Pursuing the Best Ideas and Protecting Them from Premature Burial

In my last post—the one about the difficulties of uncovering breakthrough ideas—I described a familiar movie scene. That movie was really part of a double feature. You may recognize this one, too.

Your team has successfully developed a portfolio of potentially high-impact, breakthrough ideas. Proud of this collective accomplishment, you and your colleagues believe the difficult part is over. All that’s left to do is share your hard work with your company management committee and decide where to have the drinks to celebrate.

The management committee meeting is held every Monday and attended by 30 executives representing the cross-functional leadership of the enterprise. Each is aware that a formal business transformation program has been launched. But most of have not been a part of the process. This will be their first look at the new business model. The goal of this meeting: gain everyone’s support.

Your PowerPoint presentation is artfully designed. It presents all relevant market data supporting the case for change. And what a massive change it will be! An entire section of the presentation contains slides that, bullet by bullet, explain how the proposed new product will work. And it ends with a Michael Porter quote from HBR:

“The changing nature of products is disrupting value chains and forcing companies to rethink nearly everything they do, from how they conceive, design and source products; to how they manufacture, operate and service them; to how they build and secure the necessary IT infrastructure… Smart, connected products raise a new set of strategic choices about how value is created and captured, how companies work with traditional and new partners, and how they secure competitive advantage as the new capabilities reshape industry boundaries. For many firms, smart, connected products will force the fundamental question: ‘What business am I in?’”

You wait for the applause. It does not come. The audience looks both puzzled and uncomfortable. After a few minutes, the first questions arrive.

“I just don’t get it. How will this work?”

Returning to those PowerPoint slides in an attempt to re-explain proves futile.

Then the tough questions begin, which are less like questions and more like assertions of doubt.

  •  “This will cannibalize sales.”
  •  “We tried this before and it didn’t work.”
  •  “This isn’t the business that we are in.”
  • “Our competition isn’t doing this.’”
  •  “This represents a huge security risk. Our CISO will never allow us to pursue this.”

You did not expect this reaction, and you are not prepared to respond. The uncertainty sparks a new line of discussion.

  • “This will affect Department X, and we need to get their input.”
  • “Great idea — but we should delay it until the timing is better.”
  • “We need more research.”
  • “Fast follower has always been our best strategy.”
  • “Let’s start small and see.”

You now know the new model is dead. Entrenched business models, resistance to change, uncomfortableness with uncertainty and personal agendas… an army of obstacles has ganged up to kill it.

You and your team will still be drinking tonight — perhaps more heavily — but the tone will be less than celebratory.

I’ve been to that movie many times before. I’ve frequently heard the questions and assertions that have the unintended, or perhaps intended consequence of killing an innovative idea. I made a list, and counted 50 — not because I’m on the spectrum. I compiled that list because if I can anticipate potential objections, I can do the research to either answer those questions or de-risk those assumptions in advance. The movie entitled “Premature Burial” can have a happy ending:

Your presentation begins the same way. But you realize how difficult it is for people to grasp a new concept by merely viewing bullets on a PowerPoint slide. You understand the power of experiential learning and punctuate the bullets on the slide with a rough prototype that the management team can touch and interact with. The audience appears much more engaged.

Still, the really tough questions and challenging assertions continue.

“This represents a huge security risk. Our CISO will never allow us to pursue this.”

But you are prepared to respond.

“Great question! We were concerned about that as well. So we conducted a risk assessment exercise with the executive team to define scenarios where bad things might happen, and then assessed both the probability and the penalty if they do occur. We worked with the executive team to create a balanced risk/reward ratio. We tweaked the new business model several times to get there, and we defined metrics to manage this process because we know it will change over time. We then brought that risk analysis to the CISO and asked, ‘Can you could identify the controls needed to implement this risk profile that the business defined? And can you implement a security framework to manage that?’ He gave it a ‘thumbs up.’ But that’s a great question. Are there any others?”

Your response fundamentally shifts the conversation for the remainder of the meeting. Questions still remain. Not everyone is comfortable. But the new business model has enough support and momentum to get it to the next stage.

In reality not every management committee meeting will have that Hollywood happy ending. But you can increase the odds that yours will. It is difficult to adopt a new business model in a large enterprise because of how entrenched existing business models are. A focus on short-term results drives out ideas that take longer to mature. Managers immediately look for flaws in new ideas rather than tease out their potential. This creates Corporate Antibodies that reject the innovation. In order to vaccinate and protect your idea from those Corporate Antibodies, you must add substance, test it and validate it, before current stakeholders can prematurely crush it. I’ll give you some tips for doing just that:

1. Do not underestimate the power of experiential learning. People become more engaged and more quickly develop a better understanding of a new product or idea if they can interact with it. If a salesperson can get a prospect to interact with a new product, there is a 40% greater chance that he or she will make the sale. This is not a new idea. David Kolb developed the theory in 1970. Frederick Brooks applied it to software prototyping in his 1975 book The Mythical Man Month. And the concept goes back a bit further than that. “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them” was written by Aristotle in 350 BC.

2. Look for ways to ‘Accelerate the Time to Touch.’ That’s easy to do with software, harder to do with physical products, and even more difficult to do when they are combined into a smart or connected product. A PowerPoint deck is not enough. Try to create something more tangible your audience can interact with. If you can’t, then produce a video that enables them to visualize the new product or idea.

3. Anticipate where the Corporate Antibodies will come from and vaccinate accordingly to address them in advance. Conduct experiments or do research to address potential concerns. Assess risks associated with security, technical viability, product failure, IP, patents and regulatory. De-risk assumptions wherever you can. Don’t expect that you will anticipate and answer every question. But do demonstrate that your team has thought about it, assessed the risk, and has a plan for mitigating it.

4. Create an engagement and communication plan. If you receive the go-ahead at the management committee meeting, it is critical to build on the momentum you’ve created. How can you continue to keep them engaged? How can you leverage the executives who are strong supporters to convince those who are more hesitant?

In closing, if you are leading a business transformation project or a major innovation initiative, you need to think of yourself as the founder/CEO of a startup within your enterprise. I tell first-time startup CEOs that conviction, commitment and passion for their new business model is key to their success. But I also tell them they need to build a foundation for that before they commit. They need to begin by testing their idea, modifying it, and then retesting it. They need to consider what could go wrong and be comfortable with their plans for addressing obstacles. They need to toss and turn in the middle of the night worrying about whether “this dog will hunt.”

But I also tell them that as soon as they’ve convinced themselves they can do it, and that it will have a significant impact, they must never look back. Building that foundation in the beginning creates the confidence that enables startup CEOs to, as Queen vocalizes, “stand the heat,” and increase the odds that their initiative isn’t just “another one” that “bites the dust.”