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Archive for April, 2011

As one who has spent a career in the business of being creative, I’ve always been both puzzled and amused by the challenge of estimating fees based on the hours I will spend developing breakthrough, innovative ideas for clients. The question is essentially, How long does it take to be creative? Well, I could get an inspiration in a moment, or it could take a month! That’s the way it is with creativity—you never know when the ah-ha moment will hit.

No less of a creative authority than Albert Einstein, said, How do I work? I grope.

I can’t pretend to be able to unlock the secret to knowing how long it takes to be creative; however, it’s worth a discussion to explore what we can do to grease the skids for that creative moment.

Louis Pasteur once famously remarked, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

Here are some ways I prepare to be creative:

  1. I start by erasing my assumptions. Or at least I question them. In fact, I might even pretend I’m from a foreign land and I’m viewing the issue or opportunity for the first time without any preconceived opinions or ideas.
  2. I’m deliberately curious. I force myself to think of at least 5 questions, whose answers might affect my new thinking on the particular issue/opportunity I’m addressing. I continue to ask why, like a five-year-old might, until I get to the root of my answer.
  3. I pay attention to my emotions. Inspiration may be fueled by knowledge, but it’s lit by emotion. As I gather information, I’m checking my feelings. If a piece of information or an idea makes me laugh, anxious, impassioned or confused, I look for the creative power within it.
  4. I sleep on it. I like to fall sleep thinking about a specific issue or opportunity with the hopes that my subconscious mind will bubble up some creative ideas that will come to me the next day.
  5. I work it out when I’m working out. I also use physical exercise as a prime time to prime my mind for creativity.
  6. I observe. If there is a place to go that is relevant to the issue or opportunity I’m exploring—say a retail space where a customer shops for a particular product, or the environment where a customer might use that product—I’ll observe what’s happening. What’s easy or hard? Where is the joy or frustration? What’s happening and why?

As I write this post, I understand that preparing to be creative is a deeply personal ritual. We all have our own styles. We also have tools we use to get us started—I’ve shared some of mine.

How do you prepare your mind to be favored by the chance of uncovering a transformational idea? How long does it take you to be creative?

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One of my favorite Peanuts cartoons shows Charlie Brown and Linus leaning against a fence. Linus asks Charlie Brown a theological question: When you go to heaven are you graded on a percentage or a curve? Charlie, without hesitation replies, “On a curve, naturally.”  When Linus asks, how he can be so sure, Charlie responds, “I’m always sure about things that are a matter of opinion.”

That exchange provokes thought on many levels, not the least of which is the topic I’d like to explore today: Balancing Advocacy (communicating one’s perspective) with Inquiry (asking questions and listening to others).

Of course, Linus was the deep thinker in the neighborhood. As an Inquirer, he got there by asking questions…seeking the truth. Charlie Brown, the Advocate, was often the buffoon; outsmarted by his dog; as manager, never a winning baseball game; and, always falling for Lucy’s fake sincerity when she pulled the football away just when Charlie was about to kick it.

Inquiry seems to have the edge in this comic strip.

Now let’s look in the corporate world. Here, it’s often those who have the greatest conviction in their set of assumptions who win. Advocacy rules over inquiry because at the end of the day, decisions must be made and action taken based on available information. Analysis paralysis does not move a company forward.

So where is the balance to be found? Where’s the line between think and over-think? And where is the time to do either? How can the Advocates be sure they hear from the Inquirers—and not just get their way because others are insecure or afraid of being wrong? Or because they fear uncovering a different, less pleasant truth? Or, perhaps because they’re apathetic?

A Playing Field for Advocacy and Inquiry

Innovation is one arena where Advocacy and Inquiry must play well together. In order to be innovative, one has to question everything. All assumptions are suspect, everything must be seen through fresh eyes. Wild ideas, experimentation and mistakes are catalysts for breakthrough solutions. But in the end, innovation requires change. Someone has to sell the new idea—be its Advocate—to those who might still be in Inquiry mode. And even more importantly, to those in the Off mode.

I love this quote by Fredrich Jacobi, who says, “We must try harder to understand than to explain.” A great endorsement for the clarifiers among us.

On the other hand, Teddy Roosevelt once said, “In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

The Inquirer in me will continue to search for the balance. The Advocate in me tells me to get back to work.

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Have you ever tried to sell yourself or sell an idea with a logic that seems so obvious to you, yet for some unknown reason, it doesn’t sink in with others? Like the time you had that perfect pitch to a prospect who was less than generous in providing feedback? Too often our presentations and marketing materials focus on what we believe are our strengths or the strength of the idea. We cite statistics and stories for support. Yet these presentations miss the mark because they fail to consider what the prospects might need to hear before they can even listen to what we’re selling.

In short, many of us present ourselves and our ideas by talking about what’s important to us rather than what’s motivating to our prospects. We miss the important step of considering the context for our message, before crafting the content of the message.

The following is an approach for 1) exploring context, and 2) focusing content for your message.

Exploring Message Context

What’s happening? Begin by looking at your own assumptions, perspectives or attitudes that influence your presentation, and how they might be similar or different than those of your prospect?

Why is it happening? What market forces, personality traits and other issues might be affecting those assumptions, perspectives or attitudes, and therefore influence the decision to act?

What do we want to happen? What is the goal of the communication? And if different, what is the ultimate long-term goal of the relationship? What are the obstacles that might get in the way of achieving the goal?

Use the insights from this exploration to frame your content. Two examples:

  • If  your prospect has engaged the organization in a customer relationship initiative and you’re trying to sell sustainability, your prospect might not want his employees to lose focus with another initiative. You might frame your proposal as a way to enhance customer relationships. Or you might wait until after the customer relationship initiative is well seeded before attempting to sell in a sustainability initiative.
  • If, after thinking about your prospect’s personality, you decide she is an implementer who is not much interested in hearing about the planning process, you might want to begin by talking about goals, deliverables, metrics and schedules before talking about your process for finding and leveraging the insights that drive your work.

Focusing Message Content

Once we know the context of the message, we can better focus the content of the message. The trick here is to avoid the mistake of focusing only on the What of the message, and failing to connect the So What and Now What. Below is the distinction we make between What, So What and Now What.

a) What you want the prospects to know.

There are a variety of tools to help you arrive at a pinpoint focus on what you want to communicate. For example, if you’re selling the services or products of your organization you might use a concept in Jim Collin’s book, Good to Great and explain, what you do better than any other organization on the planet, If it’s an idea you’re selling, write the newspaper headline that explains it. Then elaborate; but remember, the object is to engage your prospect in the What, not to demonstrate your encyclopedic knowledge of the topic.

b) So What it means to your prospects and why they should care

It’s always good to list the traditional benefits that you believe the prospect might hope for or even expect. Then explore what benefit you might deliver that the prospect doesn’t even know is needed until it’s offered. This is meeting the unknown, unmet need (we call it the gift) and if you meet all known needs plus a compelling unknown, unmet need, then you have successfully differentiated your organization or idea from all others.

c) Now What I want you to do about it

While this seems obvious, many times we forget to “ask for the order.” We are so focused on presenting ourselves that we forget to tell the prospects what we want them to do.

So this is what I’d like you to do. Try exploring context for your next presentation. Connect your What to the So What and Now What. Share this post with others. Then give me feedback. Let me know what helps you…what confuses you…how we might improve this communication model.

Oh, and let me know if you come up with any new ideas for “what’s in it for you.”

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