Clients say they want new ideas from their advisors and suppliers. But how do you come up with those new ideas? Read on.
The summer before my senior year in high school, I attended a one-month program at the Minnesota Outward Bound School. I lived in New York City, and couldn’t wait to get away from the sweltering heat—and my parents. Outward Bound offers wilderness programs that push you to your physical and mental limits. They are rewarding but very demanding experiences, perhaps even more so in that era. During a grueling three-day hike across rocky terrain and mosquito-infested swamps, my team got lost. It was only when I climbed a large pine tree and was 40 feet off the ground that I could finally see the landscape around us—and a path to the rendezvous point with our instructors, several miles away.
Ever since that experience, I’ve always made a point of occasionally climbing that tree again—metaphorically, that is—to get the big picture of my surroundings and gain perspective.
Big-picture thinking starts when you understand your client’s goals, get the total picture around those goals, and identify the critical issues or variables that may affect your client’s achievement of them.
Then, you need to develop specific ideas to help your client achieve their aspirations and grow their business.
Here are nine techniques for creating those new ideas and perspectives:
1. Develop simplifying frames.
A good, simplifying frame reduces many complex variables down to the most important two or three. It “frames up” key choices or positions. For example, some years ago I developed a tool I call the Client Growth Matrix. I organized one of my books, All for One, around it. I still use it with great success with clients. Here’s what it looks like:
I use this as a diagnostic tool with my clients, to help them assess their client relationships. I also use it during business development conversations. It helps spark a conversation about where the client is today and where they want to be in the future.
What kinds of simplifying frames could you develop for your clients, given the types of challenges they face?
2. Use metaphors and analogies.
A metaphor is a figure of speech. It describes something in a way that isn’t literally true, but which helps explain an idea or problem. In talking about innovation, an executive might say, “It’s a marathon not a sprint.” This is a common business metaphor. Of course, innovation is not literally a “marathon,” but the word illuminates the dynamics of successful long-term innovation.
A good metaphor can powerfully highlight or tee up an important idea and make it relatable to others. I mention this technique in Week 8 of It Starts with Clients, when I share the story of President Franklin Roosevelt and his plea for Americans to help the British defend themselves from Hitler’s Nazi advance. In that case, he compared helping the Brits to lending your garden hose to a neighbor whose house was on fire. FDR’s metaphor grabbed the public’s imagination, and helped grow support for the US to intervene.
For an upcoming client meeting, can you develop a powerful metaphor or analogy for your client?
3. Incorporate multiple perspectives.
One illustration of this technique is the Balanced Scorecard approach to implementing strategy. It was developed in the early 1990s by Robert Kaplan and David Norton, and is widely used by corporations. The Balanced Scorecard looks at four perspectives: Financial, Customer/Stakeholder, Internal Processes, and Organization Capacity (formerly Learning and Growth).
For your purposes, think about the different stakeholders or constituencies who will be affected in your work with clients.
Are you missing some stakeholder perspectives in developing your client relationships?
4. Look for patterns and commonalities.
This technique was at the heart of the development of the so called high-yield or “junk” bond market in the 1980s, which opened up financing to corporations that previously were shut out of the bond market. Drexel’s Michael Milken obsessively studied the risk and returns of lower-rated bonds. He would pour over data on hundreds of bonds, even wearing a miner’s headlamp on the train into work at 5 am in the morning, to better illuminate years of printouts. He found that low-rated, high-risk corporate bonds actually offered a risk-adjusted premium over high-rated, low-risk, blue-chip ones.
What patterns are you seeing, within your clients’ business and also across all the clients you work with?
5. Suspend your judgement and even procrastinate.
We admire decisiveness, but if you make up your mind too quickly, you risk closing out your best options. In his book, Originals, Wharton professor Adam Grant writes that many of the most creative thinkers procrastinate. He says, “Procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps.” One of the examples he cites is Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech made on August 28, 1963. King was rewriting it right up to end, with the phrase “I have a dream” penciled in at the very last minute. President Abraham Lincoln, similarly, made changes to his famous Gettysburg Address while traveling to the event on the train from the Capitol.
It requires a steady hand to wait until the last minute, but sometimes it pays off handsomely.
Do you ever rush to judgement about something or someone, or make a decision prematurely? Why does that happen?
6. Develop lots of ideas–and don’t worry about whether they are “great” or not
Many people, often out of fear, don’t develop their ideas and let them see the light of day. They don’t share them with their clients or publish them. There’s plenty of research showing that the most creative scientists—those who have won major awards—publish lots of articles. Most of their articles aren’t acclaimed and don’t win prizes. But some of them are and do, and that’s what matters.
This applies as well in creative fields like musical composition. The play, Wicked, is the second-highest grossing musical in history. Steven Schwartz, who wrote the music and lyrics, has said “There are 19 songs in Wicked, but I had to write 70 to get those 19.”
Are you regularly developing ideas, writing them down, and getting them in front of your clients?
7. Connect and listen.
One of the major findings of researchers who study the development of new ideas is that they rarely occur in a vacuum. Everyone loves the notion of the lone genius who has a eureka moment. But it’s mostly a myth. According to innovation author Steven Johnson, new ideas almost always have their origins in a group or community. He describes how a researcher named Kevin Dunbar spent months observing and videotaping scientists at work. Johnson describes his work in a TED talk called Where Good Ideas Come From:
“…almost all of the important breakthrough ideas did not happen alone in the lab, in front of the microscope. They happened at the conference table at the weekly lab meeting, when everybody got together and shared their latest data and findings…(they) shared the mistakes they were making, the errors, the noise in the signal they were discovering. That…is the environment that leads to innovation.”
Are you listening carefully to others, and using what you learn to improve and augment your own ideas?
8. Pause, concentrate, and reflect.
“I lived in solitude in the country,” said Albert Einstein, talking about the sources of his great ideas, “and noticed how the monotony of quiet life stimulates the creative mind.” When I lived in London, I had the fortune of knowing bestselling children’s author Roald Dahl, who wrote classics such as Matilda and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He had a small shed at the rear of his garden, where, in quiet and solitude, he would do much of his writing.
If you want to develop more ideas, you simply have to get off the merry-go-round of your daily busyness. I actually think idea generation is like a muscle: you have to practice it on a regular basis. Aim to produce lots of ideas, without prejudging them, and then after a few days or weeks, winnow them down.
Do you make time for intentional reflection? Do you believe it would be valuable to do it more often?
9. Be intellectually eclectic.
Eclectic means diverse and wide-ranging. Peter Drucker, who is considered one of the leading management thinkers of the twentieth century, epitomized this quality. He developed many concepts that are now an integral part of our business language, such as the knowledge worker and the idea of management by objectives. Drucker himself masterfully combined what the great Renaissance artist Leonardo referred to as “Arte e Scienza (art and science). He started his career as a journalist and economist. Then, he moved to the United States from Europe, and began studying the management of large corporations like General Motors. Then he became a professor and consultant. He was devoted to his many side interests, such as Japanese art.
Your measure of success shouldn’t be whether or not you develop an industry-shattering idea for each of your clients. However, by reading widely and engaging in exploratory learning outside your field of expertise, you are more likely to develop big-picture ideas that your clients will find unique and appealing.
Are you a narrow expert or a “deep generalist who has both knowledge depth and breadth?
If you’d like to learn more strategies like this to grow your client relationships and revenues, get a copy of It Starts with Clients, I strongly recommend that you check it out. Readers are truly enthusiastic about it. It gives you the precise strategies–and action steps–needed to master 14 essential client development challenges and grow your client base in any market conditions. You can buy it here, and also join my 100-Day Client Growth Challenge.