I recently worked with a large, successful company whose growth had slowed. They needed new ideas—and not just any ideas, but big ideas: new growth trajectories that would generate at least a billion dollars in revenue. Entirely new categories.
They were already one of the largest players in their industry, so taking market share was not easy for them. They needed to build new markets—creating and serving customer needs that had never before existed.
The problem was the ideas just weren’t flowing from the team.
They had smart people who knew the industry inside and out. They had a large strategy group, but the group was primarily skilled at developing plans to incrementally grow the existing business. Their modus operandi was to pass out templates to the business units, then to roll up the plans submitted by the business units into a comprehensive plan for growth.
The growth ideas the company generated in this way tended to always be “more of the same.” The managers in the business units may have had great ideas—maybe even phenomenal, world-changing ideas – but they lacked the power or resources needed to accomplish these ideas on their own, so it would have been foolish to submit these grand ideas as part of the strategic planning process.
Plus, the growth plans that each business unit submitted tended to get rolled into the coming year’s budget, and bonuses depended on bringing in the revenue to meet the budget.Reach too far in the #strategic plan, and you’d pay the price later. Click To Tweet
As a result, the ideas that business units submitted were low-risk, and close-to-home – things they were confident they could accomplish.
Gain a few new customers. Roll out a “new and improved” product. Cross-sell a few new products into existing customer accounts. Gain a little market share. All great things to do, but these are the ways you grow just 2 or 3 percent—barely keeping up with the economy—and definitely not the way you grow in a big way, over a sustained period of time.
Sometimes, the smart strategy people at headquarters would come up with a big, world-changing idea. Given their position in the organization, they had the power to marshal the resources needed to bring new ideas to fruition—provided they could justify the investment. They, however, had been trained, through years of experience, to submit very precise numbers, and to be sure the numbers were achievable. They had not, in the past, been rewarded for taking risks. They had seen people who pursued unsuccessful new growth ideas fired or passed over for promotion, and they didn’t want that to happen to them. As my horse wrangler friend once told me, “Your horse is always learning, even if he’s not learning what you want him to learn.”
When we encounter a problem like this, as we often do in our consulting work, we need to change the game.
The same process that has for years generated 2- to 3-percent growth is not going to generate big, innovative ideas.
The following list includes some team exercises you can use to change the game and encourage people to offer their “big” ideas.
- Play a game. Frame the exercise as a competition or game: This frees people to take more risk. Try running a “Shark Tank”–style competition.
- Guess. Encourage intelligent guessing, and reinforce the fact that excessive precision is inefficient (and creativity-stifling).
- Change the assumptions. Encourage teams to challenge the assumptions behind today’s ways of doing business. Show how varying those assumptions might affect the outcome. A bank asked: “What if we stopped doing business at our branches, and interacted with customers predominantly through a text messaging app?” A manufacturing facility asked: “What if we dedicated one set of machines to short runs of customized products and another set of machines to long runs of ‘stock’ products?” An hotelier asked: “What if we stopped worrying about capacity utilization, and instead focused only on customer satisfaction?”
- Break through the risks. When you sense hesitancy to go down a strategic path due to the risks entailed, encourage teams to search for a way to eliminate or mitigate the risks, rather than avoiding high-risk paths altogether.
- Change the audience. If, in the past, the team has presented their growth ideas to the senior leadership team, have them instead present to a group of outsiders. Bring in a few venture capitalists or angel investors, or a trusted consultant who can provide an external point of view. Anything you can do to make the exercise “feel” different than your usual strategic planning processes will help spark creative thinking.
- Involve outsiders. Pepper the teams with people from the outside. Getting customers, external partners, and people with diverse views involved in generating growth ideas can yield immense benefits. If it’s not practical to include people from outside your company, consider including employees from other functions.
- Cultivate diverse teams. Research shows that diverse teams are smarter, make better decisions, and are more innovative. In addition, the companies they work for have financial returns above their industry mean. In addition to ethnic, gender, and racial diversity, it’s valuable to have a variety of different thinking styles on a team. Include creative people, analytical people, hands-on people who know the nuts and bolts of how to get things done, and amiable people who are good networkers and bridge-builders. Diverse mindsets and skill sets on the team make for better results.
I hope you’ll try some of these ideas, and let me know how they work for you!