What’s your secret sauce?


It’s a question every new business or venture is asked at some point or another, and figuring out what that is and how to judge your answer can be difficult.

That’s why I’m here to help!

When an investor asks, “what is your secret sauce or unfair advantage,” they are really asking “what is it that you uniquely do so that customers come to you over the competition?” In simpler terms, how are you different from everyone else in your market and will therefore be able to outperform your competition.

As a co-manager of Citrix’s internal new venture incubator, I hear a lot of pitches and the vast majority of them focus on features without telling me the value of those features and why customers should care. A strong pitch starts with a meaningful customer problem and then goes into how their business solves that problem. Better still, the pitch continues to explain why they deliver better value than the competition and eventually how they are going to out execute everyone else.

When I work with internal and external startups, and in blog posts, I use the Blue Ocean Strategy Canvas to identify their secret sauce and judge the strength of it.

Who is your customer and what is your value proposition?

The first step is to identify who your customer is, and identify what their needs, pains and jobs to be done are. Then, define what value you’re providing to your customer. These are all the pain relievers, gain creators and specific products and services you offer.

Strategyzer has a great tool for this exercise. The value proposition canvas:


Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 2.09.43 PM

Finally, match elements of your customer to the appropriate components of your value proposition. This helps you focus your resources on delivering what is creating value.

Who are my competitors?

Now, ask yourself, who else is targeting a similar customer and providing comparable value. More specifically, what alternatives does your customer have to receive the same value?

These are your competitors. You can take it a step further and look outside your specific market and determine who may potentially enter your market with an alternative.

What are my customer’s value drivers?

The next step is to determine what the value drivers your customer uses to select your offering versus the alternatives. In other words, what criteria does your customer judge one product or service over another?

Think of it like this, when you want a coffee and are considering Starbucks v. Dunkin Donuts, what makes you choose one over the other? Is it the ambiance? Is it the variety of beverages? Is it the customer service? Is it the quality of the ingredients? Is it the speed of service?

Make a list of 5-10 value drivers and avoid referencing specific product or service features, as those are vehicles for delivering value, not the value driver itself.

How do my competitor’s and I rank?

Begin by giving you and your competitors a score out of 10 on each of the value drivers based on how well each delivers on that value. Use as much real data as possible, but you can also assign scores based on intuition. For example from the Starbucks v. Dunkin Donuts example, looking at ambiance, Starbucks has leather chairs, music playing, art on the walls, relaxing colors, so I would give them a 10. While Dunkin Donuts has bland colors, no art, and hard uncomfortable chairs, so I’d give them a 1.

You will get something that looks like this:

Starbucks v Dunkin Donuts

Where are the big differences, if any?

Look carefully at your graph, identify the value drivers that you are above, below and matching the competition. This is where choices and trade-offs come into play, because you don’t want to be hovering around the competition on every value driver expelling resources everywhere and not putting yourself above the alternatives in your customer’s eyes.

There will be some value drivers that you want to match the alternatives as they are important to your customer, but ideally, you want to be head and shoulders above the competition on at least 1 value driver. There needs to be a reason for the customer to come to you over the alternatives.

It’s okay to be below the alternatives, as those are value drivers you choose not to compete on, and thus don’t waste resources on.

Is that my secret sauce?

The next question is whether the value driver (s) you want to rank highly on is something the customer truly cares about and is a reason to choose you. The only way to find out is by testing that assumption with customers. Get your offering in the hands of your customer and push on what you identified and determine if it is something customers are jumping up and down about.

Once you do identify something that differentiates you, make it the focus of everything you put in front of the customer or they see with your name on it, i.e. webpage or marketing materials.

That / those value drivers, and the need, pain or job to be done they are providing for, become the story you tell investors when explaining why they should care about your offering.

If you find that you are just playing in your market and not able to win on any value drivers, there is salvation! By way of bringing in analogous industry value drivers, but I’ll leave you hanging and save that for another post😉

Your Corporation is Killing Innovation Without Knowing It


This article was co-authored with Eric Quon-Lee and originally published in Huffington Post

Before innovation even starts, corporate alarms are ringing and walls are raised.

In the post-recession economy, markets are changing faster than the mighty corporations of old can keep up with. To combat the epidemic of nimble startups, corporations are advocating fresh thinking such as prototyping, failing fast and quick iterations based on customer feedback.

But few if any corporations have been able to point to any concrete successes, no matter the size. Why is that?

Large organizations are always going to be risk averse

A publicly traded corporation must not only appease shareholders but also Wall Street analysts and the corporation’s executives who hold the purse strings are rated predominantly on financial performance.

