457 posts categorized "Business Effectiveness"

November 18, 2015

Details about my next book and the future of Sanders Says

DS Screen Cap
After a writing journey that took almost three years, I'm excited to announce my next book, Dealstorming: The Secret Weapon That Can Solve Your Toughest Sales Challenges. Penguin Portfolio will publish it on Feb 23, 2016.  It marks my return to talking about my days at Yahoo as a sales executive and introduces research and experiences I've gained as a consultant since then. For those that read Love Is the Killer App, you'll appreciate the voice and perspective of this book.  

Initially, I set out to write a book on creativity in the sales process, something very needed in business to business, where it's getting tougher to land quality deals due to competition, more decision makers and technology.  During my career, I often called upon my creative experiences (musician, poet) to tackle high-difficulty sales situations.  A 2012 survey I conducted found a high correlation between sales executives who had creative projects and sales executives who were top 5% performers at their company.  But as I dug into research on the nature of creativity, especially as it could relate to sales innovation, I made a startling discovery: There is no big idea, no lone inventor, no genius person.  Most of all the breakthroughs in history occurred because of team-based collaboration, where multiple minds from diverse disciplines built upon ideas or observations.  

This made sense once I could dispel the romantic notions of the lone inventor experiencing the eureka moment.  At Yahoo and as a consultant, sales genius was always a team sport. When we included everyone with a stake in the outcome or knowledge about the sales challenge, we closed the business most of the time.  After interviewing 200 sales leaders across all industries it became clear to me that cross-department team work is the secret to B2B success.  So this book will reveal a repeatable process for team building, team leadership and sales innovation I term "Dealstorming."  Over the next few years, I'll be writing about sales innovation weekly here along with my usual coverage of leadership and success.  

If you have a sales conference next year or a B2B client summit, please consider bringing me in to give your keynote. I'll motivate everyone to collaborate when stuck, lead others to explore new paths and forge relationships across their company and out into the market.  I'll also do free consulting prior to the event, helping you and your team immediately put these concepts to work against big opportunities in your pipeline or major accounts at risk. Contact us for more on this. 

Thanks to my good friends at SLAM Agency, there's a video trailer to explain the book's concept and reveal details on how you can get a free chapter.  Please share it with your friends and connection in sales and leadership.  I'm going to be scouring social media to spot your shares, and will be picking out some of you to send a special gift to. 

October 15, 2015

Making the Leap From Disrupted to Adaptive

Regardless of what business you are in, likely, you will face business model disruption in the coming years. According to authors Robert Tercek, Jay Samit or Bill Jensen, digital technology and the ongoing expansion of the World Wide Web are driving new value propositions and annihilating legacy companies.  

Over the last 20 years, I've witnessed disruption in multiple industries, which ushered in new leaders or defined incumbents as agile and adaptive.  What's interesting is that adaptation didn't rely on physical intelligence or capital stockpiles.  It was pure psychology.  Take Blockbuster and Kodak.  Both of them could have pivoted earlier into new business models such as subscription (Netflix) or digital photography (Kodak).  They had the resources, the customer base and the brand.  But they didn't.  Why?  

These leaders, along with the rest of those who's companies ended up in the scrap heap of the Disrupted, made a bad choice when faced with the first credible signs of pain.  They rejected the innovation, labeling it as a passing fad that would fade soon enough. As time went by, and the bleeding continued, they entered the resistance phase, where they stockpiled negative emotions towards the disruptors, their customers and in some cases the government for standing by and not rushing in to protect them.  Take the current case of Uber.  Taxi cab companies are clearly stuck in the rut of resistance right now, tick-tock-tick-tock. 


Sure, it's a roller coaster ride...but that's the nature of being in any industry where Moore's Law continues to hold true.  Things will change quickly.  But some companies have figured out how to make the leap from being disrupted to becoming adaptive.  Walmart (responding to eCommerce), Gillette (responding to disposable razors) and CareerBuilder (responding to social hiring by adding SaaS services) are three examples of leadership success in psychology.   

