The Idea-Execution Gap

Over the past month I have been fortunate to attend a number of events that reminded me that there is no lack of ideas. What seems to be missing, however, is an execution mindset. I am not suggesting that people are lazy but rather that they either do not realize or have forgotten how easy it is to turn an idea into something tangible. We too frequently allow gaps to form between our ideas and our ability to execute them.

Last month I attended the Business Innovation Factory’s Collaborative Innovation Summit (BIF-6). Over the course of two and a half days I heard a number of inspiring stories and three were especially noteworthy because they were not complex ideas and their impact was based on simply changing behaviour and attitudes.

The first storyteller was Cassandra Lin who received a standing ovation after she described her Project T.G.I.F. (Turn Grease Into Fuel). She heard about families having difficulty heating their homes and started a program to collect and refine grease from restaurants into usable fuel to heat homes. Cassandra is in the 7th grade and showed a room filled with experienced adults what is possible when you set your mind to it. Her program also included a educational game show component used to raise awareness with schoolchildren. She didn’t face huge obstacles. Grease was abundant and refining partners existed. She simply put the two together and championed the idea. We can learn a great deal from her. You can hear her story here.

The second storyteller was Dean Esserman, the Chief of Police for Providence. He is the son of a doctor who was tasked with improving policing in his city. He reflected on the past when his father would make house calls and developed strong ties with his patients and, more broadly, his community because of it. Inspired by that, Esserman gave his police officers Blackberries and business cards. He then asked them to get out of their police cruisers and get into the community to get to know the citizens and become known by them. Nothing fancy beyond community outreach and that is something we have been hearing a great deal about in the online world but it is great to see it happening in the offline world.

The third storyteller was Gerard van Grinsven, President and CEO of the Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. Formerly an executive with Ritz-Carlton, he has applied his expertise in hospitality to healthcare. By bringing quality food, amenities and education to healthcare, he has created a facility that people actually want to visit, even when they are not sick but wish to participate in one of the many wellness or educational programs being offered. How many other healthcare organizations will adopt this kind of thinking and behaviour? You can hear his story here.

Fresh off my visit to BIF-6, I tagged along to Startup Weekend Toronto. I supported team Tadwana with a Social TV idea. Although we did not win the competition, I still got a tremendous amount of inspiration from being a part of it. The weekend showed me that, with a small team of bright, energetic people, you can take an idea from concept through to tangible business idea in about 48 hours. A mockup in powerpoint or a working prototype online or using a simulator are enough to convey what you are trying to accomplish and how. It was also further proof that a prototype, even a poorly constructed one, is still better than an exhaustively constructed business plan without a prototype to give the idea credibility.

The following stats are also noteworthy from that weekend:

157 participants, 52 observers, 38 ideas pitched, 13 teams formed, 14 sponsors, 8 speakers, 4 panellists, 5 mentors, 5 winning teams and over 900 bottles of water consumed.

If there was enough stamina, how many new companies could be formed by running startup weekends on a regular basis? How many problems could be attacked and resolved by running hack weekends on a regular basis? I am not suggesting that this is the only approach to idea generation or problem solving but it certainly gets people focused and energized around ideas which is the whole point.

Lastly, I was involved in an innovation workshop to help some companies identify the different mindsets that exist within in their organizations when it comes to innovation and how to put together the best teams to tackle the problems that require innovative solutions. The emphasis was not on how creative people are but on how they are creative.

Several of the activities illustrated how adults have unlearned things. We can give too much thought to things because we have accumulated knowledge and experience which drives a particular perspective. We fall into the trap of thinking of how things should be rather than how they could be. This is why children can often focus on the outcome and work backward to develop the most appropriate path rather than getting bogged down with over-engineering the process to achieve the outcome.

