Great Ideas Call for Calculated Boldness

Leaders everywhere are hungry for big ideas that change the game — products that wow, marketing that captures the imagination of customers. At the same time, leaders everywhere are wary of big ideas that bomb — innovations that fall flat, messages that miss the mark.

This is why so many leaders seem so conflicted and confused: Should they calculate the short-term pluses and minuses of every strategic choice they face, or should they aim for something bold? One answer is to get beyond this either/or choice and recognize the power of both/and thinking — that is, to embrace the power of calculated boldness.

What's calculated boldness? It's a term I learned when I spent the morning at the Chicago offices of DraftFCB, the advertising agency whose clients include Dockers, Hilton, and Honda. I've written about the agency before, and how impressed I've been with the ideas that define how this group does business and the language it uses to communicate those ideas internally and externally.

I visited Chicago to share ideas from my book, Practically Radical. But I walked away from the visit with a book that three agency executives had written to share with colleagues what it means to be an effective planner at DraftFCB, and how good planners help the agency do its best work.

The title of the book, Calculated Boldness, caught my eye, so I followed up to learn more. At DraftFCB, the agency's 40 or so planners are people who operate, in the words of coauthor and executive vice president Jamie Shuttleworth, "at the intersection of creativity and strategy." They are "catalysts for change" who help the agency's creative geniuses do their best work, and make sure that work is in the service of the client's business goals.

Adds Ross McLean, another coauthor and executive vice president, planners "personify the creative tension" that leads to great work. "Things that feel uncomfortable, when they're rubbed together in the right way, that's the magic of our business." They are the sorts of people who, among other things, organize what DraftFCB calls "Strategic Rumbles" — day-long sessions meant to generate original insights about the future of a product, service, or brand.

I'm no expert in advertising, but I know creative ideas about creativity when I see them. So here are five lessons I took away from DraftFCB's techniques to achieve "calculated boldness" — principles that were designed to inspire effective marketing, but can inform the search for effective innovation in all sorts of areas.

1. Have a twinkle in your eye. "Planning requires passion," the authors write. "Positive energy. Resisting the temptation to be miserable when times are tough...Evidence that planners keep progressive ideas coming through the process (even if he one they are currently in sucks) is critical to our success."

2. Get uncomfortable. "Our best ideas are simple, relevant and persuasive, certainly, but they're also scary. Or challenging. Or abruptive...To get there, you need to make yourself uncomfortable, which means doing things differently from the way you did them last time."

3. Steal from the outside. "Outside planning is all around us, and yours to take. You don't even have to seek it out — just acknowledge that it's there. It's the homeless guy who chooses the honest approach on his sign by writing, 'I need beer and cigarettes.' Observe how others use strategic planning at its most human level and you'll learn some new tricks you can steal and call your own."

4. Spread tension. "Not negative, unproductive tension. The good kind. The kind that produces creative friction, sparks thinking. Tension is at the heart of every great insight...If your strategy doesn't have a tension-driven story, you don't have a strategy."

5. Get to simple enough. "A big part of getting to what matters in an idea is simplicity. But it's important that our planners understand the difference between simple and simple enough. In the words of someone handsome and famous, 'Not as few words as possible. As few words as necessary.'"

I'm not sure I need to add many more words to these five intriguing principles. In an environment with so little margin for error, but so many opportunities to do familiar things in new ways, "calculated boldness" feels like the right way to unleash big positive change in challenging times.

Reprinted from Harvard Business Review

William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine, author of Practically Radical, and coauthor of Mavericks at Work. Follow him @PracticallyRad or at WilliamTaylor.com.

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