In each case there was a fundamental decision by senior leadership that made the organization respond with agility:  They replaced fear with curiosity.  It's a decision, really.  As Norman Vincent Peale once wrote, "If you can worry, you can dream!"  His point is that our mental models can either lead us OR we can lead them.  When you face hard data suggesting that your customers are responding to a new offer in the market, you either choose to reject-then-resist it to defend the Status Quo OR you double check the data, then move across the dip into the exploration phase.  You do research that helps you understand, "What if we tried..."  Like Proctor & Gamble, you stage hackathons, empowering your youngest talent to try way-outside-the-box ideas and then test them for scalability. 

This is your challenge if you are facing disruption.  So far, I've focused on technology as the change-maker, but in industries such as insurance or telco, it's generational shift that brings the pain.  In health care or financial services, it's regulatory developments.  Whatever.  It's all the same in that you as a leader must make the decision to leap from shock to exploration faster than your competitors and certainly fast enough to retain your core customer base.  The article Surviving Disruption in Harvard Business Review puts a process around the exploration and response phase.  

Recently, I subscribed to Adobe's Creative Cloud services. I pay a monthly fee to have a suite of creative tools available to me, constantly updated to keep up with the pace of change.  I never thought I'd subscribe to software, but in fact, it's the new way of harnessing technology innovations without getting caught in legacy-land.  Many people wrote Adobe off for dead when Steve Jobs famously banished Flash to the software scrap heap.  But Adobe's leadership responded by exploring how their best customers (creatives) would use their tools in the future ... and they made the leap.  And now I'll spend $500.00 a year with them instead of using their technology for free.

(The above image was created by Coverdale, an organization founded by agility-leadership expert Ralph Coverdale.)

October 02, 2015

How Sales Kickoff Can Supercharge Your Ability to Close Complex Deals Next Year (Networking Tips)

In 2000, I attended my first sales kickoff at Yahoo!.  Our company (broadcast.com) had been purchased by them, and I had just moved to California to lead a sales-enablement/swat team.  Little did I know at the time, but this kickoff event would change my life. 

Usually, you'd think that the kickoff's purpose was to introduce new products, arm us with new tools and motivate us to hit the phones or bricks when we got home. But in this case, a single piece of advice changed everything. "Make some friends in unusual places," our Chief Sales & Marketing Officer Anil Singh told me. "Make our international managing directors feel at home. Huddle with the content development guests we've invited -- get outside of your circle." He explained that these relationships I'd force at sales conference would later be important as I worked with global brands on big deals where they needed all of Yahoo!'s capabilities brought to the table. 

From the moment I stepped on the kickoff hotel's property, I shook hands and made friends.  My new contacts included managing directors from Yahoo Japan, Italy, Korea, Brazil, Canada and United Kingdom.  They were easy to engage with, and told me about promotions and products they'd built for their clients.  Many of them were news to me! I sought out our non-sales guests, especially those we frequently relied on for post-contract delivery. I told them I wanted to understand more about how their groups worked, so I could pursue revenue but not create problems for them.  At first, they filled my ear with concerns about various programs we were selling, but by the end of conference, they were suggesting new ways we could help our advertisers without compromising the user experience. 

Over the next few years, these relationships were rocket fuel for our deals with global brands such as Sony, HSBC and Toyota.  Because I'd developed relationships with international and non-sales leads at kickoff, I knew more about how they could drive a global relationship. Our post-conference conversations built up enough trust so that we could bring them into the sales process early, so they could help us tailor the global deal to each regions unique way of doing business.  When I was promoted to Chief Solutions Officer, I looked back at the 2000 sales conference as my launch point.

If you are in business-to-business sales, you'll likely attend a kickoff early next year or Spring. Don't miss out on the opportunity to network and create a solutions web for future clients.  The more you know about your company's total capabilities and the unique facets of each market it serves, the better you'll do at creating winning recipes for your customers.  Here are some rules of the road for sales kickoff networking: 

1.  Set A Goal - I decided that I would connect with at least 10 new people during the 3 day kickoff.  Having that goal kept me focused on adding at least three people to my network each day.  Create your goal based on the unique strategy of your sales organization. If you are focused on global selling, focus on connecting with international attendees.  If improving delivery is the goal, focus on connecting with non-sales leads. If sales collaboration is the priority, meet account execs and managers in other markets or product categories.