We were doing a number of activities used for workshops in corporate settings that had originated in the Destination Imagination Program for Children. For example, teams were tasked with constructing a tower as tall as possible with the materials provided and launch a feather from the top of the tower. The height of the tower plus the distance travelled by the feather would be added together to determine the winning team. No matter how successful a team might have been, none came close to achieving the success of teams comprised of children. All the adult teams focused too much on tower construction rather than the overall objective. If you had a tower two inches tall but you used a paper airplane constructed from the materials to send your feather greater than ten feet then you would have easily beaten a team who built a tower three feet tall but could only blow their feather a little over two feet because they missed the point of the exercise – outcome trumps process.

If we chose to take a more holistic perspective with emphasis on the outcome or objective as well as the parameters we must play within then I wonder how many more times we would find solutions rather than getting distracted by development of the process.

When I reflect on these different events and the stories I heard, the ideas I saw developed in a weekend, and the examples where adults need to unlearn some things in order to be more innovative, I can not help but think that we are spending too much time thinking and too little time doing.

If we remind ourselves to draw inspiration from broad sources, strive to prove a concept through prototyping rather than written explanation, and learn to unlearn for the purposes of innovation then we will have better chance of closing the idea-execution gap. Good luck to us all!

Zen and the Art of T-shirt Engagement

I have always admired other entrepreneurs with innovative business ideas. I especially admire the ones with business ideas that are beautiful in their simplicity.

If you ask Jason Sadler what he does, he proudly says, “I wear t-shirts for a living.” Huh? Yes, you read that correctly. He wears t-shirts for a living.

Jason is the founder of Begun January 1, 2009, the idea was to sell t-shirt-based promotion by-the-day to companies wanting to advertise their product or service. Things started slowly, but momentum began to build and 2009 was sold out eight months into the year. Continuing to build, 2010 sold out early too.

But building and maintaining the momentum has not been easy — it has been a serious investment of time and effort. Jason works 12-16 hours per day, seven days a week. At last count, he had worked 612 days straight without a day off. This dispels the myth he often faces from potential clients and audiences: he was not an overnight success. Social media is not easy, nor is it cheap in terms of true costs. It took Jason 18 months to accumulate his following and it must be maintained daily. In his own words, “It is a marathon, not a sprint.”

Profitability in the first year of operation, selling out each year early, to-die-for press coverage, and an army of loyal followers and clients are just a few of the results of his efforts. Not bad for someone who has never advertised, has no media kit, and doesn’t use to track leads. He has actively used social media tools, media coverage, and public speaking to promote — and the result has been clients seeking him out, not the other way around.

What do clients get in exchange for buying the day, sponsoring the month, or becoming a proud partner? If you buy a day, you get Jason and his team wearing your firm’s t-shirt, blog posts, a show covering your firm, and mentions on Facebook and Twitter to and by the army.

Their YouTube channel has had 1.4 million views, and they get approximately 1000 viewers for the daily Ustream show, broadcast from wherever an internet connection can be made. Jason has approximately 24,000 followers on Twitter and nearly 5000 friends on Facebook. These channels all get leveraged for the sake of the day’s client, and people show up every day to find out who that client is. Not bad at all.

If you look at the “How it works” section of Jason’s site, you can see that buying a day is relatively cheap in comparison to other options. And you can’t quantify the passion behind doing something fun for a living and engaging people on a daily basis.

Jason does not guarantee a specific ROI but he does guarantee content and engagement. That content lives online forever, and Jason and team can advise on what to do next. Based on’s success, some clients have been afraid of the potential increase in business and how to handle it. That’s a great problem to have.

Brands like Nissan, Pizza Hut, Jockey, and Lucky Brand Jeans have all jumped on board. Competitors have tried to copy Jason’s approach, but he is authentic and his passion is contagious. Clients have remained loyal, for the most part, and Jason reciprocates by only promoting things he believes in.

