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Imagine your company just spent a million bucks on a high-priced consultant your chief executive swears by. The big day finally arrives, and with considerable fanfare the consultant executes the mother of all PowerPoint (MSFT) presentations. It is flush with colorful graphs and backed by reams of research. The masterful presentation is delivered with a polished British accent and outlines in eloquent prose the billions your company is leaving on the table through dozens of ideas you somehow missed. No wonder these suits get paid so much.
There is great rejoicing, backs are slapped, hands are shaken, and toasts are raised. Eventually the consultant makes a graceful exit, promising to make his team available to fill in any missed details or explain, again, the more complicated points.
Guess what occurs next.
If you’ve ever been to a dog park, you’ve witnessed an excellent metaphor for what will happen to the consultant’s work. At the park, a dog will find a tree or some other object, sniff it, and dutifully mark the object. Seeing this, the next dog will approach, sniff the same object, and disapprovingly remark that object. This process will repeat again and again until virtually every alpha male and female in the vicinity has nearly drowned the poor object in one-upsmanship.
Now, replace each dog in our story with an alpha personality from legal, finance, marketing, research, or any other department that was not involved in creating the solution that the consultant presented. In essence, at least, you see the same result.
Many years ago, we were asked to participate in an innovation engagement just after one of these magnificent presentations took place. Our charge was to help invent new products that fit squarely within the framework outlined by the CEO’s favorite consultant. Every brand group in the company knew that creating the framework had been the CEO’s pet project and had cost millions and taken almost a year to complete. All the alphas in the company were waiting for their chance to, well, relieve themselves (of their concerns), when they finally got a shot at it.
We know we’re probably touching a nerve here. If you work for an established company, you’ve felt this pain and are getting really, really tired of it. You may have even sworn off using consultants with British accents. The problem, however, is not with the consultant; it is with the process the consultant is employing. More specifically, it is a lack of humility within the process that keeps many consultants and many leaders (that’s you) from recognizing a basic human truth: People support what they create.
And the solution is relatively simple.
First, identify the alphas. You know who they are. They exist in every department and have the swagger, authority, and mojo to make ideas stop or go. People listen to them. People trust them. You need to start every innovation process with them—whether that process starts from within or with bringing a consultant in from the outside.
Ask the alphas what a good idea must include to be considered a good idea. How much should it sell? How quickly must it get to market? What brand does it fall under? What technology should it employ? How much can it cost? By starting with the alphas and asking them to build the report card with which all future ideas will be graded, you have in effect made them accountable for the ideas.
People support what they create.
This inclusion starts with criteria, but the process must continue throughout research, ideation, and commercialization. At every phase, bring in the alphas. Take notes and make sure before you leave your meeting with them that they have said yes to the following question: "So, if we hit every target you have set here, you’ll be on board?"
You have already noticed that this process implicitly includes humility. Thus it leaves little room for leaders who want to have ideas on their own or consultants who believe their smarty-pants are sexier than yours.
Before writing this, we watched for more than a month as the alphas in our government took turns "soaking" each other’s ideas about how to handle the debt crisis. Only at the last minute did they finally get together to negotiate the criteria that any idea needed to include for them to agree to it.
The next time you create an innovation team, hire a consultant, or want to build a big idea, take care to lead with humility and a process that is inclusive and embraces co-creation. Otherwise, "urine" big trouble. (Sorry, we couldn’t resist).