2. Go Outside Of Your Work Group - You see these colleagues every day, so don't be lazy and hang with them for convenience at kickoff.  When you eat, find a new group to join.  During breaks, look for friendly but unfamiliar faces.  Think wide.  

3. Establish Common Ground - During your encounters, seek out connection points. The best ones are common customers, common sales challenges (product/industry) or common sales opportunities.  Don't be afraid to connect at the personal interest level either.  I've connected over my love of World Cup or electronic music to open up the discussion...usually leading to frank work related conversations. 

4. Contract - Strike up some agreement for post-kickoff follow up. It could be information sharing or a conference call based on the business common ground you've established. Don't let new contacts end with the conference. (Now that we all carry smart phones, it's easy to share contacts or simply take a picture of someone's badge or business card for follow up later.) 

5. Follow Up - Send a note after you get home, keep any promises you've made and schedule a future time to reconnect.  Putting a process around internal networking ensures that you keep the first burning and establish credibility.  If you've been told about a concern that needs support or attention, be the messenger and marshal resources ... especially if you work at headquarters and have access to internal influencers and power brokers. 

6. Expand From This Base Of New Contacts Over the Coming Year - Ask your new contacts, "Who else should I meet and spend time with?" You'd be surprised at how many introductions they will make, sometimes over email or conference calls.  Whatever goal you set for kickoff, add a zero to that number for the networking you'll do over the coming year.  The more you grow this circle, the better you'll be able to serve your customers. 

The sales kickoff is important beyond any education or product introductions that happen there.  They can be the social operating system of a sales driven organization, where loose ends are tied and a company truly comes together as a customer-focused team.  Don't waste the opportunity to expand your network ... because it drives your company's net worth!

September 25, 2015

Three Great Fall Business Reads

It's that time of year when publishers release copious amounts of business books.  You've probably seen them popping up in the airport book shops.  As a voracious reader and blurb-giving-author, I have the opportunity to review dozens of them between July and September.  My interests range from sales & marketing to leadership to futurism to success.  I look for a book that challenges conventional wisdom, offers a rich perspective grounded in fact and most of all, advice that I can put into practice.

This fall, there are three books in particular that I'm excited about and highly recommend: 

The Challenger Customer by Brent Adamson, Matt Dixon, Pat Spenner & Nick Toman: This is the follow up to the fantastic Challenger Sale.  In this book, the CEB team reveals how difficult it is for companies to buy services or change suppliers.  This is due to a rising number of decision makers involved in every major purchase, and the disfunction that comes from diversity of agendas.  Their solution is for marketing to create challenger content that acts as "a dog whistle" which attracts mobilizers inside prospect companies.  These mobilizers often display signs of skepticism or demand action as go-getters. But they are the key in driving consensus and ultimately change. This is a must-read for any B2B marketing or sales professional. But note: The authors will challenge your current attempts to establish your company as a thought leader with barrages of content. In their eyes, "looking smart" isn't nearly as effective as "proving you are wrong" when it comes to content marketing that finds the mobilizer.

Vaporized by Robert Tercek: This book will take you on a journey of technological disruption, which few companies have mastered.  Tercek is a certified futurist, with a career arc that spans from founding MTV International to consulting with the most elite tech and digital media companies in the world.  He chronicles the vaporization of print, television and all types of media ... and why companies either found success or failure in the transition.  Then he explains that "anything that can be infrastructure will be," using companies like AirBnb to illustrate the unfair advantage that comes from being digital.  He reveals insights into the App Economy, Peer-To-Peer media and Big Data. But unlike most futurists, he won't leave you hanging.  The end of the book offers a solid blueprint for navigating the vaporization of all things service, and how you can convert disruption into a game changing opportunity.  

