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Why Experts Live in Fear

More trouble has fallen upon companies that tempt the universe with this ego-inflated statement: “We are the experts.” A sizable lack of innovation occurs in the practice of being perceived as experts instead of practicing humility in the workplace.

What’s wrong with admitting that you have a little to learn? What’s wrong with keeping a fresh perspective on market and industry matters? Why such fear?

There is a stranglehold that takes hold when fear of not being an expert strikes a culture. While it’s human nature to want to look smart in front of peers, acting like you know something you do not is simply immature. Acting as if your view of a reality is Reality is a woeful case of prideful ignorance on display.

When fear of not being an expert takes root in a corporate culture, it permeates every level of an enterprise. For professionals, there is the simple fear of not knowing the industry, terms, products, protocols, and people. For managers it is the fear of not being in the know of trends and players in the industry. At the director and VP levels, there runs amuck a fear of not being seen as an expert inside the organization. At the C-level the fear of having to change the core business focus and business model shuts down all exploration of the unknown.

All of these fears collectively form blind spots and a myopic point-of-view, allowing faster-growing, more nimble and open-minded competitors to arise out of nowhere and transform the industry.

Think about these examples. Blockbuster and Video-on-Demand, Netflix, and Redbox. After investing in real-estate and a business model that penalized customers, three disruptions quickly put the giant in its grave. Blockbuster’s inflexibility, due to its “expertise” in the market, kept doing the actions that alienated customers.

Or consider Yahoo’s portals. Yes, you can customize all the information you want into a large, overwhelming, and single dashboard, but can the brain really process that much information at once? Yes, said their “experts” until streamlined, simple, one-task focused search engines like Google drove their market share down to a public stage of crisis after a crisis that humbled them to get out of their Expert position and transform themselves serially.

Anything that lives is dynamic. Customers, competitors, the market itself move at the speed of life. The first step is admitting that you don’t know everything. The second step is listening to those who use your product or services deeply. Then, when the Expert-ism fades, you find yourself in an authentic growth position.

Good Manners and Innovation

Brainstorming sessions can easily devolve into a contest of strong egos or a parade of old, tired ideas and their accompanying resentments. Worse, meetings around ideation or innovation sour when there is lack of good manners.

Like roommates coming to terms on who cleans what and when, applying a few, simple house rules on the front end preserves relationships and creates a harmony in the environment.

Discipline is the handmaiden to creativity. You have to give the creative process a framework, basic parameters, to harness its value. Setting the house rules gives you the power to make something outside of pre-programmed egos in the room, something that may make you a market leader.

So, how do you manage this oh-so-human-tendency to dominate with the timeless cornerstone of civilization, good manners?

These manners often have to be imposed externally as social reinforcements to do the right thing instead of acting heedlessly on our own blinding passions in a creative frenzy.

The manners become house rules from generating a profusion of ideas. At this stage, research proves true again and again, the more ideas created the more valuable. So, the idea isn’t to analyze each embryonic concept at this stage, but to create a trusting environment that allows for maximum idea creation.

Here are several examples of manners that can be used to create an effective innovation environment.

First, use good manners. This means doing what your mother should have told you. Don’t interrupt. Have only one conversation going at any time. Listen respectfully. Don’t judge. Don’t bring your unruly pets (old ideas and rigid notions) to the party. Create a sense of trust.

Second, silence the inner editor. This is not the time to analyze or criticize, as natural as that impulse may be. Creativity is a process. Killing an idea before it has time to take its first breath and develop is akin to being a schoolyard bully. Leave your ego at the door. Be vulnerable and have fun.

Third, trust the process. There will be several steps in the process that will merit further exploration of a concept, so apply patience. More will be revealed, if you allow the generative creativity. A moderator will guide this discovery through a series of formal exercises designed for this process.

We could get more elaborate and craft a Ten Commandments of Innovation, but why? This move may inhibit the joy and outcome of the process. Stay simple.

Keep in mind that this a session where creativity and good manners will work hand-in-glove to generate a wealth of fresh thinking.

OMB: Symptom of Business Sickness

Is your business haunted by the blinding ghosts that worked in another era?

