What are the constraints that we should be the focus, you know, in our minds?

Jared: Right. I think the first one, first and foremost is a financial constraint. Depending on what price point your product or service is at. You have to now go back and reframe based on what you know about your consumer. Is this a discretionary item for this person? Is this something that they can't live without? Is this that is going to now that there's a new cutoff for what they can afford effectively? Is this not make the cut? So there's that financial constraint. Second, I think there's what I'll call the experiential constraint. So we think about products like vehicles, things like that that are relatively high dollar expenses, that people have a very well-defined routine way of purchasing that involves direct experience. What type of you know, experiential constraints now have been placed upon your product. And how does that change your consumer's buying decisions? And from a sensory standpoint. Some of the things that you know about the consumer even still relevant. There's a lot of I'm not sure if anyone, you know, studies this but produce purchases. So a lot of people have tried to minimize trips to the grocery store. And, you know, there's a lot of well-practiced behaviors. I don't know about you, but there's a certain type of apple I'm looking for certain, you know, my bananas to be a certain shade and you know all those things. So all of those sensory cues, you know, I'm willing to trade off and roll the dice. You know, I'm okay with some variation in my apple colors or my banana. I don't have to go into the grocery store. And so those trade-offs. The experiential constraints around what elements of your consumer's decision-making process have been irrevocably altered and which I haven't. And the third set of constraints, I call them societal constraints where there are certain things and certain activities, certain products you can't enjoy or use the same way without some sort of social stigma or social pressure being applied to that. So there's a bit of you know, we've all seen it on the Internet or in person. You know, some people have experienced it, but there's a bit of shaming going on about how different people are responding and reacting to the constraints in the pandemic and the concerns that have been generated. And some of those concerns, people on our society has placed a label on and they affect consumption. And they can affect people's perceived value of products services.

John: Right. Even if they themselves might actually be interested in those products. Now, there's you said an extra societal cost. This is all very fascinating. Yeah. So, I mean you know, something else we're talking about before the call is just how uneven that pandemic is. I mean, here you and I are in our houses, like, you know, you're incredibly busy. I'm very busy. Like, we have a lot to do, right. And we're incredibly lucky. So fortunate that during this pandemic. I mean, I think that business has shifted for me. But like, you know, some of there's been some things, some training and whatnot have been postponed. But then new projects have come on because there's an interest in digital stuff, you know? And I think your experience is similar in that, you know, it's been, you know, maybe a little different, but still an active. Like every day is a full day for me. Whereas other people literally can't work. They want to work but they can't work, right? And so it's fascinating. And geographically, the pandemic has been very uneven, right? That it's been focused in a few areas that's been really hard hit. And then large parts of the country are largely unaffected. So what role do you see for market research in the current environment? I mean, what sort of things would you be doing, suppose that you already, you know, head of consumer insights and maybe your back call, you're interacting with consumer insights. We'll be the sorts of things that you'll be recommending to people who are interested in consumer insights right now? In order to kind of stay current in the current environment.

Jared: Right. I think there's a couple of things in the uneven nature that are fascinating because it's uneven across so many different demographics. Strikes quickly and even it's yes, it's uneven by race. It's uneven by age. It is a very unbalanced picture across multiple dimensions. When you have something like that, I think it's important to take that opportunity to go back to the fundamentals, the basic human responses to things. So is this the time to be able to go back and revisit flavor profiles. It's time to go back and revisit responses to certain chemistries, certain colors, some of your fundamental research that often gets neglected when you're in a high cycle from a project, from the product development standpoint. This could be a window to really get back to some of the fundamental understandings of the chemistries, the interactions with human perception, and the connections between what you know about how people respond to things and what you know about their acceptance of products. Now is probably not the time to figure out how well Flavor X performs in Boulder, Colorado. But it might be a good time to figure out, you know, what levels of Flavor X are most easily perceived and in what overall formulation profiles.

John: So basic research, you know.

Jared: Basic research for sure. That's the thing to do because it's a no regrets investment.