Grit To Great by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval: This book is all about the power of pluck and determination when it comes to leading others, being an entrepreneur or succeeding in the face of adversity.  The authors reveal the attribute that Michael Jordan, Alibaba's Jack Ma and Michael Bloomberg share: Grit.  In a world of look-at-me or stand-out-in-a-sea-of-sameness, Thaler and Koval offer a different viewpoint: Grit is about sweat not swagger.  You are nothing special.  Grit is cultivated over time and is the result of practice and design.  The book lays out a series of steps, mostly decisions you need to make, that lead to a higher level of grit, which is easily converted in greatness (confidence, effectiveness, innovativeness).  From the Lead To Learn conference, Thaler offers a glimpse into the book's content in this video clip

September 16, 2015

Turn This Up To 11 To Boost Your Leadership Performance

There are many ways we can improve our ability to drive employee engagement and loyalty.  We can pay people more (that doesn't scale), let them off easy (that's bad for business) or play tough-coach with them (that's bad for your employership brand.) 

During the course of my career, I've found a better way to manage or lead: Turn up that noticing knob to 11!  By that, I mean that we should go out of our way to notice contributions and thoughtful deeds.  Giving recognition for the little things makes a big difference, especially for Gen Y (Millennial) employees.  

It's not something that comes easy, though.  We live in a world where non-stop news cycles, full inboxes and social media clamor for our attention.  We work heads down, only noticing that which can be measured.  But most contributions at work are not obvious. When one of your employees rallies a team to solve a big problem, do we notice this leadership exercise or do we wait to see if the problem is solved? When someone mentors a co-worker, do we notice that? 

Then there's the two clicks down problem of recognition.  Too often, we only notice what our direct reports (or favorite employees) do. But a leader should engage with all of her followers, not just the chosen few.  At Barton Protective, CEO Tom Ward made a daily practice of "catching someone doing something right!" That's how he practiced management by walking around. Whether it's a custodian or cashier, turn up your noticing knob to spot laudable performances. Recognize people publicly too, as it only magnifies their pride-at-work.  

There's a side benefit to turning up your noticing knob: You'll realize how many loyal and talented people you have on your team. Their efforts, noticed, will send a powerful message to you: You are not alone in this battle! This is important for leaders too, because confidence in team translates to confidence in general.  And that's rocket fuel.  

One way to turn it up: Every morning, instead of jumping on email when you first wake up, take 10 minutes to recollect the previous day to identify someone who's made a contribution worth recognizing.  In the beginning, this exercise will identify the same old crowd, but if you do this long enough, heroes at work will emerge from the edges.  This practice not only helps you start off your day with an attitude of gratitude, it viscerally forces you to keep your eyes open every day for people that are making a difference. 

August 12, 2015

Is Your Culture Built On the Right Foundation?

Ask a strategic consultant about the value of a strong organizational culture and she'll likely remark: "Culture eats strategy for lunch!" Her reasoning is usually based on the consistency of behavior that strong culture creates - enabling every associate to make "the right decision" even when the leader is not around.  The name of the game in business growth is scalability, growing steadily without sacrificing consistency in quality (whatever that means to you.) 

Org-culture is a conversation, led by leaders, about "how we do things here successfully." It's built up through hiring, on boarding and successions practices.  It's reinforced through rituals and stories, often shared at the group level.  The more leaders punctuate the conversation with action, the more the followers march in lock step with them. 

But here's the problem: Every idea is based on an assumption, and similarly, every culture is based on a set of values.  When transparency is a key value, the culture requires sharing information and avoiding secrecy.  When someone violates it, they are shunned, punished or coached.  The word 'transparency' is often embedded into internal communications and in some cases, the market facing branding.  While few would argue against transparency, I would take issue with whether that value is a leader's personal value or a business driver. 

The purpose of an organization is to produce customer/member value, which in turn is captured in order to sustain and grow it.  If culture drives consistency, then it should be based on values that drive the business by producing a unique value proposition.  In other words, your culture-driving values should differentiate a company in a way your customers care about.  That's the real reason that culture has become a focal point of leadership development and corporate performance.  

When Zappos put a supreme value on "Delivering Customer Happiness," it separated them from other apparel e-commerce providers.  They redesigned call center rules, adopting unconventional KPI's to ensure that reps spend ample time with customers and display empathy and a sense of humor.  They enforced the culture heavily throughout hiring an on boarding, famously offering briefcases of money to those who were willing to quit (and leave the Happiness Culture).  In this case, the value drove the business.  

