No matter how worthy an idea, you are not entitled to blind trust. There will be weaknesses in your arguments. And others will rightfully use them as a rationale for their obstinacy. The good news is they will push you to be better.
Everything is feedback. It’s all data to plug into the process. Try, fail, iterate, try again.
Each rejection suggests a new approach. Think too large, or become too emotional, and you become paralyzed. You have to focus on the process, on the one thing you can do today to keep momentum. It helps to break down the larger vision into smaller, more manageable bites that can be acted upon. It allows you to exert control.
The Outsider Inside
No one can make everything personal the way Jack could. He made it personal for every GE employee, and that’s tough. It’s a brilliant managerial feat to create a culture in which, beyond not wanting to let your colleagues down, 300,000 people didn’t want to let Jack down. There were lots of handwritten notes, and there were stock grants and bonuses when you least expected it. Jack used to say that the GE process was all about chemistry, blood, sweat, family, and feelings. No detail was too small: At GE’s big annual meetings, Jack would personally work out the golf foursomes and his dinner-table seating. He kept records so that he didn’t repeat the pairings. GE was 300,000 individuals to Jack, not dozens of business units. That takes time and effort.
With Jack, there was no distinction between “I am this company” and “I lead this company.” He became the face, voice, and embodiment of everything GE stood for. He was GE, and he felt it to his bones.
A Breakthrough of Imagination: A New Way of Marketing
Ideas need time to develop before you can show someone the money. Here’s a mnemonic framework helpful in keeping ideas alive and twinkling with possibility.
Shelter it: An idea starts as a seedling, sometimes something that you can’t even articulate. Maybe it comes to you on a walk or on the train, or it builds on top of something someone else said at work. Noodle it, let it breathe. Ignore it and see if it still comes back to nudge you again.
Tell it: We have a tendency to keep new ideas secret for fear of someone else stealing them or of looking silly. The irony is that the more you talk about your idea, the clearer it becomes. Ask people for help in making the idea clearer.
Ask yourself: How much do I believe in this idea? There comes a time to test your passion and commitment. Do I feel strongly enough about it that I’m willing to devote the time to refine it and test its viability? Can I handle the criticism I may receive from others when I put it out there? Do I feel so strongly about it that I want it to happen with or without me?
Repeat: Be resilient. Don’t give up. Find more people with whom to share the idea, more ways to bring it to life. Sometimes the timing may be wrong. The company may be wrong. The boss may be wrong. Keep at it.
Make Room for Discovery
Constraints fuel creativity. Sometimes having a smaller budget and a tighter deadline—especially in the early days—forces you to hone your idea. Look at your constraints as a source of creativity rather than as a temporary hardship to overcome.
The next time you are tempted to say, “We don’t have enough money to do X,” or “My manager will never green-light the budget for this,” or “We’ll never get this done with such a short time frame,” STOP. Such thinking will only quiet your imagination. Let it sing. Instead, ask:
- How much faster can I come up with a good idea here?
- How much budget do we really need to get to the next phase?
- Who else has done work in this area that I can learn from or build on?
If you manage a team, turn budget and project requests into a challenge. Reward people who generate the best ideas with the most constraints. Can you establish a measurement for innovation efficiency or innovation throughput—more ideas in, better ideas out, faster?
Naysayers and the Digital Onslaught
If everyone agrees on the same approach to an idea, perhaps you’re not pushing the boundaries hard enough. Perhaps you haven’t sought enough divergent views. Good leaders recognize that tension is inevitable, and they learn not just to navigate it but to use it to fuel creativity.
Learn to accept that conflict can make your idea or product better. Perhaps your problem is that there isn’t enough conflict in your process.
Recognize the underlying conflict; identify it. I’ll ask to meet with people privately and address the issue in a group setting only where necessary.
State the issues as you see them. Then ask the other person to do the same.
Give the conflict a name, something funny or memorable to cut the tension.
Ask the person or team to address the conflict while avoiding the personal issues that too often arise. Keep talking until the issue is resolved.
Or be like Abe. As Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us in Team of Rivals, Abraham Lincoln invited his biggest rivals from the presidential campaign to be top-level members of his administration. At the outset, this produced a great deal of confusion and a titanic clash of egos. But as each member of his cabinet saw that their voice was being heard, they felt comfortable expressing their opinions. For Lincoln, having difficult conversations and managing conflict was a way of governing.
Challenge: Be an Emergent Leader
Emergent leader is ready to meet change early, navigate ambiguity, and help develop a future few can see. Here is a summary of the essential considerations for you and your team.
Ditch hierarchy. With the rise of more distributed teams and a mandate for speed and collaboration, hierarchies simply aren’t effective. Organize teams around a specific mission or project, regardless of who reports to whom. Focus functional and operational reporting for critical business process and talent development.
Organize around information flows. Find ways to get data into your team projects faster. As more data becomes available, from people and machines, it gives you clues as to how to organize your teams—ideally as close to the customer as possible. For example, marketing and service teams must become customer-loyalty focused, driven to improve the customer experience quickly.
Develop a good MO. Give your team a clear brief—a Mission Objective—of what is expected, by when, and then allow them the freedom to get there and to test and fail small along the way. Increasingly, your job as a team leader or manager is to be a troubleshooter and a coach. Micromanagers aren’t needed.
Seek and use feedback. Find ways to get more feedback on everything you do; ask for feedback at every interaction. It could be as simple as: Tell me one thing I didn’t want to hear. Or, Did our meeting meet your expectations? Continually get and give feedback with teams, the faster the better.
Get used to living in the in-between. Rapid, emerging change is the hallmark of our era. The old is going away and the new is emerging, at once. You will rarely have certainty and never enough data. Move forward with hypotheses and multiple scenarios, and test and learn opportunities. With faster data, you can evaluate. Know when and how to pivot your strategy and actions and still align to long-term vision.