Who Says talk is Cheap?

Hopefully, all that summer reading has left you enthused about implementing new ideas. However, from the perspective of the boardroom, acting on business advice that was easy to understand on the beach may seem devilishly hard to execute.

That’s why people flock to, and lean heavily on, consultants. But that’s exactly where problems can begin. Relying on outside consultants to determine your positioning and core messages can lead to a cycle of dependency. So, rather than focusing on the question of how to pick an agency that will give you answers, in this issue I want to explore how your team can come up with those answers on its own.

Think of brand development like building a house. Ideally, you’re both the architect and the contractor of your brand. As the architect, you determine what the house will look like, and as contractor you hire a series of tradespeople to build according to your specifications.

Determining those specifications requires capturing what you believe from within. Have insiders assessed, debated, and chosen the elements that define your brand? If so, that identity will be genuine, not to mention easier to build and communicate. Brands imposed from the outside rarely have the same impact because they fail to reflect what the insiders think.

Once insiders have identified your organization’s core skills, attributes, and outstanding ideas, they can begin advising and directing the work of whatever agency – the “tradespeople” – you choose to help address tactical issues such as advertising or publishing.

This process intimidates many organizations, suggesting that their capacity for thinking may be more problematic than their brand. Fortunately, these skills can be developed if the organization is willing to accommodate both free discussion and time.

One person shouldn’t determine your brand. But one leader must be responsible for coordinating individuals and integrating departments so everyone gets under the same tent. By having a brand manager who can generate a discussion that asks “who are we?”, the museum is in a position to begin nurturing new voices and knitting people together.

Most employees are unaware of what makes their company tick. Without this knowledge, they cannot work effectively to advance its fortunes. Employees have to learn what’s worth knowing and worth marketing, which means giving them time to think, talk, and learn from their peers. How well people talk amongst each other can move companies toward greater self-awareness and common purpose. Simple, informal conversation is a remarkably effective technique to get employees on the “brand” wagon.

Yet few companies seem willing to make this approach a priority. Instead of nurturing networking, territorial managers stifle the spread of workplace knowledge through ambiguity and intimidation.

Consensus about who you are will only take place if the organization is committed to tearing down two key barriers. First, everyone “needs to know.” Knowledge does not reside with a privileged few. Second, stop thinking in terms of immediately measurable results. Brands develop over time, and strong brands only emerge if managers adopt a broad view of the journey.

By encouraging conversations, permitting members to think imaginatively about what their organization can become, communicating the kind of values the company wants to promote, and letting ideas percolate, a common understanding of the organization’s goals and objectives will emerge. And from this will come the breakthrough ideas that provide lasting results.

Whether you’re a big for-profit company like 3M, or a small non-profit museum, encouraging ideas to percolate is crucial. In fact, 3M-the company behind such ubiquitous products as Scotch® tape and yellow Post-its®-provides an interesting example. Many organizations look enviously at this perpetual motion machine with its vibrant brand awash in new ideas. 3M has relentless drive, a seemingly innate impulse for activity, and its pick of very smart people. But its real genius is patience and its practice of allowing people to use work time to pursue their own ideas about products and new markets.

However, even 3M needs to be reminded about the end goal: abundant creativity has in fact become one of its problems. In 2001, 3M’s CEO, James McNerney, told the Wall Street Journal that his employees “wake up every morning thinking about what new product they can bring to market.” But instead of thinking about collective success, employees focus narrowly on advancing and commercializing the discoveries of their individual departments. To create its next breakthrough product, 3M must stem this fragmentation. Everyone has to see the same big picture.

Internal consensus about who you are and what you do, and how they combine to create a sense of common purpose, is crucial at every step of the journey. Common knowledge ultimately helps reveal hidden and potentially valuable assets that can be transformed into new achievements. After all, determining what you stand for is, like climbing a mountain, only half the journey.

So, if you want your employees to start acting like a team to promote your organization, let them talk. At first, it may feel like watching water boil, but it may be the best leadership decision you make all year.

(Originally published in Muse (Canadian Museum Association), September 2003)

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