Monday, February 28, 2011

How to Become an Idea Person A Strategy for Making Yourself Invaluable and Rich

"Ideas are the beginning points of all fortunes."
Napoleon Hill

By Michael Masterson

There were eight of us in the room. Jerry (the CEO), five of his VPs, Bernadette ( Jerry's personal assistant), and me.
"We are here to solve a problem," Jerry told the group. "The advertising campaign that has paid all our salaries these past three years has stopped working. Response rates are down by 30%. And the average order is down too.
"If we were making big margins, we could take a few months to solve this problem. But we have a 10% profit business. That means I need some good ideas - no, great ideas - and today!"
Jerry was, as you can see, blunt. But he was right about two things:
  • When a business has a small profit margin (his was making about a half million on $5 million in sales), it can't sustain a prolonged period of weak marketing results.
  • And when a marketing campaign stops working, good ideas won't fix it. You need great ideas.
A sense of urgency permeated the conversation. Everyone knew his job was on the line.
"I've invited Michael to help us drum up some new ideas," Jerry said. "To help us think outside the box."
I started the brainstorming session by asking why the original strategy had stopped working. I wasn't really interested in their ideas at that point. I wanted to see how this group interacted: who were the idea people, who were the cheerleaders, who were the naysayers, etc.
Every business has its own personality. Some are open and non-hierarchical. Others are closed or traditional. Whatever the culture, there are unspoken rules about who is allowed to come up with ideas and when.
After listening to the executives talk for less than five minutes, I could see that in Jerry's business the atmosphere was informal but only two people were "allowed" to make suggestions: Jerry or Lewis, one of the VPs. Everyone else played a support position.
I knew that this was a big problem. But I also knew that confronting Jerry about it was not the solution.
Instead, I used a protocol I often use to break up "invisible" corporate power structures. I announced that from that point forward I would ask them questions, but they couldn't discuss them. They could simply write their answers down on index cards and hand them to me. And then I would read those answers out loud, without saying who had written them.
I asked about all sorts of things, from changing the name of the product to changing its USP to using celebrity endorsements, etc.
During the first hour or so, I noticed several things. The first thing I noticed was that Jerry and Lewis came up with the best ideas. But their ideas were versions of ideas the company had been using for three years. None of them would make a significant difference in their marketing results.
The other thing I noticed was that the answers from the other participants ranged from not so good to terrible. At first, the worst ideas came, not surprisingly, from Bernadette (who had no experience marketing). But the ideas of the disenfranchised group started getting better while the ideas generated by Jerry and Lewis stayed pretty much the same.
By breaking down the old power structure, we were able to get some exciting new ideas up on the board. Initially, Jerry and Lewis had a tough time accepting the possibility that other people could come up with anything worthwhile. But as the session went on and we started refining the new ideas, everyone became more excited about the genuine prospect of turning the business around. The apprehension that was dominant at the beginning of the meeting was replaced by optimism and eagerness.
At the end of the day, we reviewed all of the ideas that we liked, took a vote, and came up with three that we thought would make the biggest difference.
One of them had to do with media placement. Another had to do with pricing. And the third was an idea about the product guarantee.
All three had originally come from Bernadette. When I pointed that out, everyone was amazed, Bernadette most of all.
"I never thought of myself as an idea person," she said.
"Well, you'll have to change the way you think, won't you?" I replied.
Jerry tested Bernadette's ideas the following month. Two of the three worked very well. Their advertising resumed its former power and the business actually increased its profit margin that year.
More important, Bernadette was soon promoted to marketing assistant. And three years later, she was making six figures as a marketing VP.
This little story illustrates three observations I have made about idea generators and the roles they play in entrepreneurial businesses:
  1. In every company, there is an invisible culture that separates the idea generators from everyone else.
  2. When it comes to ideas, Pareto's Law rules. The idea generators represent fewer than 20% of a company's employees and yet they generate more than 80% of the ideas.
  3. The idea generators make much more money than the average employee. I don't have any figures on this, but my guess is that they make between two and 10 times the average salary.
The conclusion?
If you are not an idea generator in your company now, become one.