John: Yeah, I see that big investment data science actually. And a lot of people are taking advantage of this time to upscale their employees, to work on the data management practices. Things that are evergreen, right? You will never regret organizing your data. And even beyond that, setting up systems for organizing your data so that new data come into, you know, like that's interesting. And then there's the big picture stuff. Maybe keeping track of big picture trends. But it's interesting, again, that it's the uneven distribution that likes in the middle. Stuff you would normally do in the middle, maybe like you said now it's not the time. That's fascinating. So, Jared, what else is on your mind these days in terms of the kind of moving forward? I mean maybe be helpful to take a step back and have our listeners hear a little bit more about history. That's very interesting. So you start off with your life as a chemical engineer, is that correct? You can kind of take us through your history.

Jared: That's right. Chemical engineer from the University of Alabama. And then I went to work at Procter Gamble right out of school and spent almost 10 years there doing various roles within research and development. And I had the good fortune of working for some amazing people who from day one helped shape my view of science as a business tool. And so even in roles where I was responsible for technical, you know, things like supplier relationship specifications and things like that, from day one, I was talking about how those specifications would ultimately impact the consumer's experience. Which led me into doing more product development, innovation, work process type work there, which got me into some internal consulting on consumer technical research. So this was a while ago. But how to connect to the physical properties we're measuring to the perceived response is the perception-based responses of consumers. And the interesting piece of that was it was not so much that we were trying to predict exactly what number would come out of the next study or what exactly what purchase intent or what scale, what you know, the actual outcome would be so much as we were trying to use that as a tool to understand the consumer's language about products. One example is we were working on closing a gap with a competitor with a click on a key attribute. And so we would ask about that attribute and it was easily measured. It was something like, you know, thickness or, you know, the color of something or what have you. We would try to match that performance and using some empirical modeling techniques, looking at other raw material properties, we were able to learn that when a consumer talked about X property, let's call it thickness, what they were really talking about was opacity. But they use the word thick because in their mind if you can't see through something, it's thicker. That really opened my eyes to the power of empirical modeling and sensory science and the entire space as a clarification tool as much as a predictive tool.

John: Right. Yeah. Because if you got into research where you are told that you need to make the product thicker, right? You try it thicker. If you don't make it more opaque. The consumer I mean, you've missed the target, right? Maybe you literally made it thicker, right?

Jared: And they're very different science, technological pathways. You know, that one knob is a lot easier to turn and a lot less expensive to turn than the other. And, you know, these little insights make tens of millions of dollars of difference. When you think about scale and capital. And, you know, running these things for years. So that's where, you know, I think it really clicked for me that understanding what a consumer is saying to you is priceless.

John: Well, you're speaking my language now, that's for sure. Well, I mean, yeah. I mean, building predictive models to predict when certain terms will or not be used. I mean, this stuff started to happen at a kind of a larger scale where I mean something I'm enthusiastic about graph databases which allow you to aggregate information across many sources. And then, you know, you can have terms that are coming back into a call center and say, look, people are using this word a lot to describe this product. What are they talking about? You know, that's those kinds of investigations I find very interesting.

Jared: That's priceless. And people don't understand the value of those insights. It's hard to find examples that clearly articulate the value of it.

John: That's interesting. Yeah. Okay. And so you went out from Procter & Gamble and did you go from Procter & Gamble to McKinsey?

Jared: I did. I went from Procter & Gamble and did some internal consulting. And a friend said, oh, you might like a consulting firm called McKinsey. Well, I will say I had never heard of it. So, you know, when you grow up in an engineering environment, in a bubble, you know. So I Googled it and then I was working there a few months later and then I had a great experience, was there for a few years, got permission teams and in a lot of work in innovation and product development and insights and get to really see what focused, the focus there was always on business impact and outcomes. And so it really became second nature to start thinking about what we know about the consumer and how that would change the business environment. And that was priceless training and experience. Then I had an opportunity to move into a staff role, an internal role at Coca-Cola strategy work. And it was actually a designed group to work on product-driven innovation. And so I had an opportunity to build teams around specific problems to be solved, specific opportunities to be captured, and get to work with research and development and consumer insights. The procurement team's marketing, building these cross-functional teams and helping guide them through identifying opportunities and putting them together to capture them. So, again, insights are at the core of everything we did there. And it really shaped business decisions. But it's key that people see the value of that.

