Hey, what's the big idea?

clouds A fellow consultant recently inquired about my blog and upcoming book. “What’s the important business concept there?” he asked. “What are you selling? What’s the BIG IDEA?”

A timely question. The B.I. is all the rage now. A book or blog is expected to have a viewpoint or conviction that separates it from the background noise. So here’s mine.

Most organizations I encounter—from the outside as a customer or from the inside as a consultant—are lacking some of the key success qualities they need to be market leaders. I find them insufficiently:

    1. Innovative (do they look for creative ways to serve customers?)
    2. Inspired (is the workforce exuberant about the business?)
    3. Independent-thinking (are they more than industry copycats?)
    4. Brand-focused (is there unique value they offer?)
    5. Mission-driven (is there a difference they intend to make in the world?)
    6. Conflict-savvy (do they encourage dissenting views in their workforce?)

I bear good tidings, however. There ARE teams we can learn from that specialize in these qualities.

I’m talking about rock & roll groups (as if you didn't know). To rise to the top of the heap, the best bands have demonstrated how to excel in these specific capacities. To take one example, the Beatles' brand of innovation was so disruptive that rivals were always playing catch-up—and playing by the Beatles’ rules. (After Revolver and Sgt. Pepper all rock acts had to take albums seriously—not just singles—especially the engineering and production of them.)

Here's a bigger idea: the aforementioned six aptitudes are also what our teams, businesses, and institutions need in order to solve the most serious 21st century problems. You may have your own list of societal woes. The following is a partial list of my little shop of horrors.

Our public educational system is so stuck in 19th century models it fails to graduate enough students equipped to thrive in a global innovation economy. Our banking system is still in need of serious structural reform to prevent another financial meltdown. Our energy establishment seems powerless to address climate destabilization. Our healthcare system continues to focus on disease symptoms rather than root causes (while accidentally killing tens of thousands of its customers every year). And our national government is helpless to rein in our national debt. (I’m taking a US-centric view here, but most of this should apply to you wherever you live.)

Looking ahead, it's not going to get easier. Our business teams will have to operate in ways never before imagined, to attack issues never before conceived. Our enterprises must be cutting-edge problem solvers, passionate in their work, audaciously free-thinking, offering unique value, focused on big outcomes, and able to harness conflict and dissent. Our economy—and much more—depends on it.

Now you may be skeptical that rock bands, known for their purportedly dissolute character and undisciplined lifestyle, can help us accomplish anything at the societal level. Well, many already have.

The Grateful Dead pioneered a novel business model that later became the basis for internet commerce: the “freemium” approach—give away lots of free stuff and charge for premium stuff. (The Dead had a history of performing free concerts and encouraging tape-sharing of their performances.) This was aided by the fact that one of the Dead's lyricists was John Perry Barlow, who went on to become an influential internet thought leader—a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the author of “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.”

U2, led by activist Bono, always had a higher purpose than selling truckloads of records and filling stadiums worldwide. According to Fort Lauderdale’s Sun-Sentinel, U2 “has given anthem rock a tremendous social, political, and even religious context” while they “call for peace, critique war, and enable hope for the planet's most devastated and destitute.” They “stalk the international stage to secure investments in practical solutions that world leaders are taking seriously.”

The Beatles, through their unbridled creativity, rejuvenated the pop song, retooled record production, turned the long-playing album into an art form, and initiated fashion and lifestyle revolutions—as I’ve written about in dozens of posts, including here. Their collaborative team approach directly inspired business leaders such as Steve Jobs, while the joy and defiance of their music played a role in liberating Eastern Europe—as publicly acknowledged by none other than former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

As a footnote to the above: in case you're unfamiliar with what I mean by "conflict savvy" (or "conflict competent") I'm referring to the organizational ability to both tolerate (deal with, confront) conflict and harness (manage, exploit, capitalize on) conflict. Many business cultures are conflict-averse to begin with—which creates obvious problems. Other cultures tolerate conflict but don't have the tools to engage in it productively and harness it for its creative potential. For more on this, check here and here.

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    1. I did rewrite a chunk of it. (When I write late at night, it shows.)

      Now you may still be delusional — in fact, I'd bet on it — but not in respect to this at least.

      I frequently rewrite sections of my posts. (This encourages readers to check back every few days.) There's a term I made up for it: continuous improvement.

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