New ideas within corporations don’t always achieve short-term profitability, and thus it is difficult to convince decision-makers to reallocate capital from an existing cash cow to an “ugly duckling” innovation project. Corporate resources will inevitably go towards incremental established brand innovations and not disruptive new market innovations, which are inherently risky.

Remember that it was Kodak who invented the first digital camera, and chose to continue investing in film R&D over a risky new venture. Everyone knows how that story ended.

Play into the risk-averse nature of large corporations

For a corporate innovation project to succeed, it is necessary to recognize that the executive investing in the innovation project has corporate strategic goals to uphold.

The key for the innovation project’s success then becomes to fit into the corporation’s strategic goals. The following are some key factors to encourage this outcome:

  1. Find out what keeps executives up at night – There are two approaches that corporations have found successful 1) use executive problems for innovation challenges and 2) tie the innovation project to or search out projects that match an executive challenge.EMC and Deloitte have been very successful at taking executive challenges and posing them to the corporation as an innovation challenge, which employees can submit ideas for. Success is derived from the fact that executive buy-in is built in from the onset, because the ideas are directly tied to the executive’s imperatives.The Citrix Startup Accelerator’s Innovator’s Program and recent Citrix hackathons have engaged with executive sponsors prior to kickoff and used their input on challenges as selection criteria. Much like the first approach, executive buy-in is assured as teams enter the program with ideas that match executive needs.
  1. Develop a monetization roadmap – Innovation projects attain a quick death due to a rapid demand for monetization. In some instances, this is possible, but for most, a user base needs to be established before the market is willing to pay.

Ash Maurya is beginning to popularize a framework that calls attention on attaining users prior to revenue.

Ash Maurya AARRR

Image credit: Ash Maurya

This model is helpful because it addresses the challenge of organizations understanding the needs of startup marketing versus established brand marketing. Additionally, the framework helps innovation project teams outline what their plans are to eventually reach revenue.

The push to monetization can also be prevented by demonstrating how the innovation project brings other forms of value to the corporation. For example, accessing a new user base to cross-sell existing brands.

  1. Gauge executive buy-in throughout the process – Using executive buy-in as a gate to pivot, persevere or kill is critical, because without buy-in, the project is already dead on arrival.

The corporate innovation process should have gates where certain criteria should be met before moving on. At each of these gates, executive input must be acquired and should be used as a determining factor as to whether the gate is achieved.

It is also helpful to prime executives with what the criteria and stages of the innovation process are, so that they are aware of how to judge and assess the innovation project. Otherwise, the executive might have a higher expectation based on traditional corporate outcomes than what could reasonably be expected of an innovation project.

  1. Speak the language of the executive – Not only do innovators need to have vision, they need to be able to explain it in the C-suite’s language.

Entrepreneurs are quick to state that startups are liberating versus a stifling corporate culture, but the reality is that even entrepreneurs are beholden to others. Entrepreneurs are bound to their investors, while corporate innovators are indebted to their executives. Both need to translate their vision into a language that their stakeholder understands.

That language is one based on quantitative factors. For investors, the considerations are traction, growth and revenue. For executives, the elements are cost, payback period and top line revenue growth.

  1. Get Line Function Buy-In – It isn’t only the C-suite that needs to be convinced but the “doers” as well.

As much as the C-suite needs to be bought into the conversation, the other critical component is the “doers:” mid-level management. Without convincing the “doers” of the project’s necessity, these managers will continue to throw up barriers that will eventually kill innovation within the corporation.

  1. Be Selective. Take Baby Steps – Dreaming the world is great, but taking actionable baby steps is better.

Corporate innovators are great at envisioning future states, but often fail to concretely translate their vision into beneficial steps. In other words, corporate innovators tend to be perceived as dreamers, rather than doers, which relegates their concepts to the bottom of the corporate priority list.

Overcome this perception by ensuring that the initial ask is not only actionable, but also achievable in the short term. Present small projects in the language of the C-suite and deliver on them to build the groundwork for the grander vision.

Corporate innovation requires an understanding of the organization’s needs

Innovation within a corporation requires a recognition that the corporation is inherently risk averse and the only way to push innovation through is to accept this and appease it. Every move and decision a successful corporate innovator makes is based on directly reducing this risk or taking steps to bypass risk by addressing corporate challenges head-on.

Eric Quon-Lee is a management consultant and entrepreneur. Having obtained a MBA from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Eric has worked for some of Canada’s leading companies in a variety of finance and consulting roles. Currently at a San Francisco based management consultancy, Eric focuses on the topics of strategy and innovation where he acts as an intermediary between startups engaged in disruptive change and corporations trying to navigate these changes.

