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Americans want to be Bill Gates. Canadians want to be careful

Originally published on July 15, 2014 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/sb-digital/innovation/why-improv-comedy-is-the-key-to-business-success/article19072177/

Someone recently asked me if I found any differences between the audiences I speak to in Canada and the U.S. The answer is yes. “Americans want to be Bill Gates. Canadians want to be careful.”

I’m not sure why this is. While Canadians are known for their more conservative approach in general, our entrepreneurs were at least as daring as the Americans’ in opening up the West, building the national railway, and pushing back the frontiers of communications, medicine, and technology. Still, when I speak about entrepreneurship and innovation in the U.S., there’s buzz about success and fortune; you can almost hear the American Dream springing to life. In Canada, however, the word entrepreneur is still painfully associated with the term ‘small business.’

Across Canada, at cocktail parties and banker’s offices, our should-be heroes of industry and innovation are still too often dismissed as wild risk-takers who needlessly put their savings and financial security on the line. But entrepreneurship is so much more than that. Businesses that employ fewer than 500 people in North America have accounted for two-thirds of job growth in the past 10 to 20 years. The dreamers and the risk-takers are the growth engine that drive our economies. So let’s not label the entrepreneurs behind these businesses and the opportunities they pursue ‘crazy.’ Rather, let’s go with ‘crazy important.’

Still, there is something to be said for the Canadian approach to entrepreneurship. While we need more people to take initiative and champion change, there’s merit in doing so conservatively. I like to advise entrepreneurs to dream big, but proceed with caution. What exactly does this mean? There is never a shortage of opportunities in business; they’re everywhere. The key to success lies not in putting all your hopes — and life’s savings — into the first Big Idea you see, but in taking time to define the very best venture you will actually choose to pursue.

In last month’s column, I addressed the process of bringing together your team to generate great new business ideas. We talked about the power of the group dynamic and the “Yes, and…” process that enables your team to generate a wall of Post-It notes full of ideas.

Once you’ve done that, however, you need to begin culling those ideas into a manageable short list. More importantly, your ideas should be relevant to you, your business and your prospective customers.

Sounds obvious, I know, but judging by the number of times that I read about companies selling off non-core assets or dropping unprofitable clients, I realize that dreams of glorious short-term returns too often overcome solid analytical thinking.

I approach opportunity assessment with a rigorous, three-pronged approach. I like to rank each business opportunity according to three criteria: global (which includes ensuring that each new idea aligns with your company’s high-level, strategic direction, its vision, its mission, and so on), sales and marketing (rigorously identifying the ideal customer, target markets, time-to-market, and the competitive landscape) and financial (analyzing the projected top-line revenue, contribution, productivity ratios, net profit, and so on). The bracketed examples are, of course, only a few of the concepts you need to think through; there are many others that your team will think of or may already have in place.

Before anyone on your team gets carried away by a shiny new idea, it’s extremely important that you rank each opportunity you are considering against all three of these criteria. Don’t fall into the trap of saying, “this is a great idea, even though it’s not in keeping with the long-term vision of the company. I’ll worry about getting back on-strategy next quarter.”

Unless you rank new opportunities thoroughly and objectively, ruthlessly matching them to your strategy and capabilities, you will have little chance of converting even the best new ideas into successful and highly profitable new products.

The moral of the story? Embrace the American dream, believe in the possibility of success, but exercise good old Canadian caution along the way.

Ready. Aim. Fire! The rallying cry for successful change initiatives

We all know that the only constant is change. And with about 70% of all change initiatives failing what that means in today’s challenging business climate is that, while all the more critical, it continues to be challenging to make change happen.

Even after thorough and proper planning change initiatives commonly meet reactions from employees like “that’s not the way we do things around here” or “this is the latest flavor of the month”. One thing I find that companies struggle with and that would make your change initiative more successful is creating and bringing to life a compelling vision for change.

A compelling vision is more than just having a meeting where you share an acronym with a logo and a catchy tag line for the undertaking. For a vision to truly be captivating it has to be motivating and inspirational so that people eagerly move toward the new destination created by the vision.

Part of being a good leader is being able to create and communicate your vision. For significant change initiatives, leaders need to be masterful in creating the vision of the new destination. This takes skill, time and repetition of the message. Leaders also need to be authentic about challenges to be faced, commitment needed and what to do if people don’t feel up to the task because being on the bus but not being an active participant is not an option. Consider for example the programs that both Zappos and Amazon have in place for paying employees to quit.

One of the most commonly missing pieces I find when crafting a compelling vision is creating a “burning platform”. The burning platform makes it clear that staying in the current position isn’t an option. Change is uncomfortable. What leaders need to do is make it more comfortable to move forward than to remain where you are currently.

