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Deepa Prahalad Headshot

Learning from Everyone

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Perhaps the most nerve-wracking part of starting any new venture is the cold-calling. All the time invested in developing slides and talking points can either pay off or fall flat in a matter of minutes. I've never gotten as comfortable as I'd like to be with this process. Every time I find myself trying to generate new leads, my mind wanders back to a trip to India I made almost fifteen years earlier. I often think of an artisan who I never met in person, but who created a piece of art I still remember vividly. When we visited the home of a family friend, I complimented her on the mural outside her front entrance. It depicted a wonderful village scene, yet the colors were much more subdued and modern than similar works I had seen in my travels.

Our hostess proceeded to tell us about how she had met the artist at a local handicrafts show. He was from one of India's poorest states and did not speak the local language. Yet she was impressed with his work - enough to ask him if he would come to her home and create the mural. He reluctantly agreed, but shrugged when asked how much he would charge. When he arrived, he asked her for ideas or a picture of what he should paint. She wanted to respect his work and told him to surprise her.

She was certainly surprised when the artist set up a small work area outside her home and stared into space for a few days. When asked when he was planning to start - and finish - he shrugged again. Sensing her impatience, he asked her if she had any old clothes - he knew how to paint those as well. At the end of the day, she was delighted to see the work he had done and showed them to all of her friends.

The artist and our hostess were from two different worlds and would always remain so. But in the course of a month, he not only created the stunning mural that we admired, but had decorated clothing for a number of women in the neighborhood, gained a reputation for his good work and made more money from the many projects he did than he could have from a single painting. The women he worked with also gave him valuable advice on ways to improve his quality and command higher fees and the greatest compliment of all - referrals.

I have to admit that I used to find this work style incredibly frustrating and inefficient, but my view has softened over time. I can look at my own experiences trying to build businesses from the ground up and see that there are some lessons in the artisan's story that are as valuable as any I got during my Ivy League MBA. When I was working with a startup with a revolutionary technology to improve patient safety, we spent a lot of time making sure that everything worked, and then moved on to making sure the results could be delivered in milliseconds. But the real issue was getting people to trust a new technology with some of their most sensitive information, when they would never see who we were. Everyone thought the tools were impressive. But they needed to understand our level of commitment, trust us and get comfortable telling their CEOs why they should look at what we were doing first. The artist's hesitation was really no different than the several Starbucks meetings that always seemed to precede an official company presentation. The lessons were simple, but important:

1. Innovation depends on deep consumer insight. Data is an important way to check our intuition, but understanding consumers can't be faked. It requires time, patience, observation, and yes, occasional staring into space until it all makes sense.

2. It's important that clients and partners believe that we're intelligent and trustworthy. But dazzling them with our ideas is often less important than showing emotional intelligence in our approach to innovation. As we create the next big thing, we also need to address the anxieties that go along with adopting it. The mural captured the values of family that all of us shared - but the context the artist provided made it feel fresh.

3. How we handle ambiguity in expectations creates trust - or kills it. People don't always know what they want any more than we always know what we can deliver. When both parties are pushed out of their comfort zones is when some of the most exciting discoveries happen.

4. Business is about relationships and dialogues, not mere transactions. Focusing on the task at hand is important, but so is understanding that there are always more opportunities that we don't even know about - unless we really invest in getting to know who we're working with.

The artisan understood these things intuitively. He didn't know what his customer had in mind. He learned about her taste and temperament from observing the rhythms of the family, understood what she wanted by decorating old clothes and never sullied trust with a premature discussion about money.

Each time I approach new projects and venture out of my comfort zone, I have a renewed respect for the way the artisan works. It never hurts to be reminded that people want to know about our intentions as much as our inventions, that relationships precede revenues, and that sometimes we need to win trust by taking on risk rather than finding a way to distribute it.