If you want to be important to your business, take it upon yourself to try to figure out what your organization should be doing and where it should be heading. This is what good leaders do. And the fact that you are not the designated leader now shouldn’t stop you from acting like one.
A fundamental rule for success is this: Do the work now that you one day hope to do. If you wait, the time may never come. How do you — a mere cog in the machine — figure out what is best for your business? Start with this: an idea. A single, small idea. Like a way to fix a paper machine that keeps jamming. Or a better way to head the weekly memos.
Think of a way to do something better than it is being done now. Talk about it. Write a memo. Push for its execution. Get in the habit of documenting all of your suggestions in writing so that when one of them changes the company’s future and everyone else is trying to take credit for it, you’ll have proof that it was yours. Then get on to your next idea. And then another one.
You’ll notice that each time you communicate a new, small-but-good idea, two things will happen:
1. It will be easier for people to accept it as good.
2. It will be easier for you to come up with the next one. Now, try a medium-sized idea. This might be about some problem with a process — answering customer-service complaints, dealing with late shipments, overcoming the objections of a perennially cranky but important customer.
Bolstered by the success you’ve had in solving small problems, you’ll have little difficulty finding a good idea at this medium level of difficulty. After your first idea is communicated, come up with more medium-sized good ideas. You can still suggest the occasional small-idea solution, — but not as often. You’ve moved yourself up on the ladder of company problem solvers.
Most of the smaller problems should be delegated to smaller thinkers. Don’t say so directly. Just imply it. Once you’ve secured yourself a position among the medium-level thinkers, you are ready for your first big challenge. You are ready to come up with the Big Idea. Coming up with the Big Idea is a big task. It must be important enough to inspire followers, useful enough to create benefits (for your customers, your employees, and yourself), and cost effective.
And, ultimately, it must be right. There is nothing so dispiriting and financially damaging as a Big Idea that changes systems, drains resources, taxes everyone’s patience, and then falls flat on its face. No wonder so few people are even willing to try. Standing up in front of the company and making an argument for change takes guts.
So, to be able to come up with big, new ideas, you have to have the courage to be wrong. And wise men derive their courage from thinking, planning, and testing. To become (or maintain yourself as) the Big Idea man in your company, focus your thinking on the two or three areas that are critical to your business.
For most businesses, these are:
1. generating efficient new sales to produce growth
2. creating vertical, back-end sales to boost profits
3. improving product quality to ensure customer retention
Each of these areas demands a different approach.
1. To come up with new selling ideas, you have to become a student not only of your own selling strategies but also of the selling strategies of your competitors. When I consult with a business, I make it a policy to study every advertising campaign they have done in recent years, how it performed, what kind of customers it brought in, how much they spent, how much they refunded, etc.
I do the same thing with their primary competitors. In the process, I begin to see the invisible links that support the most successful efforts. And ideas come to me. I wonder what would happen, for example, if A company used the pricing strategy of B company but with the copy approach of D company.
2. I use a somewhat different approach when thinking about possible back-end products. Here, I focus on the initial advertising campaign — and try to understand what, exactly, the customers responded to. Were they interested in something that allowed them to work more productively? Or did they want a product that would project a certain image — powerful, professional, or creative?
Once I’ve discovered the foundation of those initial sales, I have a psychological basis on which to create many back-end products. I begin with the premise that what a customer bought once, he’ll buy a second time. And what he bought a second time, he’ll buy again. So, I create back-end products that have the same basic appeal as the lead-generating product but are different in respect to other factors: pricing, packaging, size, quantity, frequency, etc.
For example, a book that promises to make you feel better about yourself can be repackaged as: a $79 audiocassette program a series of $15 lessons a $599 home-study program a $1,950 two-day seminar By constructing a simple grid with different prices along one axis and different packaging formats along the other, you can often come up with a dozen or more good back-end product ideas in a single sitting.
3. Coming up with good ideas for improving your product is relatively easy. All you need to do is ask. Ask your customers by phoning them, writing them, e-mailing them, and surveying them. Keep in mind that sometimes they will give you answers that they think are “good answers” rather than truthful answers. So read between the lines. But if you ask them, they will tell you. Ask your customer-service people — as many as you can.
They understand the major gripes, nagging issues, and market trends that influence your customers’ decisions to buy (or not to buy). Ask the people who make the product, especially those on the manufacturing line. Ask, “What is are the three best things about this product?” and “What are the three worst things about this product?” What they say might astonish you — but also inspire you.
By doing your homework in these three critical areas — front-end sales, back-end development, and product improvement — a constant stream of good ideas will keep popping into your head. Discuss these ideas with trusted colleagues — and as soon as you have the wrinkles ironed out, present them at company meetings. Don’t just shoot from the hip. Carefully plan what you’re going to say. Memorize the first and last sentences of your presentation.
Make sure you have impressive and persuasive data to support your claims. Explain how the customer will benefit from the idea — and then explain how the company will too. Summarize your main points succinctly. Be prepared to have your Big Ideas rejected when you first suggest them. (Almost every one of the Big Ideas I’ve come up with have been.) But if you can be open to criticism and flexible enough to make sensible modifications, your Big Ideas will get better and better — and your critics will eventually become your supporters.
(Ed. Note. The above article was adapted from MMF’s soon-to-be-published leadership book. You can reserve a copy today for just $10, 50% off the cover price. To reserve your copy, please send your contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org, and a member of our team will call you to take your order.)