The wealthiest man in Japan, Tadashi Yanai, has a business plan that looks 300 years into the future, but allows for annual updates as a matter of course. To date, he’s worth more than $6 billion.

This testament to making what is unseen visible begs the question: why aren’t others planning and building according to plan?

Does your business have a real plan that gets updated each year? Hearsay speculates that less than 10% of all businesses are managed according to a plan that is more comprehensive than an annual set of target numbers. This is a problem.

Yet, we are all rich beyond our wildest imaginings: each human is endowed with 18 million brain cells. Most people and most businesses do not perform the necessary processes to attune this innate gift to their personal or business advantage.

It is a visionary act to craft a plan and it takes supreme discipline to review it each year. Vision and discipline together provide the courage to endure and keep working toward success despite setbacks and obstacles.

Many of the companies suffer from a lack of vision and discipline. As a result they are not growing. Here are several red flags:

  1. “We don’t have a five year plan. We don’t have a five month plan.”
  2. “Our revenue line has been the same for the past five years.”
  3. “Our industry is all me-too, so we just copy what’s hot and get a little piece of that trend.”

It doesn’t matter if it is a manufacturing company, an importing concern, a logistics firm, or a software business. This lack of vision relegates these businesses to react to the market. Instead of defining a new paradigm for their industries, they choose to wither, lose market share, and move further away from a leading position.

Even worse, without a plan companies make decisions based on what worked a decade or two decades ago, even though the rest of the world has moved on. OBM is a ghost that not only haunts businesses that do not have the discipline to revise a strategic plan each year. OBM also depletes ingenuity and vigor of a firm, keeping its head blindly in the past. OBM means Old Business Model.

You can spot OBMs everywhere. It looks like the call center business whose customers have stated that they prefer email to phone calls, but metrics keep employees working the phones and alienating customers. Every business has to shed some aspects of its OBMs to stay present and add value to their client base.

Mister Yanai doesn’t need to worry about OBMs because he has both a plan and vision that keep him focused, humble, and growing. He has the certainty of a plan and the agility of adapting the plan each year. Yanai stays upbeat, takes ups and downs in stride. He claims, “I might look successful but I’ve made many mistakes. People take themselves too seriously. You have to be positive and believe you will find success next time.”

Creativity Redefined for Innovation

The words “creative” and “creativity” have been hi-jacked by the world of advertising. The word means something specific to those familiar with Mad Men or Thirty-something advertising stereotypes. In these cases – and the cases of classic advertising – creativity was visual, copy, or positioning cleverness applied at the end of the new product process, when it was time to market downstream.

The old view of the world buffers creativity from strategy or strategic planning or research and development. These departments were once reserved for eggheads, chemists, number crunchers, or analysts. If “creativity” were enacted in these functional areas, the deliverables and output would be suspect or suspended.

We are learning that creativity is anything that adds value and relevance to its intended audience. Smart companies are finding ways to move away from the Just-build-it-like-I-told-you model. They are discovering that the merely deductive way of handling strategy or R&D has more limitations than benefits.

To move more effectively downstream, companies are learning to be more creative upstream. This move signifies that we have moved out of the Industrial Era and into the Age of Innovation.

Upstream creativity means that companies immerse themselves with their customers and seek to invent helpful products and services. Upstream creativity means that the core business model is debated annually in different formats – and not just on a spreadsheet – intuitive downloads, sketches of new adaptations of the model, and market trends are role played as part of the new process. Upstream creativity means that there are markers and sticky notes in the boardrooms and executive chambers. Upstream creativity is a dynamic process that adapts to grow, takes calculated risks, and expects total engagement from its whole team.

The spirit of deep play can be found at such companies. The process of being creative for the sake of the business is a thrill and a form of bliss; peak moments in a career. Here, diverse project teams meet at the same table without prejudice about roles. They are intently focused on surprising the market by creating a new line of business that will change the game. They journey together through the discovery, the birth of a new concept, the drafting of a business case, and the path to market.

Inspired companies allow recursive thinkers to challenge, inspire, even provoke anything too status quo that inhibits growth. Creativity means looking through as many lenses of a prism of the same issue as possible.