Wearing a t-shirt for a living is not a complicated business model. However, it was not a back-of-the-napkin idea nor was it exhaustively planned out. Jason adheres to a “focus more and do less” mindset. He mapped out the idea, looking ahead a few years but not allowing planning to stand in the way of execution. In social media especially, things move too quickly to waste time deliberating.

With two years of growth and success under his belt, the future still remains uncertain. New members are being added to the team. Relationships with clients are growing and deepening. Word of mouth continues to grow and, despite the relentless activity, Jason still feels, “It’s much more fun to say I wear t-shirts for a living.”

Take 6 or Why You Should Budget for Failure

In filmmaking there is a term known as “shooting ratio” that refers to the ratio between the amount of footage shot and the amount of footage contained in the final cut. What drives this ratio are the number of shots planned for each scene for maximum coverage and the number of takes allocated per shot.

As a former filmmaker turned strategy consultant, I have been thinking about the value that could be derived from taking a similar approach to strategy development and execution, in terms of an organization’s innovation efforts.

On a shot-by-shot basis, a filmmaker will decide how many takes (a.k.a. attempts or permitted failures) that will be required or anticipated. This is planned ahead so it can be incorporated into the budget. With every additional take, another option becomes available. Many factors can influence the outcome of a film; having options helps to increase the likelihood of a better end-product.

This approach can be applied beyond filmmaking; it does not necessarily have to be restricted to a process where the outcome is a tangible product or thing. It can also apply to service innovation where the outcome is a new experience.

If you ask an Oscar-nominated or winning actor which “take” (1, 2 or 12) it was that ended up being the clip that led to their being considered, you will receive different answers. Some hit the mark within the first one or two takes. Others work their way up incrementally, building to the point where they hit the mark, and, finally, others use each take to try something entirely different in the hopes that at least one will be usable.

This idea is very similar to current trends like rapid prototyping and agile programming with technology, and innovation development where incremental improvements are made through constant iterations and refinements. “Let’s do it again, only different, better, slower, faster.” Teams sprint between milestones rather than run a marathon only to end up at the finish line with an unwanted outcome. By pursuing short-term objectives through “sprints” and reflecting on those achievements once they’ve been reached, organizations can revise their approach and move forward on a new trajectory with a different and likely more highly anticipated outcome.

To some, these activities seem inefficient, bordering on wasteful; but if the outcome met or exceeded expectations, was it still the wrong approach? Designing and budgeting failure into the process is not an innovation indulgence — it’s a hedge or mitigation against failure or a less desirable outcome.

Malcolm Gladwell talks about the concept of 10,000 hours being the amount of time required for someone to develop and hone a skill before becoming an expert. Those 10,000 hours were filled with numerous attempts and failures but, in the end, expertise was the result.

Ultimately, I am suggesting that people, and organizations in a broader sense, be given the opportunity to try a variety of different things and honour their failures in the process, because that is where the greatest learning and potential for successful innovation comes from. However, I am not suggesting that people be allowed to make an unlimited number of attempts either.

I am just asking you to imagine that if Take 6 was the right or best one but you or your organization weren’t allowed to make six attempts at anything, then what a missed opportunity that would be.

Four Perspectives on Social Media and the Balanced Scorecard

The project I am currently working on — a strategic planning project incorporating the Balanced Scorecard developed by Robert Kaplan and David Norton — got me thinking about how one might apply the Scorecard to social media strategies. I know that I am not the first to consider such an approach, but I still thought it might be worthwhile to give you my take on it.

Historically, strategies have been predominantly measured on the financial impact that they brought about. The Balanced Scorecard was developed to provide a more holistic approach to devising strategic objectives for an organization and measuring the outcomes.

The Scorecard is composed of four perspectives:

  • People (a.k.a. Learning) – Develop Workforce
  • Internal – Enhance Operational Efficiencies
  • Customers – Grow Market Share Or Share of Wallet
  • Financial – Improve Profitability

The intent is to determine a few key objectives for each perspective and how their success will be measured.