You will have more fun. You will enjoy more power. And you will make more money. Lots more money.
If you are thinking, "Gee, I can't do that. I'm not the creative type," remember Bernadette. Neither of the two great ideas that Bernadette came up with was creative in the traditional sense. (One was: "What would happen if we raised the price?" The other was: "Do you think we can sell this to doctors and dentists?")
The point is that many of the best ideas are not clever. They are obvious ideas that, for whatever reason, no one has thought of (or dared to suggest) before.
Also notice that Bernadette's ideas were posed as questions. Great ideas don't have to be pronouncements from marketing mavens on Mount Olympus. They can just as well be questions from ordinary people who are looking at the business with fresh eyes.
Two of the best idea generators I ever worked with understood this. Jay Abraham was one of them. I can't remember the last name of the other guy, but let's call him Ted Stevens.
Jay and Ted had similar methods. When asked to come up with ideas, they began by asking all sorts of fundamental questions. Questions like "Why are you selling this investment publication to investors?" and "Why do you think that people in debt don't have a lot of money in the bank?"
You'd think there'd be no need to ask such questions - that the answers are self-evident. But Jay and Ted understood the principle I just mentioned: that many of the best ideas are the most obvious. They knew, too, that in most business cultures, the simplest questions are never asked because the idea generators in power have already decided they are stupid.
Another thing about Jay and Ted is how unattached they were to the suggestions they made. (I have written about the dangers of ego attachment several times. It is a major hindrance in creativity.)
They might ask, for example, "Why don't you try to sell your investment publications to health buyers?" And if you'd say that you'd already tried that, they'd just move on to their next question. They didn't try to argue their point. They felt "free" to keep the conversation moving.
Think about Bernadette. She didn't consider herself to be a creative person. Therefore, she wasn't hampered by any sort of ego attachment. She posed her ideas as questions - and if they weren't accepted, it didn't bother her. When it turned out that she had come up with the three best ideas that day, she was thrilled. But she didn't expect it.
That's the mentality of a great idea generator. He sees the process itself as fun. A successful outcome is great, but it's a bonus.
Getting Your Foot in the Idea-Generating Door
Developing the skill of generating good ideas is not dissimilar from developing any skill. Initially, you're not going to be very good at it. But if you're willing to keep practicing, you'll get better and better. (See my essays on competence and mastery.)
You start with a single idea, posed as a question, and then go on to the next one. Don't worry about whether your ideas are accepted or put into action. Your goal is an internal one: to become more skillful. The outcome, at this point, is a secondary consideration.
Of course, as I said, there are usually unspoken rules in any corporate culture about who is allowed to come up with ideas and when. So how do you break through the invisible power structure in your company in order to get your suggestions even listened to?
Here's what I recommend...
Identify a business problem - any problem, it doesn't matter what it is.
Think of the problem from the customer's point of view - i.e., how this problem affects him.
Then pose this question: "In an ideal world, what would the perfect customer experience be?"
Follow that up with a bunch of suggestions in the form of questions (the simpler the better). Put them down in a memo and send that memo to the person in charge of fixing the problem.
Don't expect to be thanked for your effort. Don't even expect to get a reply. Explain in your memo that you were thinking about the problem and hoped your questions could provoke some solution. Leave it at that.
Then, a week or so later, identify another problem and follow the same process.
You'll notice that each time you send out a new memo, your suggestions will be stronger than they were the time before.
Make it a rule to save all your memos. Sooner or later, you will see that your ideas are being put forward to management - and that some of them have even been implemented.
When that happens, send a note to the person who implemented your idea successfully and congratulate him on "finding a great solution for the problem." Your note should include your original memo. (He very well may have forgotten it.) Don't claim credit. Give credit. That's how you win friends and influence people.
Keep your notes humble. The idea is to get these people see you as someone who can help them.
Eventually, your status in the company will start to change. You will be occasionally asked to contribute ideas. You haven't been let into the club yet, but you are an adjunct idea generator now.
