I recently watched an interview with Bono, the lead singer of U2, during which he said that one of the ways of being remarkable is to conceive and sell ideas. He described compelling ideas as “currency” and said that “there is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come”. What he was saying has huge implications for business. Many great businesses have compelling ideas at their core. Apple is built on the idea that technology can be beautiful and sexy. Discovery Health is built on the notion that people who take care of their health should be rewarded. Kulula.com has at it its core the belief that anyone can fly and have fun while doing so. Nokia is about reliable simplicity.
What is the idea behind your business?
Is it exciting, energising and engaging? Are you able to effectively share this idea with others? Jack Welch, Time magazine’s Manager of the 20th Century, was a master at defining and selling ideas. The key to his leadership success was that he chose and stuck to a few big ideas in his 20-year reign as CEO of General Electric. Some of his big ideas included “be one or two in your market or get out”; “act as a boundaryless organisation”; “drive high quality and super efficiency through six sigma”; “create value through services”; and “streamline operations using e-business”. When he got stuck on an idea he was like a bull terrier. He would sell, push, describe, measure and reinforce that idea at every possible opportunity. Most of his ideas lasted for at least three years, creating a clear set of priorities for the tens of thousands of people employed by GE at the time.
Are you selling a clearly defined idea from within your business?
Defining the core idea behind your business can provide your business with a sense of purpose and direction. Take some time to articulate the core idea behind your business. For some this is easy; for others it can take weeks of contemplation and deep thought. I know an entrepreneur who recently started a training company. Over coffee I asked him: “What’s the exciting idea at the core of your business?” After about 15 unsuccessful attempts to articulate the idea at the core of his business he realised that if he wanted to get his employees aligned with the business and his customers excited by his offering, he needed to be clearer about that core idea.
Do you have a story around your idea?
A good story is one of the most meaningful delivery mechanisms for a compelling idea. The institution where I work has thrived on the story of a maverick management educator receiving an endowment from a successful South African businessman and going out and building a brand new business school from the ground up. The story encapsulates issues of innovation, partnership and impact, all concepts at the heart of the GIBS brand.
One of the reasons so many people love Virgin is because of the hugely popular Branson autobiography Losing my Virginity. The book tells the story behind the company and the brand, bringing it to life with tales of grand plans, crazy stunts, and incredible risk taking.
The entrepreneurial NGO Starfish focuses on children orphaned by HIV/Aids. The organisation is only a few years old and has a relatively small number of employees, but it has a strong brand and a big reach because it is built on a compelling idea linked to a moving story. The organisation borrowed its name from the parable about an old man who is walking along the beach when he sees a human figure dancing in the distance. As he approaches, he sees that it’s a young woman and she is not dancing but reaching down to the sand, picking up starfish and very gently throwing them back into the ocean. He asks her why she is doing this. She replies that because the sun is up and the tide is going out, if they are not thrown back they will die. The sceptical old man points out that there are miles of beach and thousands of starfish; he questions how she could possibly make a difference. The young woman listens politely, pauses and then bends down, picks up another starfish and throws it into the sea, past the breaking waves, saying: “It made a difference for that one!” Powerful ideas linked to compelling stories spread like wild fire.
As you define and refine the idea behind your business, aim to craft a story that goes with that idea. Take note of the interesting events and interactions that illustrate the idea behind your business. Build them into a story that can be used to describe what you are about.
Do you stick with an idea long enough for it to take effect and permeate the hearts and minds of your clients and employees?
Many people have ideas, but few people hold onto them long enough for them to take effect and have an impact. Sticking with an idea for a sustained period of time is what gives it power. So many business owners start off with energy, vision and deep passion for what their business is about and what it could become. Unfortunately as the demands of business management take their toll, the original idea loses its flair and is mislaid among the paper work and admin of running a business.
But entrepreneurs who make it big know how to keep a vision alive. They remind employees and customers what the business is really about at every opportunity and they do not allow their original idea to be swayed by popular management theory or the latest business bestseller.
So do you have a big idea behind your business, is it compelling, are you selling it at every opportunity? Does your idea break the bounds of conformity? Does it challenge the status quo? Entrepreneurs who are successful over the long-term are the ones who embrace, expose and give life to an idea whose time has come.
Four Steps To A Great Idea
- Start by defining the idea. Is it great? Is it exciting and original? Is it possible to share your idea with others and watch their eyes light up? An idea needs to capture peoples’ imaginations.
- Define the core idea behind your business in order to provide the business with a sense of purpose and direction. Ideas give life to a company and propel it forward.
- Everyone loves a good story – what is the story behind your idea? The point of the story is to bring the idea to life through the power of persuasive narrative.
- Hold onto your idea for as long as it takes for it to have an effect on others and to carve a niche for itself in the hearts and minds of your employees and customers.