When an organization is considering its social media strategy, a Balanced Scorecard might look like this:

  • People – Develop the social media capability of the workforce
  • Internal – Embed social media within operations where possible and appropriate
  • Customers – Layer social media onto existing marketing activities
  • Financial – Lower cost of marketing and customer engagement

Some of the staff might already be social media savvy but the capability of others might need to be developed. Social media capabilities and enthusiasm will run the gamut from non-existent to possibly over-sharing. Regardless, elevating an organization’s overall social media aptitude and disposition will only serve to benefit it. From recruitment and marketing to customer engagement, a social media capability is becoming and shall remain an organizational necessity.

From wikis for collaboration and information sharing to CEO’s who tweet, social media can and should become part of an organization’s operational DNA. Granted it may not be possible and/or appropriate in every case but companies are changing how they create and share information as part of their collaborative efforts. In some ways, social media can be credited for making the walls between business units or silos and management layers more porous and less of an obstacle standing in the way of solving problems and making progress.

As I have suggested in previous posts, social media is not meant to replace your historical marketing efforts; Social media is meant to complement and extend what you are already doing. Numerous examples such as One Million Acts of Green take the holistic approach and integrate social media into their overall marketing strategy. Customers have not migrated completely from all other media to social media alone, so reaching them will still require a comprehensive and multi-faceted approach. Tweeting alone just will not do it. This new approach will also raise the potential for higher quality customer interaction with the prospect of converting customers to fans and, ultimately (and hopefully), into advocates.

Given the economic climate, companies have to do more with less yet still be able to reach an audience that becomes more fractured and elusive every day. If used properly and effectively, social media enables global reach but with an air of customer intimacy not easily attained through other more conventional or historical marketing means. Who wouldn’t want to nurture richer, more profitable customer relationships at a lower cost? I should repeat one caveat: the cost might be lower in terms of dollars spent on ad buys, technical tools, and/or print but there is still a cost associated with the time and effort that have to be applied.

Those are the four areas of the Balanced Scorecard for Social Media as I see them. You may agree or disagree. I am simply suggesting that if an organization takes a Balanced Scorecard approach to social media, determines key objects for each of the four perspectives, and commits to track progress against those objectives, it will most likely end up in a better position.  The key for success, however, requires that the organization — as with all Balanced Scorecard and strategic planning initiatives — own it and see it as an ongoing activity rather than a single event.

Is such ownership possible? I hope so.

Community and Collaboration

Over the last few years I have enjoyed numerous benefits from using social media tools and platforms such as Twitter, Ning and LinkedIn. I have been able to make connections locally and internationally that have helped me and where I have been able to reciprocate.

Connections have been able to learn more about my expertise and that of my consulting company as well as how we might collaborate. It has been an enriching experience. I have been fortunate to be a contributor to and collaborator with a number of groups and communities such as Hubba Social Media Consultants (or via LinkedIn), the Business Model Hub and the Community Marketing Blog (CMB).

The Hubba Group hosts the Game Changing Podcast every Monday night with thought leaders such as Doc Searls, co-author of the Cluetrain Manifesto and brings together social media experts to share insights, resources and best practices.

I have blogged previously about the Business Model Hub, the resulting book the Business Model Generation and the conference in Amsterdam this past June. Momentum has continued and local gatherings are being held around the world with Toronto’s gathering of business model innovation practitioners meeting later this month (#bmgenTO).

The CMB is growing and invites people interested in joining to participate in Blog Off II. I have enjoyed being a regular contributor to the Community Marketing Blog and the interaction with the other contributors. I have learned a great deal from everyone involved and highly recommend entering the Blog Off.  As a member of the panel, I am really looking forward to the submissions from all of the participants.

These are just a few examples of how being open to connect and collaborate has paid tremendous dividends for my company and for me. Could the same happen for you? I have some other collaborations brewing that I will talk about more in the near future but suffice it to say that they would not be happening if not for social media and an openness to connect.