Willie Nelson, the acclaimed country singer-songwriter, has written over 1000 songs. A journalist once asked him, “How do you do it—how do you keep coming up with new songs?” His reply: “Songs are everywhere.” John Lennon and Paul McCartney of Beatles’ fame similarly had a knack for observing the world around them and incorporating the most mundane things into their music—think of beloved songs like “Lovely Rita Meter Maid” (about the meter maid who was ticketing parked cars in front of their recording studio) or “Martha my Dear” (a song about Paul’s sheepdog!).
The most common refrain I hear from client executives is a desire for more new ideas and perspectives from their service providers. In most markets, the core products and services that firms offer are nearly identical, and therefore outperforming the competition in ideas, innovation, and creativity can be a meaningful source of differentiation.
It’s hard to come up with really great ideas, however. Or is it? And do they have to be “really great”–as opposed to just thought provoking–to be useful to your clients? Let’s look at some misconceptions about creativity, the different types of ideas you can bring to your clients, and specific sources of ideas. The truth is, ideas are everywhere, and you don’t have to be a Thomas Edison or Mozart to come up with a steady stream of them for your clients.
Remember, however: The goal of idea generation for clients is two-fold. First, you are concretely trying to come up with specific ideas to help improve their business. Second, you are sharing ideas with them to engage them in a discussion about what their most important priorities are. The latter, frankly, is just as important as the former.
I. Misconceptions about Creativity and Clients
- “If I’m going to go to a client with a new idea, it needs to be really compelling and original.”Rubbish! This attitude is an excuse to avoid talking to clients and taking any risks whatsoever. One client of mine, a top investment banker, told me, “If I waited until I had a brilliant idea to go see my client the meeting would never happen.”
- “The idea better be a fairly sure bet—if it’s half-cocked I’ll look stupid and reckless.”Well, the whole point about an idea is that it’s just…an idea. You’re not making a firm recommendation, you’re provoking discussion. Through discussion you can then develop it into something more practical and implementable.
- “Some people are uniquely creative and can dream things up while sitting in their garden.”While it’s common sense that some people are naturally more creative than others, good ideas are not generated in a vacuum. As we’ll see below, ideas often derive from intimate client knowledge, careful observation of the world around you, reflection time, and a willingness to be bold with clients.
- “Clients won’t pay for ideas. Even worse, they just steal them.” This reflects what I call a “scarcity mentality.” It’s true that in general clients don’t pay directly for new ideas. They pay us for the provision of a specific product or service (which might be idea generation). But if you don’t surround your core service with creativity and innovation—if you don’t infuse your relationships with imagination—then you become a tradesman, a fungible expert for hire.
II. Different Types of Ideas
It’s useful to think about four categories of ideas:
- Ideas to help improve an individual client executive’s performance, career advancement, and overall well-being.
- Specific, operationally-focused ideas for improving your clients business (e.g., an idea on how to reduce costs, improve time-to-market, or increase employee retention).
- Big-picture ideas dealing with strategy and organization (e.g., an acquisition idea, a suggestion for improving the balance sheet or knocking out a competitor).
- Ideas which shape clients’ perspectives and understanding of the world around them (e.g., a perspective on how a new demographic cohort will impact hiring, training, and retention strategies).
Ideas can be helpful at an institutional or personal level. They can be small and specific or focused on the big-picture. They can be intended as suggestions or focused on shaping a client’s perceptions.
III. Sources of Ideas
Here is a brief list of some idea generation techniques and sources that may be helpful to you in developing your own ideas for clients. I’ve shared some of these in other articles and blogs, but they bear repeating:
- Observation. By exercising “mindfulness”—a keen awareness of the world around you and the particular moment you are in—you can come up with lots of interesting ideas. In 1948, George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer and amateur mountaineer was hiking in the Alps. After his walk, he noticed his socks and dog were covered in burrs. Curious about how they stuck to his clothing, he examined them under a microscope and observed the tiny hooks that allowed the burrs to hang onto the fabric. In 1955, he patented Velcro, now a billion-dollar industry.
- Analogy and metaphor. Analogies are a powerful way to create new ideas and transfer concepts from one domain to another. Charles Merrill, the founder of the modern financial behemoth Merrill Lynch (now owned by Bank of America), tapped into the power of analogy when he brought stocks and bonds to the masses. Early in his career as a banker, he helped finance several of the burgeoning retail store chains such as J. G. McCrory, which were focused on the mass market. Merrill quickly adopted this new concept of mass merchandising and used it to reconceptualize and restructure the stockbroking business—which had previously served only the very wealthy—in order to make investments accessible to the average man and woman. His slogan for Merrill Lynch became to “take Wall Street to Main Street.”
- Suspension of Judgment. Good idea generation requires a suspension of judgment in order to allow “unrealistic” alternatives or ideas to be allowed into the discussion. Many great discoveries were either accidental or the result of “mistakes.” Marconi pursued his (ultimately) successful experiments in the belief that radio waves followed the curvature of the earth (they don’t). Penicillin and x-rays were also “mistakes,” which developed into life-saving medical breakthroughs.
- Reflection. “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.” Some researchers in the field of creativity, in fact, believe that insight occurs during the reflection and relaxation that follows a period of intense activity and work.
- Getting Your Hands Dirty. The more you understand your client’s business and life, the easier it will be to come up with good ideas. This is a dilemma for professionals who work in large companies: as you become more senior in an organization, you often work less and less with clients, and when you do, you are often exposed to projects and client situations at a very big-picture level. You do less and less hands-on work with specific client issues and problems. The more you “walk the halls” and get your hands dirty, as it were, the more ideas you’ll come up with.
- Use Your Client’s “Lens” to View the World. Whenever I read something—an article or book—I have a nearly sub-conscious filter at work which is searching for ideas, examples, or concepts that might be useful to my clients. Here’s a small but relevant example: I read that while there are billions of stars in the universe, only 6,000 can be seen from the Earth with the naked eye. Furthermore, from any one vantage point on Earth, only 2,000 are visible. While working with a client on a teaming program, I picked up on this and made a mental note. Later, it became one of the analogies we developed in communicating the goals of the teaming program: A global, interconnected team has a far broader perspective to bring to a client, seeing, as it were, three times as many stars.
- Develop lots of ideas and throw the bad ones away. Studies of scientists who have come up with breakthrough ideas reveal an interesting phenomenon: These scientists publish far more papers than their less-creative peers. As one CEO told me, “Some of the most creative people are able to throw away the bad ideas much quicker than other people can.”
Push yourself. Set a goal to come up with 2 or 3 new ideas a quarter for each client. As we’ve seen, they don’t all have to be earth-shattering ideas. Take time to really reflect deeply on your client’s problems and issues—it will set you apart from your competition. As George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.”
If you’d like to learn more strategies to grow your client relationships and revenue, get a copy of my new book, It Starts with Clients: Your 100-Day Plan to Build Lifelong Relationships and Revenue. 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.