But in too many cases, values are often created in a cramped conference room by over-worked founders or later in the life of the enterprise, by corporate communications during a turnaround. There is little or no formal training on how to vet a value for business output, it's usually just a random process where words or phrases are thrown around until the group forms a consensus. 

That's why companies have chosen "Fun" or "Fair" or "Agile" as their values - making them the foundation of the culture they are building.  And it's hard to debate the value of fun, fairness or agility from a personal or even professional standpoint.  Why not?  That's why they are often adopted.  But what if the company is in the financial services market, where "Meticulous" is valued by the customer more than "Fun"?  What if the company is in a risk-averse business, where customers value "Best-To-Market" instead of "First-To-Market"?  In those cases, Fun and Agility are not business drivers, they are pet values, which are likely to build more of a cult than a strong corporate culture.  

So here's the prescription: Test the values that you base your culture on for business value. If you choose "Honesty" for example, ask yourself, "is this a market space where deceit is a customer concern?  Is this a lead story in our industry?" If it is, then this value will drive the business through differentiation.  If not, then you are basing your culture on a foundation that could lead to a me-too market position.  If your competitors are honest, then why is this a business driver value and not just "good business practice"?  

You might be thinking, "What's the harm in including obviously good values in our culture mix? Why exclude "Fun" or "Honesty"?  I thought that way too for a long time, but when I went to work in human resources, where values are a part of the talent lifecycle, I realized that you have to pick your battles, and limit yourself to a manageable group of norms you want to create.  

Limit yourself to 3-5 values, the less the better.  Much like phone numbers or login passwords, the longer the list, the harder it is to call up when you need them.  Culture is all about living a set of values everyday, and if you throw in the kitchen sink, your associates will have to pick and choose, and that's where a culture starts to get weak (read: inconsistent).  

It's never too late to go through the business driver value process with your team.  If it leads to a new conversation about "how we do things around here moving forward," it just may help your company jump out of the pile, and rise to the top of the customer's mind.  Just like a company can outgrow its founders, an organization can also outgrow its founding values.

Note: The recent holocracy movement at Zappos is based on the founder's value of self-management.  It's yet to be seen as to whether that's a pet value  or a business driver (their relative customer experience levels will be lifted).  In the long run, the fate of the company's market position will be an acid test of my theory about picking personal or business centric values to base a culture on.

Watch: Culture Is A Conversation by Tim Sanders

July 07, 2015

To Multiply Your Success, Bring This To Every Conversation

Years ago, I discovered a technique for converting every meeting, conversation or interaction into a success-building opportunity.  I followed a maxim, taught to me as a child: Everywhere you go, always bring a gift.  It had long been a part of my social style, but when I applied this to my business life, success quickly followed. 

Whether you are a leader, manager, sales professional or entrepreneur ... gifting drives success.

You see, success is not a place you arrive at, but instead, a direction you traverse over your career.  That direction is forward, where everyday brings new opportunities and produces incremental progress.  During each day, most of us have several interactions with other people: Associates, customers, prospects, partners, suppliers and people we meet in transit or at events.  Too often, we treat these transactionally, as opposed to looking at them as opportunities to give to others.  If we instead inject a gift into each conversation, we deepen relationships, build our brand and create momentum. 

There are two key gifts you can bring to every conversation, and both are intangible (and scalable): 

  1. Knowledge - Look for insert points to share tips, useful reads or helpful perspectives. Be proactive in sharing a new hack you've found to solve a common problem. If you've read a book that can shift your conversational partner's thinking for the better, highlight the point, and if he's interested, unpack the core idea from the book.  Whether it's a small share or a mentor moment, he'll be enthused about the learning.  I've found that if I am patient, listen intently and do a little prep work prior to every interaction, there's always a knowledge sharing opportunity. 
  2. Encouragement - Validation is one of the most powerful psychological gifts we can give to another person.  It starts with listening to your conversational partner talk about her most important project, and prodding her to share details about her strategy, efforts and goals. Listen like the person who's on the receiving end of her efforts, which will turn up your noticing knob.  Point out the effective or creative things she's doing, and then expand on why that's either important to the project or inspires you.  By being sincere, you'll find that your gift of encouragement provides a real shot in the arm, which only fuels the energy level of the entire encounter. 

