Advisory boards (affectionately called “ad boards”) can be a valuable resource when it comes to getting expert, external opinions. But there are times when they can lead your team to incorrect conclusions and bad decisions. Here is a real-world situation to illustrate this point, help you avoid a similar situation, and figure out what to do if it happens to you.
Our client was responsible for commercializing a product for one of the company’s largest potential audiences. We had worked with her for quite some time when we received a rather distressed message from her, asking us if we could meet to discuss an urgent problem that had come up in an internal meeting.
It seems she had just been told by her product development team that they were shifting their focus away from the next iteration of the product that included features desired by her large customer audience, toward development of features that were planned for a much later release on the product roadmap. The changes would have set her plans back by at least a year, making it impossible to hit her sales targets.
If you’re an experienced marketer or development leader, you may wonder how such a problem could happen. Well, a leadership vacuum had occurred at the top of the organization, several key people were in new roles, and the new leadership team hadn’t yet found its footing. But regardless of the reason for this misalignment, a serious problem was unfolding right before our client’s eyes. They asked us to help them figure things out, and it didn’t take long to discover the reason for this abrupt shift.
The Development team had created an advisory board of “experts in the field” without involving the broader team.
It turns out that the development team had created an advisory board of “experts in the field” without involving the broader team. Those with experience know that this is a rookie mistake. The expert panel told the development team that the current features they were working on weren’t the features they needed. Those problems, they said, were already solved. What they needed, instead, were “more advanced features such as .…”
The problem was caused by a mismatch between those on the advisory board and actual customers who would use our client’s solution.
The problem was caused by a mismatch between those on the advisory board and actual customers who would use our client’s solution. Elite experts on the advisory board were practicing in very different settings than the large audience of real-world clinicians our client was seeking to serve. These experts already had access to the latest and greatest tools and technology because they were working in large academic centers and cutting-edge hospitals. In these institutions the features being developed for our client’s audience were already present, and highly-skilled technical experts were available to create and customize the features that didn’t exist. They weren’t experiencing the problems the development team had previously been trying to solve, but the much larger audience of “everyday” physicians – the source of most of the brand’s potential business – were plagued by those problems every day, and desperately needed a better solution.
So, what was the other problem? The development team had created an echo chamber around itself. They packed their advisory board with only members recruited from leading academic-research institutions. Then, instead of validating the information they gathered from the ad board with a larger audience using market research, they just “ran with it.” Thankfully, our client had the internal clout to challenge this decision and expand the team’s information and insights gathering, which quickly showed this mismatch in what each audience needed and wanted from their solution.
Practicing in an ivory tower can often be very different than practicing on Main Street.
We were impressed with our client’s diplomacy that enabled the development team to save face while still getting product development efforts back on track. Here are the key points from this example:
- Advisory boards can serve a very useful purpose and should absolutely be a part of your information-gathering efforts. We’ve organized many of them and can attest to their value. However, they shouldn’t be the only source of customer/user information because they aren’t always representative of your actual, end user audience
- The best use of an advisory board is often to help a team “look around the corner.” Thought leaders that make up a typical advisory board are often the best people to help your team figure out where the state of the art will be in three to five years. But be careful about overvaluing their opinions when it comes to what the average, in-the-trenches physician or other customer is experiencing today. Practicing in an ivory tower can often be very different than practicing on Main Street, and it may have been quite some time since your ad board members practiced in a truly typical setting
- Advisory board members often fall into one of two camps: They either love “shiny things” (the latest, greatest technology) or they absolutely detest them (we saw some “thought leaders” resist the rise of EHRs until they were among the very last to adopt the technology). Don’t place too much emphasis on a small number of opinions, regardless of the status of those behind the opinions
- Use advisory board input as a starting point, something to be further verified through market research, preferably with those who accurately represent your largest potential market. As with our client, this may be a very different group than those that make up your advisory board
- Don’t think that you need a huge market research budget to gather input beyond your advisory board. Our client was able to gather the input she needed through a relatively small research project that made use of a focused survey followed by an even smaller set of individual depth interviews (IDIs). You don’t always need a full-on, months-long research effort to gather reliable information about a particular topic. It’s more important to ensure that the research audience is representative of the audience you need to serve.
Ensure that your advisory board is advising you on the right things and the right context for the relevant problems you need to address.
We were pleased to help our client and her colleagues step back and see things through a new lens, by helping the team understand that their advisory board wasn’t representative of the audience for whom they were developing the next iteration of their product. If this sounds like something that might be a problem for your team, you may want to rethink the role of your advisory board, as well. They can be a great source of knowledge, information, and input – just don’t place too much emphasis on that, and ensure that your advisory board is advising you on the right things and the right context for the relevant problems you need to address.
Author: Joe Meadows
Image credit: 123RF.com