Free the Idea Monkey

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To survive today, companies need only two types of people: Idea Monkeys—the people who can generate 167 new concepts before lunch—and the Ring Leaders who can make those ideas a reality.

If you don’t fill one of these roles, you are in danger of losing your job. And odds are you should be, because your company cannot afford to have you around.

We don’t say that (simply) to be provocative. We say it because it’s true. As two guys who actually run a company—and have started seven others—we have learned firsthand that these are the only people you can afford to keep. Although they may not say it out loud, we see our clients are coming to the same realization.

When we present this as an either/or situation, some people hear that they have to be an Idea Monkey. But nothing could be further from the truth. We are fans of the Monkey and know we desperately need them, but as a rule they are not great at turning their ideas into reality.

One story about Walt Disney—perhaps the patron saint of Idea Monkeys—makes this point. Walt had just dreamed up another fanciful new world/product/character (what it was doesn’t really matter), and he naturally went to share his creation with his brother Roy, his trusted Ring Leader: the man who, when Walt wished upon a star, made his dreams come true.

“Walt, it is a great idea,” his brother said. “But you realize it is going to take more than $2 million to make it a reality.”

“Why,” Walt supposedly replied, “do you always bother me with insignificant details?”

You can see why Ring Leaders are so important.

The most successful companies have found a balance between their divergent and convergent thinkers—between their Idea Monkeys and Ring Leaders. The secret is to free the Idea Monkeys to do what they do best—make never before seen connections in the marketplace (Hmm, if we combined the peanut butter and jelly in one jar …)—and leave it to the Ring Leaders to figure out how to make those new products, services, and business models a reality.

Here’s the good news. If you study great companies and the leadership teams that got them there—and that is exactly what we did in our book—you will see practices that make this balance happen. You will see teams that are inspired and empowered, spontaneous and pragmatic and seriously playful. The truth is that finding the balance between the Idea Monkeys and Ring Leaders creates a culture of knowing how to take the right amount of risks, measure opportunity and progress appropriately, and have a blast reinventing the world together.

How cool is that?

This post has been adapted from Free the Idea Monkey by G. Michael Maddock and Raphael Louis Vitón.

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