Here’s the bottom line. The world has changed. The economy is now led by organizations that invent on a rapid, reoccurring basis.

In the Industrial Era, creativity was used as a means to differentiate products downstream. Now, in the Age of Innovation, the only way to win in the market is to get creative with the whole business: business model, R&D, distribution, etc.

“Creative” once described people with drafting boards who reeked of ink. Now, it is an honorific worthy of a pinstripe suit-wearing MBA grad in finance.

Welcome back, Creativity. You have been missed on many floors of business for too long. Upstream. Downstream. All around. Creativity is good for business and is worthy of praise.

The Happy Virus

We’ll preface this section with an unconventional source of wisdom for business, the great Persian poet Hafiz:

The Happy Virus

I caught the happy virus last night

When I was out singing beneath the stars.

It is remarkably contagious – So kiss me.


In business there is no greater asset than an inspired culture. Such environments create a Happy Virus that leads to optimized bottom lines and thriving top-line growth. Happy viruses that infiltrate top-performing cultures happen when strategy becomes manifested in the culture.

Despite recent books, articles, and decent debate over Culture Trumping Strategy, this war of culture versus strategy is a one-sided and misguided notion.

Business cultures that have The Happy Virus do not exist in spite of strategy. The opposite point holds true. Vibrant business cultures are a result of having and manifesting a strategy that resonates within the organization and in the market. Culture does not exist without strategy.

Ponder how cultures are built. It is a three-step process of bringing an entity into being that is as old as the human psyche: thought, word, and deed.

First a thought is formed. In business, the thought that births a venture usually fills a market need and is also aspirational. As Steve Jobs encouraged, such thoughts need to have passion enough to “put a dent in the universe.” All businesses begin with thought. Then, do your homework.

You put your vision—the thought—into words. This is the strategic phase. This strategy provides a blueprint for building your business and crafting the right kind of culture that can birth and sustain a growing business.

The kind of culture you have is a result of how well you have manifested and managed your strategy. The deed phase becomes the culture itself.

Because the lifecycle of business is dynamic, this three-part process—thought, word, and deed—needs to be reviewed and adapted annually.

Culture, once established, can sustain a business that has lost touch of its core strategic thrust for a short time. Culture cannot make up for a lack of strategy.

The companies that know that a vibrant culture is a result of a founding vision and a smart, up-to-date strategy that becomes explicit and manifested into the hearts and minds of its employees and the market embody The Happy Virus. It’s contagious in the best way—and it’s the CEO’s job to ensure that this benign and magnificent virus take root. Such thinking has worked for luminaries such as Richard Branson, Max De Pree, Anita Roddick, and others.

If you can put thought, word, and deed into a single focus and manifest your strategy into a palpable culture, you can be a market leader.

The Innovation Process: What’s the Secret Sauce?

Business banter talks a lot about “the process for innovation,” which is usually referenced in the singular and stated definitively, leaving most business leaders scratching their heads. It makes us think that there is one correct process, the secret sauce that top companies have and follow. There are actually thousands of innovation processes, none of which have been quantified or proven to be the most effective. There is no one size fits all.

There is also no secret sauce. Most companies attempt an ad hoc innovation approach without clearly defined roles and processes, then suffer mixed results. Company leaders hear so much about this all-important but ever-elusive business imperative. They look for the fabled innovation handbook then become overwhelmed by the many innovation gurus, each with a unique system.

Innovation just means trying something new in your market to better meet your customers’ needs, thus driving growth for your company. It’s making a change rather than just doing the same thing better.

How do I do this in a sensible way that mitigates my risk, you ask? The key is to develop a process that works for your company and will stick. It’s just like a diet – if it is not a behavioral and physiological fit, it will never work. Keep in mind that culture plays a big role here. If your company has an old-timer mentality that rejects any form of change, then your first step is to retool the culture. Don’t expect to transform your company’s culture into Google. There is no magic formula for this. You need to find your own way. Strive to become a smarter, more nimble, and more opportunistic version of your former culture. Assume a proactive mindset, strive to lead the industry rather than react to it.

When your team is in the right frame of mind, figure out who is in charge and clearly define roles. One of the secrets to a good innovation process is making it iterative. Think about using the following tools at multiple points in the process:

• End user feedback: what are their pain points? Where is the demand?

