Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson is a regular contributor to WRAL TechWire. His columns appear on Wednesdays.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Reading Crossing the Chasm twenty five years ago caused a fundamental shift in how I thought  about technology, marketing and the consumer. Understanding the technology adoption life cycle and the mindset of users in each of its phases — innovators, early adopters, mainstream consumers and laggards — revolutionized the way I sold, marketed and led. 

The book’s author, Geoffrey Moore, has been a hero of mine ever since. This month, my team had the honor of hosting him on our Diversity: Beyond the Checkbox Podcast to talk about innovation and disruption. The episode is a follow-up to Moore’s 2019 article about diversity as a competitive advantage. “Times of disruption reward radical innovation,” he writes. “We are living in one of the most radical disruptions to the economic order ever, one in which the industrial product economy is everywhere being displaced by a digital services economy.” 

In that article, Moore argues that disruption necessitates a diverse talent base, helping us look both outward and inward simultaneously and through multiple lenses. Remember that Moore is writing this before the pandemic, before George Floyd’s death and before the drastic economic changes that have rocked 2020. 

Crossing the Chasm

At the time the article was published, a year ago this week, I had just launched The Diversity Movement: a tech-enabled diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) consultancy. To know that I was doing something Geoffrey Moore might think was cool was a mini career highlight. It felt like validation.

Right now, we’re all looking at 2021 and trying to decide where to invest our resources. Moore’s perspective aligns with my own — invest in diversity, equity, and inclusion. His conversation with our VP of Products, Kurt Merriweather, echoes many of the themes I am hearing from my C-suite colleagues. I want to share them with you here. 

Kurt Merriweather: One of the things I’ve always been a fan of is how you talk about whole product management and the product. It isn’t just the product; it’s everything you wrap around it. How has that changed?

Geoffrey Moore: Everything used to be so product centric. It was always about making the product successful. Now, we focus more on the customer, and it’s not because we became more empathetic. It’s because the customer is now the scarce ingredient. In the 20th century, the product was the scarce ingredient. Now, if you don’t connect with the customer, you’re out of the game. 

The kind of talent you want in the sales and marketing environment has changed. That hard-closing Glengarry Glen Ross character? That person’s a liability in 2020. They’re going to alienate your best customers. So now we’re increasingly more empathetic, more customer-centric.

This is why diversity is so important, because if you just have to know the product, it’s like “Well, if I know the product, there will be a diverse set of customers, but they’ll all have to come to me.” But if I have to go after a diverse set of customers, then I need a diverse set of sensibilities. I have to be like them. They can’t be like me. All of a sudden, the problem becomes much more oriented around diversity and inclusion because the customer is so diverse and so varied. 

KM: What led you to begin talking about this? When did you start to see that linkage between DEI and innovation, and DEI being the key to the customer-centric model?

GM: My focus was on customer centricity as opposed to DEI. I like to tackle problems that keep people struggling, and the DEI problem I hear over and over again is “We’re trying, we’re trying, we’re trying.” Whenever I see a problem like that, I want to double click on it and say, well, come on, obviously you are trying. I don’t think you’re malicious, so why aren’t you succeeding? Or, what could we do differently to succeed? In the tech sector, this is still a big problem. The tech sector is in its very early days of making progress in the DEI domain.

KM: I think that’s one of the knocks on technology leaders. They’ve been successful in solving almost any other kind of problem but when it comes to this particular challenge, those organizations haven’t been as successful. Why do you think that’s the case?

GM: You know, it’s interesting. You remember I’m a humanities guy, right? We’ve been doing all this STEM stuff. It has been all about STEM but my claim is that, even though STEM makes incredible progress in all the things that tech has already been good at, the humanities are better at teeing up the soft skills.

If you look at the leadership of tech, historically, it’s been math majors in engineering. Since you’re dealing with science and technology, the leaders are usually not history majors, English majors, language majors, arts majors, whatever. But DEI is a social phenomenon, and it requires a lot of social skills, particularly because you’ve got to get outside your own group. 

We are all group centric. We all have a group of people who are like us that we interact with. But to be successful, you need to connect with a diverse world. We have a very, very diverse world and so, as we’re trying to do to engineer social change, whether it’s around education or healthcare, social services or consumer products, whatever it is, if we can’t find ways to connect our enterprise to it, then we’re going to be marginal. 

KM: Right. While we’re making advancements in technology, there are gaps in the soft skills. And we’re finding that the gap starts even in college or before, because a lot of organizations and universities are not preparing people with the skills they need to be successful in building teams. 

One of the things that we talk a lot about when we think about diversity, equity and inclusion is building high-performing, multi-generational, multicultural teams because that is the core to being successful. You have to look at what’s happening outside your organization but you also have to look inside your organization, because ultimately as Peter Drucker put it, “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” 

Make sure you listen to the full podcast too, then let me know what you think about the topic by commenting below or reaching out on LinkedIn. I’d like to hear your perspective. 

About the Author

Donald Thompson began his career in sales and technology and first became a CEO at age 36. Donald is now CEO of Walk West, NC’s fastest growing marketing agency for three consecutive years, a Certified Diversity Executive (CDE), and a thought leader on influencing company culture. He is also  CEO and Co-founder of The Diversity Movement, a technology-driven DEI consultancy. Their full interview with Geoffrey Moore is available as part of the Diversity: Beyond the Checkbox Podcast.

Geoffrey Moore’s latest book is Zone to Win: Organizing to Compete in an Age of Disruption.

Connect with Donald Thompson through LinkedIn or at donaldthompson.com