If you always bring a gift to conversations, you'll deliver high Return on Attention to others.  You'll find that they value time with you, they want to introduce you to their connections as well.  After all, you've differentiated yourself from the rest of the pack, which often brings needs, complaints or give-and-takism to their conversations.  Besides standing out, you'll find that in most cases, your gift is reciprocated with helpful advice and encouragement, just when you yourself needed it the most.

Video Clip: Everywhere You Go, Bring a Gift (from his BBST 2015 keynote)

April 01, 2015

Stop Being Medium Quality Maximum Quantity

Too many <entrepreneurial> people I know are constantly multi-tasking in their careers. 

Sure, when Benjamin Franklin endorsed pursuing "a network of enterprises," he was promoting career and interest diversity.  It was good for our creative thinking.  But he emphasized they be "networked" with each other. 

Lately, I've wondered if our constant spreading out of business ventures is good for our level of quality.  Some have a career consulting, supplanted by writing, overlaid with blogging, and then they develop myriad products on top of that.  The result?  A thinner voice and less you can sink your teeth into. 

I've taken a new approach lately: My projects must feed each other to remain on my calendar. Since I've started writing my next book (more on that later), you might have noticed that I've stopped blogging.  In fact, this is just a short break from my singular focus on the book to tell you I'm alive and well...and that I'm trying a new tact in life by focusing on the book above all. 

Sure, I still do my speaking engagements (which have either been about Love Is the Killer App principles or my new book subject).  But other ventures, not so much.  

You should give this a try also. Look at your calendar or your To-Do list or your project list and ask yourself: Are they all connected to the point that work on one improves the quality of the other? 

This is beyond time management.  It's about the quality of our work in a try-everything society. 

October 21, 2014

Are You Letting The Voices Around You Crush Your Effectiveness?

It's late October, the heart of the Fall season where we finish off the year and set strategies for the next one. Of all months, it's the crunch one that counts. By mid-November, you are into the holiday season and before you know it, January is pressing down on you asking, "What have you done for us lately." 

You are only as strong as the voices around you. You think you can resist their message, but you are only human, and will succumb to their tone eventually. Everywhere you turn, there are voices broadcasting gloom, doom and misery. Your attention might be trapped by current events (Disease, Recession, War, etc.) and you can't focus. You are unable to work-on-your-work. 

As a leader, you are flailing at your job. Napoleon Bonaparte was often quoted as saying that, "the leader's role is to define reality, then give hope." And those voices go way beyond recognizing reality - the crush hope by conjuring up end-0f-your-world messages. Those voices are often internalized, becoming your voice...which is not moving the conversation at work forward. 

You are only as hopeful as the people you listen to. Think about the voices around you: The cable newscaster, the radio announcer, the people at work, the stars/celbs you follow, your social media feed. Are these positive or negative voices in your head? Are you getting smarter and better at your job from ALL of them? 

You should be as careful as to what you put into your head as what you put into your mouth. Voices of doom are toxic to your confidence and creative thinking capacity. So vanquish them. Shun them. Dismiss them. Ignore them. 

Although all of that sounds simple enough, you'll have a hard time managing these voices. So let me help you.  First, turn off the TV. These days it is literally the boob tube.  There is NOTHING there for your as a leader or a contributor. Next, scrutinize the radio shows and podcasts you listen to. Are they constructive, helpful or are they newsy (bad, mostly). Keep listening to just the ones that pass the "reality, then hope" sniff test. 

Next, reduce your time grazing online. Whether it's blogs, news websites of social media networks...there's bad stuff out there waiting to infect your mind and drag you down. I'm only on facebook these days to post helpful content. Any time spent surfing leads to Ebola or stock market or ISIS hysteria and various link-baiting headlines on fear-aggregation sites.  Be intentional about how you use the internet...make it a tool and not a mentally carciogenic habit. 

Finally, clean house when it comes to the people you hang out with at work, home and in your community. Give them a warning, and if they persist beating the drum, cut them off.  You can't be any good to anyone when you let them bring you down. 