5 questions every entrepreneur needs to ask themselves


The success of any new business opportunity depends on the answers to 5 seemingly simple, yet deep questions.

When pursuing a new opportunity, whether in an enterprise or startup, there is a set of common assumptions or questions you believe to know the answer to, whether you know it or not. I want to make these explicit and give some guidance to help you definitely answer them.

My colleague Diana Joseph originally pointed me towards recognizing these questions and we use them as guiding principles for our internal innovation incubator at Citrix Systems.

1) Do you know who your customer is?

Do you know your customer’s needs? Pains? What a day in their life looks like?

As an entrepreneur, your resources are scarce, and if you cannot definitively answer these questions about your customer, you are not focusing your resources as well as you should. Knowing this information paints a picture of exactly who your customer is and more importantly, who it is not.

The first step to knowing your customer is to go talk to who you think it is. Ask them about the challenges they face in their daily lives related to your opportunity. Try to elicit a story, because this is where the unseen meat of who the customer really is will come from. As your interviews progress, so to will your understanding and definition of your customer.

2) Do you have a solution that creates value for your customer?

Can you point to every feature and design element of your solution and match it to a corresponding customer need, pain or job to be done?

Value for your customer is created when your offering provides gains for their needs, relieves their pains or completes a job to be done.

Much like narrowing in on who your customer is, you can’t develop everything, and need to focus your resources. Look at everything you plan to develop and check-off those that match a need, pain or job to done. Prioritize the matches based on what matters most to the customer and put aside what doesn’t for possible pursuit later.

Your validation will mainly be verbal, by way of a very simple explanation of a specific feature or design element of your solution to the customer and asking if it resonates. You will get the most information if you show a VERY simple prototype. Simple means under $100 and here is a good example from IDEO. As you get feedback, make changes until you create nothing but value without all the nice-to-haves.

3) Do you know that your customer wants your solution?

Up to this point, you’ve mainly gathered soft evidence (verbal validation). Now you want to start collecting hard evidence (data).

Think about data as a currency your customer gives. Currency can be showing a willingness-to-pay, giving an email address or simply opening an email and clicking on a link.

Landing pages (see example 1) are great tests, because you can test if your customer understands what your idea is, if they want it and whether they’ll pay for it. Can someone who knows nothing about your idea watch a short video or see a screenshot and know what your idea is? Once they understand the idea, do they see it fitting into their lives? Are they willing to pay for it or a smaller sum to get early access and then how many of the down payers convert to a full purchase?

Example 1 credit: Lean Startup Machine

4) Does your solution create value for the market and you?

What alternatives does your customer have? Does the value you receive for delivering your solution outweigh the costs of delivering it?

No matter how special you think your solution is, your customer will always have another option to get the same or similar value. Ask yourself, where else can my customer get similar value, whether it is through a direct competitor or a substitute. Compare your offering to the alternative’s and ask why will the customer would choose you over the alternative? Your answer should be something that the alternatives can’t readily imitate and that you can sustainably deliver, which is the subject of the next assumption.

The economics naturally need to make sense. What is the average revenue you expect per customer and conversely what is the average cost per customer to deliver your offering? Take the time to model your business model options out, because it will help you make the decision, along with qualitative info from your customer, of what to pursue.

5) Can you build and sustainably deliver your solution?

Do you have the expertise and capabilities to deliver your solution? Do you need to partner with other organizations to deliver your solution? Are your stakeholders on board with your strategy?

Ask yourself, what are the core capabilities that I need to deliver my solution. For example, Starbucks focuses on creating relaxed and welcoming atmospheres that keep customers in the store. This core activity, along with others, is essential to their overall strategy. To deliver on these core capabilities there are a number of supporting tactical activities. Starbucks needs comfortable furniture, wi-fi, well-trained and approachable staff, décor that emphasizes comfort, etc.

The resulting activity system (see figure 1) tells you what is needed to deliver your solution.

Now, looking at the activities, think about what to keep in-house and what should be outsourced to a partner who can do it better, faster, cheaper than you. If you’re in an enterprise, can you leverage your existing activity system? What requires resources to build out and what needs to be established first?

Figure 1

Activity system

Have a questioning mindset for all your endeavors

I hope you’re walking away with a more questioning personality and know what the common questions are that need to be asked when pursuing a new opportunity.

What are the questions you ask when pursuing a new opportunity? Leave a comment and let me know what I left out.

How to be a successful corporate startup


Organizations have the ability to generate innovative ideas, but are failing to integrate them back into the enterprise.