So how do you create the burning platform that is inspirational? Let’s break it down…

The burning platform for me is visually depicted as a wooden bridge that acts as the transition between what your business has been and what it can become. The wooden bridge has a very deep canyon below and the bridge is on fire. Now imagine you are standing in the middle of the burning wooden bridge. As the fire continues to burn it becomes more and more risky to stay standing on the bridge. The art of effectively creating the burning platform for change is enabling people to be brave enough to walk forward to a place unknown.

To be successful leaders must:

  • Make the vision clear and compelling drawing people forward enabling them to overcome their natural fear and resistance to new and different things
  • Ensure forces are stronger drawing people forward than their inherent desire to return to what is familiar and comfortable
  • Create a sense of urgency around making change happen

An example of where this was well done was a leader in a segment of the quick service restaurant industry. It was faced with the challenge of creating the compelling need to change while being a leader in their category. To create the need for change the point of comparison was reframed. Rather than being satisfied at being a leader in their category the gauntlet was thrown down that it wanted to be the leader in the fast food restaurant overall industry. That completely changed the landscape. The goal was clear. The company wasn’t number one but it could see the taillights of the industry leader and now all it had to do was close the gap. The sense of urgency came from the fact that the industry leader was moving forward. The vision was clear, the rallying cry went up and the company was able to drive change with this renewed focus.

One thing that companies can do to significantly increase the success of their change initiatives is create a burning platform. Once the vision is clear you need to delicately set the torch to the platform to create the sense of urgency around the need for change compelling people to move forward. This is one area time and time again I see as an opportunity for companies to be more successful with the change initiatives.

As you begin your strategic planning for 2015 ask yourself: Are you ready? Have you thoroughly planned out your change initiative? Is the aim of the vision clear and laser focused? Is your vision compelling including a burning platform for change that is really on fire? These questions will help lead you to achieving greater success with your change initiatives.

Want to build a better team? Consider the rules of improv

Originally published on June 10, 2014 as a Guest Column in The Globe and Mail.
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I was out with a friend when he announced that he was taking an improv course. He can be pretty humorous, but no one would mistake him for George Carlin. Or even Jerry Seinfeld. So, as politely as I could, I asked, “Why?”

His answer was surprisingly insightful: “Because improv comedy is about teamwork,” he said. “It’s about working together to build rapport, conversation, and a story that is engaging and compelling for the audience. If one member of the team tries to steal the spotlight, then the whole story unravels.”

He went on to say: “If I can become better at engaging and building on the ideas of others around me, then I will ultimately be more successful in my work.”

He seemed to be addressing one of the biggest challenges we all have as owners and managers; that is, building positive consensus in the face of individual dissent.

You know what I’m talking about: those brainstorming naysayers who pop up like jabbering jack-in-the-boxes with their bold proclamations like “that’ll never work,” “that’s too hard,” or “we’ll never be able to afford to do that, so why waste our time even trying?”

As an entrepreneur, nothing is more painful than hearing the words “no” or “can’t.” So the notion that improv comedy could somehow relieve my pain was enticing.

I immediately did what all inquisitive minds do these days: I Googled it. I searched the rules of improv comedy to see if I could re-purpose those principles to fit the world of business.

Naysayers beware: what I found is that ‘Yes’ is the new ‘No.’

I came upon many concepts from the art and discipline of improv that closely relate to business. They are similar because improv, like business, thrives on lively conversation, clear communication and seamless collaboration. Ultimately, both arts hinge on tapping the talents of all team members to generate bold, original ideas.

Consider a few of these rules and how they can practically apply to your work: The first rule is to agree. Ban the word ‘no’ at your brainstorming and ideation sessions. No is a full-stop. It not only quashes specific ideas, but discourages the flow of conversation in general. It makes people think, “why open my mouth to express an idea when somebody in the room is automatically going to say no to it?”

Learn to say yes to all new and different ideas. On a practical level, write all of the ideas down on Post-It notes and stick them on the wall in thematic groupings. For example, you might group them as ideas that relate to new products, new services or new processes. Or you could group new ideas by the functional areas of the business that they will impact most – sales, marketing, R&D or administration.

Once you have dozens of ideas on the wall, it’s time to use the second rule of improv: Say “yes, and…” Agree with the idea, but then add some new twist of your own. This is how we add value and substance to these original, random ideas.

Break the full team into four or five mini-teams and assign them to work on one of the identified groups of sticky notes. Their task is to review these ideas to see if they can be fleshed out, built on, embellished or combined. Bottom-line: their role is to take the original slew of ideas and translate them into three to five clearly articulated opportunities for the business to consider.

This process is not just about innovation – it’s empowering for your team as a whole. It demonstrates that everyone’s opinions, ideas and insights matter. It helps your team think more freely and openly, and not be afraid to voice what sounds like a radical idea. Crazy, stupid things such as “what if we could slip the power of the original supercomputer that filled a whole room into our coat pocket?” Some things may never happen in our lifetime, but others may surprise you and lead to offbeat new opportunities.

“Yes, and…” is powerful and empowering. It enables your team to generate a wall full of ideas and then narrow them down to more manageable numbers.