• Market segment size and saturation level.

• Trend spotting and scenario planning.

• Ideation: expand your team’s thinking with interactive exercises to generate new ideas.

• Design thinking: visually represent and design solutions for market pain points. Use empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context.

• Stage gates: go/no-go criteria at critical points in the process.

• Prototype and test ideas with actual users, get them to co-create the solutions with you.

Make this a discipline not a diversion. Put receptivity to change and discipline in your secret sauce. The market leaders cook with this. Turn up the heat and you can too.

The (Fill in the Blank) Way

Each professional entity has a way of handling business. This way is encoded with spoken and codified rules and unspoken and non-verbal clues on how to perform. What gets done, how decisions are made, and how money is allocated can be defined as “culture.” This way, then, is an explicit and implicit set of rituals that reward or punish based on its own complicated, internal logic.

This way, the culture, has adapted over the years. Still, this way is now a well-defined machine of productivity. It weeds out unfitting talent and risks, and it refines work and the flow of work to a crystalline precision. This way creates a shorthand, and saves money, time, and preserves the sense of the place.

Think about it for a minute. What is your organization’s way for handling presentations, new product decisions, new market assessments, service issues, or resolving conflicts? What are the processes, check points, keys to enrollment, and styles of presentation that have become the default way in your organization? How are people rewarded or punished?

Now, do yourself and your organization a valuable favor. Acknowledge that this way is only an agreed upon construction of reality, a mental model and not reality itself.

Here is why: noticing the norms of a model, a way, and then consciously unlearning some of its defaults are key steps in taking breakthrough, disruptive innovations to the market.

You see, every culture has antibodies built into the system. New ideas are typically rejected as vehemently as foreign objects are rejected by the body. The ____ way may be your biggest obstacle. Therefore, you have to develop the visionary ability to zoom out and get a real sense of the market potential of a new business concept without the blinding shackles of “how we do it today” to limit the thinking.

Sure, there is a time for risk assessment, validation, and a synthesis period of how we, as the ____ way, take this completely new line of business in a channel to market, but if you don’t cultivate this keen zooming out ability, the culture will not allow you to dream valuable dreams.

Remember, those who are called to innovate have to be systems thinkers and visionaries. Luckily, both are learnable skills. The factor that stymies innovation most is the unconscious defaults of a company culture. Those who recognize the system’s operating assumptions and gently inspire others to stretch their thinking on behalf of the organization change the culture in countless positive ways.


As Innovation and Growth Strategy consultants we have methods, processes, and exercises that we apply to client problems. While tools from this vast toolbox work for any type of organization seeking to provide a better service or product (healthcare, non-profit, hospitality, consumer goods, financial services, wholesalers, and B-2-B) to generate insights and custom solutions that set them up as a category leader, what we sell is something else ultimately. This is perhaps the rarest asset in corporate America for an unknown reason, called courage.

According to Wikipedia, Courage is the ability and willingness to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty, or intimidation. Most corporate cultures move in fear, make decisions for the worst case, then present power points for their leadership teams like a pep rally squad playing the roles of analyst and accountant. What happened to the ability to dream, to share a vision, to outline something bold? In the land of how-we-do-things-here, no new thinking is allowed and courage is stamped out the moment it shows the glint in its dreamy eye.

It’s little wonder that all of the big telecommunications companies can only grow by major acquisition rather than human invention. Given that they are fixed and rigid in their business model, infrastructure costs, and roles, they cannot afford to re-think the industry. So, in moves a concept that defies their paradigmatic models, Skype, and without the capital-intensive notion of a network, they become the market leader in international calls with more than 12% of the market. The bigger companies lacked the courage to drop their world-view and see the market needs and new technological possibilities with the objectivity of a start-up.

Yet, many corporate citizens lust after such a wild leap. On every corporate desk we see copies of the Business Model Canvas or Lean Start-up. 

