I worked for GE for 15 years and was fortunate to have significant exposure to the very highest levels of management. I saw how it operated before and after the J.F. Welch leadership impact. During subsequent years in “executive software”, I met with many senior management teams and saw how other companies operated.
They were all strikingly different. But, some characteristics were the same: they all had robust organizations, established procedures, targeted market penetration, strong functional teams (finance, engineering, sales, marketing, manufacturing, etc.), serious (often global) competition, and politically-charged environments to name a few. To be part of a large company, you are essentially a part of a large business machine.
When serious problems arise. Simply stated, when The Machine is no longer producing satisfactory results, some part of it needs to be repaired or replaced. Most of the time, internal functional experts can successfully identify the source and nature of the problem and recommend an effective fix. If not, there are two natural tendencies that will likely be counterproductive or destructive:
- Run the machine harder. This equates to taking the whip to your sled dog team. In most cases, this amounts to pushing your salesforce harder with higher quotas and heavy top management pressure. While this might produce some short term results (it can’t be sustained), it will most likely exhaust your team and negatively impact morale. No matter what happens, the problem you started with will still be there when the pressure is dialed back.
- Stick with the status quo and hope things improve. Many executives will favor this alternative as there is, in most organizations, a natural resistance to change. But “hope” is not a strategy or a fix, so as with number one above, the problem will still be there.
The creative solutions challenge. To use an overworked phrase, getting outside the box may be your best bet. This sounds easy but it is not. There are three powerful forces that will tend to work against a successful unconventional thought process.
- For most executives, managers, and employees, it is not easy to think outside the box when you live in the box. Established business practices and parameters will tend to severely limit creativity—consciously or subconsciously. Your collective thought processes are always impacted by the status quo, the ways in which you normally do business and the limits everyone automatically accepts.
- In addition, there is a procedural instinct that is subtle but can completely undermine the value of the creative process, especially in group sessions—i.e. a tendency towards quick dismissal. In short, ideas thrown on the table are evaluated as if they were well-considered concepts and therefore easily dismissed as insufficient and/or impractical. For most new ideas, it is usually a quick trip from the conference table to the wastebasket.
- Perhaps the greatest barrier to creative idea generation is the reluctance to put forth unfiltered or radical ideas in front of peer groups and senior management. This is a completely rational response as, in most politically-charged environments, it is easy to put your career at risk. Voicing unstructured or radical thoughts—especially outside your area of expertise—can quickly mark you as intellectually limited or distorted in ways that can stick with you for a long time if not forever.
Finding an innovative solution. The first thing to realize and accept is that successfully moving outside the proverbial box is not about intelligence. It is also not about knowledge of your industry or your business. In fact, the absence of such knowledge may actually be an advantage—it removes the fences where the sacred cows live.
I have seen dramatic increases in profits from a wide variety of angles—from factory or field efficiencies, organizational changes, product line adjustments, better pricing systems, modified competitive strategies, and others that all came from ideas that smart people were quick to reject. This typical rejection is exactly why an outside perspective can be so valuable.
When facing the inevitable internal resistance, there aretwo keys to solving serious problems in large companies.
- Get outside the box with political impunity. While this might sound self-serving, there is only one way to stimulate creativity while containing political risk—you have to involve someone (or some group) from outside your organization whose careers are not at risk. They are free to think and speak freely while offering a different perspective.
- Employ a different logic processor. This is the tricky part. From a personal point of view, the unique solutions that became an exciting part of my career were never a result of being smarter than the other people in the room. They emerged because, given the same set of facts, I would consistently reach a different conclusion. It’s like putting the same light through two different prisms. The colors emitted, even with the same input, will be different. This is not something you can learn or copy—logic circuits are hard-wired. For me, indications surfaced in business school when my unique answers to established case studies often amused my professors and later, during my career, generally surprised my co-workers and
How do you find and qualify the right independent resource? There are a large number of prominent companies that offer courses or consulting services for “problem solving.” Most, if not all, teach (or use) a process wherein you look for “things that have changed.” I took one of these courses early in my career and found it nearly useless; too many things are often changing all at once or are spread over an unknown time period. Most of the time, looking for a meaningful correlation is a wasted effort.
A better answer is to find someone who has a solid track record of success over a significant period of time while thinking outside the box. You don’t want to hire a “One trick pony.” Whether you choose me, some affiliate of mine, or a completely different resource, I think you can screen your options by reviewing examples of prior innovative success and then assessing the results of a phone call or interview. If you find someone or some group that wants to sell you a long-term project, I would cross them off the list.
The right resource will be an “idea machine” and those ideas should flow quickly or not at all. In other words, you won’t need a big budget (or a lot of time) to tackle a big problem.
The value of one phone call. Depending on the areas of your business that could best benefit from a new set of ideas and possible solutions, one phone call will probably let us both know if it is worthwhile to schedule a meeting. I will almost always know in advance if my past experiences will make success likely and if moving ahead will be productive.