Mastering the Art of Executive Engagement

The brainstorming session may beget large quantities of ideas, but its more sophisticated cousin, the executive workshop, can help create something far more valuable: focused energy to explore new growth platforms from corporate leaders. In the scheme of things, cool ideas are a dime a dozen, but generating the confidence to brave new ground, especially in risk-adverse global corporations, is something far rarer.

Several paradoxes exist in corporate innovation environments today. Due to the resources required, new growth-platform investment decisions are typically made at the highest levels in large global business units, yet the executives who must make those decisions have little time to spend on exploring the sources of innovation beyond the conventional R&D lab, where momentum-setting action rarely takes place. Managing customer complexity with new, value-added offerings has become the latest best practice for industry leaders, yet few are structured to take on the challenge. Even if the willingness for radical innovation exists, proven processes for cracking the code on organic growth challenges and driving differentiation often don't. Result? Spinelessness, fear, excuses, skepticism, flat-lining, or worse.

No doubt these factors contribute to the slow pace of game-changing innovation we see at present. But I would also argue that the problem isn't that executives today are too overwhelmed to contribute and support innovation and change. The problem is we need new ways to drive their engagement.

What is the right formula to attract a person who must prioritize every minute of every day, doesn't suffer fools, and whose bonus is likely to depend on quarterly results, yet who is also tasked with figuring out the future? Produce the right level of executive workshop structured to drive key commitments and decisions. Here are some pointers:

Use time wisely. Set realistic expectations for involvement. A half day to one full day is all you will likely get. If you can't get this much time, carve out a specific role in kickoff and closing activities so participants can get a grasp of the content discussed and process utilized.

Make passion palpable. Get the right people in the room at the forefront of the challenge. Think a select number of credible key stakeholders, archetypical customers, subject-matter experts, and other provocateurs, not just company employees. Discourage politically based invitations and folks with potentially derailing agendas.

Efficiently convey new relevant information. Spend time building context. Through no fault of their own, executives often live in bubbles. Fortunately, they're usually aware that they lack perspective and appreciate being enlightened about new factors they should consider in decision-making. It has been my experience that driving a far-reaching, compelling, and efficiently delivered context for a challenge is seen as a wonderful gift. This type of information is critical yet often out of reach for busy executives.

One suggestion would be to articulate adjacent market dynamics and sources of nontraditional competition. For example, point out why the performance expectations in consumer markets, say, by Amazon (AMZN), have now set the bar for all e-commerce transactions. Or why Zipcar's understanding of your preferences is emblematic of the type of customer intimacy expected from every provider given the type of technology available to drive such customer relationship management systems today. How might these or similar everyday performance expectations influence the must-haves in any new offering?

Facilitate integrative thinking. Design engaging exercises that mimic everyday unresolved opportunities. In my role as executive education instructor for Columbia University's Graduate Business School, I recently led an experience design exercise involving multiple layers of customers (financial buyer, systems operator, end users, etc.) for a set of health-care executives. The example I used was based on a company that sold intelligent building solutions. After 90 minutes of deconstructing another company's problem, a galvanizing moment occurred among the participants that showed an obvious path to tackling their own multilayered customer-experience opportunity.

The issues raised via seeing another company that's succeeded at its very own challenge drove a passionate strategic discussion about market research practices, resource prioritization, and organizational development. For this crowd, enlightenment in how to enable innovation is perhaps more important than any idea that could have been generated through the process. The exercise's success at transcending their mindset lies in allowing leaders to think in an integrative way outside their own box instead of the industry-focused, siloed manner normally found in the average corporate environment.

Strive to contradict the dominant logic of your industry. Innovation happens when companies do something the rest of the pack hasn't. Countless examples are available. For inspiration, look at an array of pan-industry players who saw the opportunity to do things differently and never stopped to look back, including ING Bank (ING), Flor Carpets, Home Bistro, Flexjet, and (CRM). How could your company break the mold similarly?

There is still no hotter topic in business today than driving organic growth and innovation. More often than not, these matters require the attention of senior executives who encounter numerous impediments in finding, vetting, and committing to the big ideas of tomorrow. If you are having difficulty getting the type of attention your big ideas deserve, consider engaging your executive team in a compelling new way that imparts spot-on vision. Your action-packed, hands-on event will not fail as a call to action for those tasked with leading your organization into the future.

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