Managers: Don't reward Chicken Little for his or her declarations that the sky if falling. They aren't adding value. Tell them, "You can't be freaked out enough to improve our Customer experience 1%!." In fact, it's during times of turmoil that all the great innovative leaps happen (read Hanging Tough for the proof.) This is your time to shine, not shirk in horror.  

If you feed your mind good stuff, even during these times, you will be part of the solution instead of a source of the problem.  See this video (Chicken Little Must Fry!) for a clip of me talking about a potential solution for managers at embattled companies during tough times. 


September 25, 2014

What It Means To Be Creative At Work

If you've attended a conference or visited the business section of a bookstore recently, you've likely been encouraged to bring your creativity to work.  There are dozens of books out, promising help you get unstuck and start your creative juices flowing.  Almost half of the lectures involve a discussion on the pressing need to be innovative and creative to survive.  A recent piece on this in the New Yorker (Creativity Creep) quotes a 2010 IBM study of 1500 executives to identified creativity as the #1 attribute they valued in employees.  

It makes sense, actually.  The business world is more complicated and turbulent than ever, putting pressure on everyone to "think outside the box."  This reminds me of all the marketing and branding books that came out at the turn of the 21st century, along with the proclamation that "Everyone is in the marketing department now!"  The best of those books (The End of Marketing As We Know It) finally defined marketing functionally, which empowered readers to actually become effective at it. 

We are at that point with the business creativity boom.  We know we need to be creative.  What most people aren't clear on is as to exactly what the heck 'being creative' means in a business context.  I'm writing a new book on creativity in the sales process and doing quite a bit of research along the way.  I've been looking for a very practical definition of creativity that applies to professional life.  And I think I've found a good one. 

In The Handbook of Creativity, Cornell professor Robert Sternberg offered a crystal clear business-centric definitinon of creativity: "The ability to produce work that is both novel (unexpected) as well as appropriate to the situation (useful)."  While other creativity experts argue that any new idea should be deemed creative, I like Sternberg's framing of the concept.  Like any other piece of business acumen, the proof is in the pudding. 

If you are creative at work, you produce the unexpected, the new...but it solves the problem and doesn't produce complications.  Notice I didn't say that creativity required completely original ideas as there is no such thing.  It's all about approaches that are unexpected.  

The reason we need to produce unexpected work (processes, products, ideas) is because people quickly develop tolerance to our expected approaches (often termed "best practices").  Think of the joke that you laughed at the first time you heard it, chuckled a little the second time you heard it and then didn't even respond the third time you heard it.  That's how a prospecting or closing technique plays out with customers.  That's how products become stale with customers, creating opportunities for incumbents to be disrupted with a fresh approach.  

The opposite of creative thinking is reproductive thinking.  This is where you use a conventional approach to reproduce success.  Your tried-and-true products yields customer delight.  Your conventional sales tactics yield revenues.  In the past, best practices had a long shelf life.  Companies could hatch them quicker than customers grew tired of them.  But those days are long gone.  To be successful, we have to take it upon ourself to produce the solution and not just rinse-and-repeat.  

What does it take to produce unexpected work that is appropriate to the problem at hand? Sternberg points out that creative work stems from ordinary thought processes that happen to produce extraordinary results.  It's not divine inspriation or genius thought processes.  Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile describes creativity as the "Confluence of intrinsic motivation, domain-relevant knowledge and creativity-relevant skills." That's it.  

If you care enough, learn enough and develop chops relevant to the problem space, you can produce creative work.  You can solve the problems that stand between you and success.  Creativity requires a lot of hard work on your part, and it starts with a clear understanding of your product, your customer and the processes that drive your business.  If you have the motivation to do all of this work, the fresh and useful ideas will emerge.  

In the end, regardless of your desires or effort, you'll need to be objective about the efficacy of your ideas.  You need to be able to test them for usefulness and be ready to jettison the out-of-the-box-never-been-done-before ideas that don't solve the problem.  They aren't creative.  They are merely imaginative and that's not what the CEOs in IBM's study were looking for in their talents. 

To borrow from designer Tim Gunn's lexicon, "Be the new, but make it work!"

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