Innovation practices like design-thinking and lean startup are being adopted by more and more organizations as the path to new growth. The challenge though is that as great as these practices are for generating and prototyping creative customer-centric ideas, rigorously testing them to gather evidence and make decisions based on that evidence, they fall short on how to incorporate those ideas into an enterprise.

No matter how great an idea is or how much your customer wants it, if you cannot show your organization that the idea will bring value, and it’s worth the risk for that potential return, it’s dead in the water.

From my experience at incubating new ideas within an enterprise, I’ve found a few methods, when paired with innovation practices, increase the likelihood of those new ideas being pursued and accepted into the fold of the organization.

Understand who your stakeholders are and get their buy-in throughout the innovation process

Time and time again, I receive feedback from corporate startups that wished they had engaged their corporate stakeholders earlier and more consistently over the innovation process.

Just as you use design-thinking to interview and understand who your customer is and what their underlying needs are, do the same with your executive and business unit stakeholders. Put yourself in their shoes. What is top of mind for them? What keeps them up at night? What are their needs?

As you generate new ideas or work on challenges in a new way over the innovation process, tailor your ideas to your stakeholders and create gains or solve their pains for them. Do this throughout the process and not just at the beginning. Take prototypes to your stakeholders and co-create with them like you would your customer.

Achieving stakeholder buy-in is evidence that you’re on the right track. Keep your stakeholders informed of what you’re working on and ensure your innovation is relevant to them.

Have all your strategy ducks in a row

Strategy in its purest form is about making choices and tradeoffs. You can’t be everything to everybody or you will be mediocre at best. Design-thinking and lean startup may not make strategy explicit, but successful corporate startups do.

As you learn who your customer is through interviews, prototyping & testing ideas and gathering evidence on what resonates, clearly articulate who that customer is. Go beyond just a persona and use language from the Business Model Canvas, because this is what corporations understand and want to hear.

Is your idea B2B or B2C? Is it a two-sided market? Where will you play geographically? How will your idea get into the hands of your customer? How will customers become aware of your idea and what will you do so that the idea is sticky with them? At what part of the production line will you play and do you need to partner with someone? What is the customer willing to pay for?

By answering these questions you are explicitly choosing who you will serve and how you will serve them. More importantly, you are saying who you will not serve.

One last thing, explain why your customer will choose you every time over the competition. Your idea will be truly compelling to your organization if you can articulate, and preferably, visualize why you standout from the competition.

For example, Steve Jobs showing the iPhone back in 2007

why iphone stands out Image credit: Earnest Kim

Model the financial metrics that matter

For a startup seeking funding, it’s a no-brainer to come prepared with a market size and capital expense estimate, revenue forecast, customer acquisition cost (CAC), average revenue per user (ARPU), lifetime value, burn rate, churn, etc. Just as an investor loves to see these numbers for a budding startup of interest, so to do organizational stakeholders. Especially when there is a high possibility that resources will need to be taken from somewhere else to fund you, which is often the case.

You will learn about possible revenue models and how much people are willing to pay for your idea through your innovation process and modeling these out will give you more information on the way forward, but it will be even more helpful when it comes time to pitch your idea to stakeholders. For each option, do quick back-of-the-napkin estimates for market size and expenses necessary to get to market. Think about customer awareness and activation, what will that cost and how much of your target market could you feasibly reach?

These estimates are compelling evidence for both your idea and you as a corporate startup, because it shows that you’re more than just an idea; you’re a sustainably competitive business.

Understand what capabilities you will need and how they fit into your organization’s existing capabilities

Outside of engaging with and understanding your corporate stakeholders, knowing how or if your organization can feasibly produce your idea is the most important and overlooked aspect for corporate startups.

Organizations are great at understanding what their core capabilities are and what the necessary activities are that produce those capabilities. Your goal then becomes, knowing what the core capabilities and supporting activities are that your idea will need. I like to think in terms of an activity system, pictured below.

Activity system

Example of Nespresso below  Credit: Heather Fraser

Nespresso activity system

Use this then to compare to your organizations core capabilities and supporting activities. What can you leverage? What needs to be built out? What should be done in-house or should certain activities be outsourced to a partner?

Tell it all with a great story

When you’re ready to pitch the idea, sum all of this up, alongside everything you learnt along the innovation process, and help your corporate stakeholders understand the relevance of all of it with a heartfelt story.

Take the story of someone you interviewed. Explain who they are and emphasize their pains to allow the listener to empathize with your customer. Then get into what the future holds for your customer with your new idea in hand and how it delivers on their needs and solves their problems.

Now with your stakeholders primed, explain your idea with a clear value proposition, why it is better than the competition, how your organization is uniquely positioned to develop it and why they should care, i.e. the value it will create.