Skunkworks teams meet with the fervor and passion of illicit love. Like stolen love, these relationships rarely make it in the light of day. The concepts are cleaned up and presented to the larger enterprise. Then, behold the attack. Behold the boundaries. Behold the reasons why we cannot move ahead with something radical. Faint praise for fresh thinking peppers the conversation, then it’s back to business as usual.

This cynical, but too-true, scene is enacted again and again every day in America. Cultural antibodies eat at any expression of courage like rapacious piranhas in company after company. The only antidote is courage, the courage to confront fears, dangers, and uncertainties. To be able to enact this courage, it takes a focus on an innovation culture where even the business model that brings us together is an on-going experiment and prototype open to improvement.

Courage; it changes things, for the better.

Naming the Baby: Product Naming 101

If you ask business experts what is the most fundamental ingredient in a successful product launch, you may hear three things: distribution, quality, or pricing. All three are merely givens in this era—mandatory.

But what really makes a difference?

The real competitive advantage for a new product is its name.  Likewise, a bad name can sink a good product like a stone thrown into a lake.

A strong name that conveys the emotional essence of a product’s value can improve sales, create a brand that grows in long-term value, and quickens first-time purchases. A bad name can kill a product during the launch phase. In fact, a good name acts as a calling card in the world, instead of a source of shame, confusion, or indifference.

Yet, product names are sometimes created for wrong reasons or are off target for the intended market.

Let’s examine a loser before we look at a simple framework. Ask Audi about their TT. You could just as likely ask any kindergartener about their TT and get the same response.

What self-respecting driver wants to sit behind the wheel of a TT?

Absurd! Idioms matter. Be careful for the traps of translation, too. When Colgate introduced a toothpaste in France called Cue, it may have proven comical with readers of the porn magazine of the same name, but no-one else.

Think of successful naming as including both sound and sense. The sonic values have to work, as does the sense making given the dynamics of culture, nationalities, and the competitive landscape.

There are many factors to consider: positioning, market trends and drivers, translation issues, URL availability, more.

Product naming should be done justice in either a long essay or book on the subject; however, here is a short take.

First off, know your enemy. Look at the competitive landscape and make sure you are not naming a me-too product. Aim to be wholly your own. The key is to be different, unique, and helpful.

Secondly, the best names are literal and poetic at the same time, like Office or Raid. Tapping both the descriptive and figurative sides of the brain with one name makes it resound and resonate with denotative and connotative value.

Third, short is best. TT may be the exception to this rule; it’s bad for other reasons.

Fourth, don’t suffer feature mania. A simple, non-technical name that conveys the end promise or benefit is always more effective than a name that describes a feature.

Fifth, use a name that evokes some emotional resonance in the audience and rewards their use of the product.

Mostly, avoid really bad mistakes like Poolife, which reads more like Poo Life than Pool Life. Use good judgment and be smart.

Market Power Verses Brute Force

Pushing too hard?

Rushing to hit short-term numbers or an over-caffeinated executive can force some costly mistakes.

Failed product launces. A weak but bloated product pipeline. A service in desperate need of reinvention but too entrenched and in love with its own methods to change. A company that charges ahead blindly, carrying dead weight and a dying value proposition to the market. A feature set that doesn’t meet users real needs. Add a bomb from your professional experience here _________________. There are too many mistakes to name.

There are also too many forced agendas, pet projects, products and services zealously guarded by the ego patrols and sycophants. The world is already overstuffed with such glut. Do us all a favor, stop forcing things to happen just because you feel so motivated.

There is a critical difference between force and authentic market power.

Force helped birth the Industrial Revolution, but is a brutish, blunt, and inelegant way to finish anything in business today. Real market power shares the verities of wisdom: self-knowledge, a sense of others, and the ability to read between the lines and see a real need, an actual benefit for your product or service.

Market power creates fans, brand evangelists, and loyalty. Market power always finds traction in the field by connecting with its intended audiences in both fundamentally expected and wildly unexpected ways. This type of power can be measured with sales, brand equity, and breakout potential.

On the other hand, when things are forced, you find yet another company for sale, more products at the closeout store, and disgruntled employees.

Why force anything today when the world has too many choices to begin with? Instead, get real market power by empathizing with customers and crafting something of real and usable value to their lives.

Go away, brute. Your tricks don’t work anymore.