Keep at it until one of your ideas is a big hit - i.e., it makes the company lots of money. Now you are in position to do a little pushing. It shouldn't take much if you are in a good, growing company. Your boss will know the value you are bringing to the table. He will see you as someone who can help him accomplish his goals. He will want to promote you.
Welcome to the club!
Maintaining Your Position As a Problem-Solving Genius
Once you are in the club, you will be called on constantly to solve all kinds of problems. The more serious the problem, the more pressure you will feel.
Don't be cowed.
Coming up with a continuous stream of great ideas isn't easy. But it can be done.
Basically, there are three big problems that every business has to deal with:
    1. 1 Bringing in new customers.
    2. Creating vertical, back-end sales to boost profits.
    3. Improving product quality to ensure customer retention.
Each of these demands a different approach.
1. Generating ideas to bring in new customers.
To come up with new selling ideas, you have to become a student not only of your own selling strategies but also of the selling strategies of your competitors.
When I consult with a business, I make it a policy to study every advertising campaign they have done in recent years - how it performed, what kind of customers it brought in, how much they spent, how much they refunded, etc. I do the same thing with their primary competitors. In the process, I begin to see the invisible links that support the most successful efforts. And ideas come to me. I wonder what would happen, for example, if one company used the pricing strategy of another but with the copy approach of a third company.
2. Generating ideas to create vertical, back-end sales.
When brainstorming possible back-end products, I focus on the initial advertising campaign - and try to understand what, exactly, customers responded to. Were they interested in something that allowed them to work more productively? Or did they want a product that would project a certain image - powerful, professional, or creative?
Once I've discovered the foundation of those initial sales, I have a psychological basis on which to create many back-end products.
I begin with the premise that what a customer bought once he'll buy a second time. And what he bought a second time he'll buy again. So, I create back-end products that have the same basic appeal as the lead-generating product but are different in respect to other factors: pricing, packaging, size, quantity, frequency, etc.
For example, a book that promises to make the customer feel better about himself can be repackaged as:
  • a $79 audiocassette program
  • or a $599 home-study course
  • or a $1,950 two-day seminar
By constructing a simple grid with different prices along one axis and different packaging formats along the other, you can often come up with a dozen or more good back-end product ideas in a single sitting.
3. Generating ideas to improve product quality.
Coming up with good ideas for improving your products is relatively easy. All you need to do is ask.
Ask your customers by phoning them, writing them, e-mailing them, and surveying them. Keep in mind that sometimes they will give you answers that they think are "good answers" rather than truthful answers. So read between the lines. But if you ask them, they will tell you.
Ask your customer-service people, too - as many as you can. They understand the major gripes, nagging issues, and market trends that influence your customers' decisions to buy (or not to buy).
And ask the people who make the product, especially those on the manufacturing line. Ask, "What is are the three best things about this product?" and "What are the three worst things about this product?" What they say might astonish you - but also inspire you.
An idea must be important enough to inspire followers, useful enough to create benefits (for your customers, your employees, and yourself), and cost effective. And, ultimately, it must be right. There is nothing so dispiriting and financially damaging as a Big Idea that changes systems, drains resources, taxes everyone's patience, and then falls flat on its face.
No wonder so few people are even willing to try.
But by doing your homework in these three critical areas - front-end sales, back-end development, and product improvement - a constant stream of good ideas will keep popping into your head. And you may very well find yourself the main idea person in your company... with a title and salary that proclaims your status to the world.

Teachers and Students
In the old days, parents trusted teachers to teach. When I was a kid, for example, teachers felt free to slap us around if we got out of line. I would have never thought to complain about it. I knew I deserved what I got and I only hoped my parents wouldn't find out what I'd done.
These days, teachers don't have the right to punish kids physically. And that may be a good thing. But I wonder sometimes if the pendulum hasn't swung too far the other way. I know some younger parents who have so little trust in their children's teachers that they argue about the homework their kids get, the pedagogy they use, and even the grades they receive.
They have the same attitude about their children's sporting activities: "Why isn't my Johnny pitching for the team? He wants to be a pitcher!"

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