How to Make Your Ideas Float


The speeches were done, we enjoyed cake and coffee and finished passing out the checks.  The hardware was on the table (a CEO award).  But more importantly, we had sliced almost half of the time it took us to do custom product development, which was pushing up customer satisfaction and would lock us into designs for years.  Those bonus checks had already been more than earned and the jump in the P&L would allow the whole division to have a great year.

As tends to happen, the revisionist history was already in full motion: Division leaders chatting up the C-level leaders that they had found and sponsored the work, talking about solving the big issues and making early investments.  

Well the prequel was a lot different…

I recall clearly the day I sat with an engineering leader (we’ll call her Tonya for the purpose of this discussion), in the cafeteria after having completed a production meeting.  Tonya was beyond frustration and honestly ready to leave our firm.  Over coffee she outlined a new process that had the promise of what I cited above, which had been in her notebooks for months.  It was true leadership thinking that crossed boundaries in the group. Even on a napkin the promise was evident.

As the divisional champion for our 10x cycle reduction program (a position I held in addition to my day job), her idea caught my attention immediately. Up to this point we had made good progress, but we were running out of low-hanging fruit.  We needed a win – and a big one to keep the momentum rolling.

Slam dunk right?

Well, you’ve probably already surmised that this work was blocked by Tonya’s leader big time.  Her VP of Design had very different deliverables in his incentive package, and frankly process redesign did not make the list.  Tonya had sought sponsorship from the Corporate R&D team, quality and finance all without success.

This scenario is not unusual and you would be very surprised at how much value is locked up in firms similar to this.  Young leaders like Tonya with great ideas are being driven out the door by mid-senior leaders who haven’t done the work to shift to a new paradigm.  They are usually not vindictive about it – they are just working from a different playbook.  Their world has a powerful self-sustaining structure that is intensely focused on low risk and first-time success.

Going from Coffee to Success

As I listened to Tonya, and felt her passion and commitment, it was very clear we needed to find her a path to get this done. And if we hadn’t? She would have gone and built a competitor that would have taken out a three-figure, million dollar business line.

My full-time role at that point was operations management for another product line, and Tonya had seen the turnaround we’d done and was hoping I could help.  The fact was I could – but not in the way she expected.  

I was a veteran of the near death of that business. We had made some huge process changes and knew from experience that projects are rarely sponsored and validated at the outset, but instead, usually grow organically.  Leadership thinking always involves going back to first principles, and that means support is needed from more than one functional unit.  The classical way this used to be done was to launch the idea to the top of the house, seek resources that could be isolated offline, then complete and validate the work – only to be put online at a later date.  This cumbersome approach created huge resistance for internal leaders to overcome – and would frequently stop organic work in its tracks.  

To build the coalitions needed to advance this work, you need to have the capability to create effective cross-functional teams at the most effective level in the firm.  

So, I helped Tonya map a strategy to build out her vision laterally, before advancing it vertically.  I knew her peer on the manufacturing side, and while he was a driven leader, he was also open to new ideas.  I also knew this P&L was under huge competitive pressure, so the driving function to do this work was there.

I gave Tonya some coaching on how to engage her peer and develop a shared vision and platform for the work.  The truth is, that at the beginning, you need to go slow so you can go fast later.  Great lateral partners are essential in work like this and it begins with developing a shared vision and set of reasonable milestones and proof points.  Once a trust platform is established, things move forward briskly.

Lots of Coffee Meetings and Napkin Sessions

Well in short, they did it.  They implemented a joint simulation tool that cut a third of the time it took on the design side and another third out of the factory introduction cycle.  They also built double loop learning into the system so that continuous improvement was assured.

Tonya’s idea rose up like a stage at a rock concert.  Competitive pressure assured that the need was there, and the behind-the-scenes work being done took the political gap between production and engineering off the table.

This win would have not happened if there was not a set of leadership KPI’s around cycle time.  By putting those in the compensation package, it allowed Tonya to build a business case for the work in advance of its product pay off.  Realizing that time is a surrogate for value in a firm is a huge breakthrough.

Wrapping Up

The pace of change has increased substantially and shows no signs of slowing up.  Moving forward, the real competitive advantages will be in the efficiency of deploying know how through high-functioning teams within your firm.

When I review strategic plans for firms, I find lots of data and insight around their hard investments in plant, property and equipment – but very little in terms of unlocking the high value talent that they’ve worked so hard to hire.

Firms that are repeatedly able to put the Tonyas in the driver’s seat will win the future.

Questions to think about:

  1. How many Tonyas do you have in your firm?  How do you know?
  2. Do you have visible internal and external resources for them?  
  3. Do you have a culture of high functioning, cross-functional teams?  Do they make decisions that stick?
  4. What platforms have you given to your emerging leaders that allows them to make a local case to their leaders for breakout improvements in customer value creation? (like cycle time or quality)
  5. What’s the potential upside?  What investments will you make to help your Tonyas know how to overcome the organizational inertia?

Based on this experience, and now dozens of others, I put together a program to find and support the Tonyas in your firm.  The program is built around a competency-based model, which you can read more about here and here.

If you’d like to talk more about the Complete Growth Leader diagnostic and associated tools, please give me a call at 847-651-1014 or use this link to set up a 20-minute (no strings attached) consult.

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