John: And so it seemed the kind of thread going through your career. It's been the emphasis on that kind of business impact that you've got to understand, you know your understanding like this for your background in chemical engineering, the product at a very fundamental level. But at the end of the day, what is that business impact that, you know, problems you're trying to solve and getting to the heart of that. Would you say that's a reasonable assessment?

Jared: I think that's better put than I have would have been able to do it. And it's important because I've worked with a lot of scientists in various work-life who see the, you know, the hard part as developing the molecule or making the formulation. And it is hard. It's complex. And the sensory piece, you know, understanding what consumers want. I mean, it's magic almost what people are able to do since scientists are able to do. But it's not the only problem in the equation. At the end of the day, you know, our salaries, scientists, and engineers in the CBG world, you know, they're paid by the consumer who purchased the product. And so anything that impacts that purchase has to be part of our problem-solving equation from an innovation standpoint. Not just you know does this formulation work better than that one.

John: Right. That's right. It is really important. The older I get, the more I realize how important it is to solve the right problems, to work on the right problems. You know, the best solution to an important problem is better than a great solution to an unimportant problem.

Jared: Exactly. I'd take that every day because you can always fix something that's broken. Once you walk away from a problem, once you're in the problem, definition phase no one goes back and questions that. No one goes back and said oh it didn't work. This product didn't work. Did we ask the right question two and a half years ago when we started this initiative? No one says that. So that's why that portion of the work is so critical because it's not part of that loop. When there's a failure, you don't go all the way back to always solving the right problem. You go back to what attribute about this product can we change? If we market it appropriately, did we put the right ingredients in it? But nobody goes back and asked if we try to solve the problem.

John: And it kind of gets back to your advice now, the pandemic, right, where people are going to innovate the pandemic. First of all, make sure that you are, in fact solving the right problem still and then considering. Okay, assuming that we did ask the right question back when we began this, maybe we've got some new constraints, but we shouldn't give up the whole. If we were asking the right question then we shouldn't give up the project. We should just consider the new realities that we're operating in.

Jared: That's right. And what should be the first before the problem to be solved, which had been first are the tactics. And that's typically what the tradeoff is people of all companies, organizations tend to grip hard on how they do things in situations like this. Because they're searching for something that's familiar, something that's comfortable, something that feels less risky. And so they wonder how they work. When in actuality, you should be grabbing on to the problem to be solved and what you know to be true about your consumer and what you know to be true about your business model. And how should be the first thing you let go of? We've got to figure out a new how. But we know we're solving the right problem for the right consumer in the right industry. Let's just figure out a new how.

John: Figure out a new. Great. I think I'll make a note to make that a show title. Figure out a new how because that is definitely great. Alright. So, Jared, this has been a real pleasure having you on the show. We're almost out of time just to make sure that you have a chance to, like for our listeners who would like to reach out to you. How should they get in touch with you? How can they find you?

Jared: Easiest way is probably is LinkedIn. OUTLAST Consulting is on LinkedIn. I'm owning them personally. We're also on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook and provide that information.

John: And we'll put that in our show notes. Yeah, it's good. Alright, and so final advice out there for the consumer scientists. I mean, we've talked, you've got a lot of advice. But any last words of wisdom you'd like to share?

Jared: Thank you. Thank you all for what you do and the products you've created. And hang in there. Stay focused and keep bringing the insights and the, you know, the magic that you bring to this industry because it's one of the things that we hold onto for normalcy.

John: It's great. Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Jared. It's been great.

Jared: Yeah. I enjoyed it.

John: Okay. That's it. Hope you enjoyed this conversation. If you did, please help us grow our audience by telling your friend about AigoraCast and leaving us a positive review on iTunes.


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