The success of corporate startups depends on more than innovation practices alone

Innovation practices like design-thinking and lean startup are great for generating new ideas, and I hope you’ve learnt a few ways to increase the likelihood of those new ideas being pursued by your organization.

I want to know what has worked for you and your organization to get innovative ideas accepted in your enterprise. Please leave a reply and share your corporate startup success story.

Makey anything with everything

I’m the type of person that is be perfectly comfortable alone with my thoughts, but I prefer to always be tinkering with something or watching something interesting, typically people (probably my favourite past-time). So on commutes into Toronto I listen to or watch podcasts. Geekbeat.tv or TED talks being the most popular and per normal with TED, I came across something that truly piqued my interest. Makey Makey. Being able to marry a computer with pretty much anything that is conductive (bananas being a favourite) is awesome. The coolness of it is a huge draw, but I think it is the creativity, sense of play and stance on the world that it brings to life is the true interest for me.

To best explain what Makey Makey is, watch the video in this post and check out their website or watch Jay Silver’s TED talk, but I’ll give a quick summation. Makey Makey is a circuit board that connects via USB to your computer and subsequently uses alligator clips to connect pretty much anything to your computer. You can then use that something to make sounds, music, take pictures / video, etc. or turn that something into a game controller, mouse, slide presentation controller, etc. It is a totally new way to interact with the world. But that’s just the beginning of what is so great about Makey Makey.

Makey Makey hits the design-thinking nail squarely on the head and will push you to flex your design muscles. As a designer, you must have an open stance or a view of the world that nothing is absolute and can be moulded and interpreted an infinite number of ways and you accept this. My mental model of a Starbucks coffee is that it is made with care and tastes great. Your mental model of a Starbucks coffee may be that its overpriced sludge. Makey Makey is all about looking at bananas, Play Doh, whatever and seeing that it is not as it seems and can become something else. If you watched the video, you know what I’m talking about. Designers also have creative confidence, meaning they are not afraid to share their creative ideas with the world and let themselves go to play in the world. Consider a 6 year old that puts a blanket around their neck and instantly becomes a super hero that can fly and fight evil villains with their super powers, then goes on to play out this scene on the playground with their friends. That is the epitome of creative confidence. As I mentioned in a previous post, we lose this confidence over the course of our lives, and Makey Makey is a giant step to getting that confidence back. If the multitude of YouTube videos is any sign, it’s definitely working. In my mind, there is no doubt that Makey Makey is something that we can all easily pick up and use and move closer to being the best designers that we can.

I’d love to hear what you think about Makey Makey and ways to become better designers.

Will creativity itself ever become obsolete?

I watched an interesting TED talk recently from Ken Jennings, who is most commonly known for being the greatest winner Jeopardy has seen at 74 wins. Jennings is also remembered as being the guy who went up against a machine on Jeopardy and was subsequently decimated. The machine in question was a computer designed by IBM called Watson that was developed specifically to beat Jennings at Jeopardy, and now  is being applied elsewhere. What caught my attention in the talk is when Jennings was talking about feeling obsolete, because now a machine could do the one thing that he was a master of better than he ever could. This got me thinking about the notion of creative destruction, which is the notion that economic development, or innovation, arises when the prior economic order, or previous innovation, is destroyed, i.e. becomes obsolete and I wondered if creativity itself will ever become obsolete? As Charles Duell said “everything that can be invented has already been invented”

Jennings speaks to himself, and other Jeopardy champions, as being the type of person that just has a fascination with the world and just wants to know as much about everything as possible. In my own experience with creative types and those that play in the world of innovation, this is the case as well; a genuine curiosity to explore and get inspiration from anywhere and anything. Now, take the notion of creative destruction and apply it to creativity. Tday’s computing power, Watson the perfect example, can know every little thing about the world and be able to piece it together in a “creative” way, at least in the sense of trivia games. So, what’s the need for human-beings to know every little thing or get inspiration and piece it together if a computer can do that cheaper, faster, and better? Let’s push this out way into the future. The image that comes to mind is the world that the Disney Pixar movie WALL-E. In the film, humanity has taken to space, because earth has become so desolate and inhospitable from our doing, and we all ride around on floating chairs, we’re all overweight, everything is automated and doing anything ourselves is a thing of the past. Here, machines are doing everything; even telling us what we are supposed to like and do. Another image of a future with creativity being obsolete is from a short film in the Animatrix called “The Second Renaissance,” which is actually the prequel to the Matrix trilogy of films. In the second renaissance, machines become intelligent and eventually found their own state and begin producing goods to be exported to human countries. Lo and behold, what they are producing is way ahead of what humans could ever think to produce and their economic prowess overtakes humanity’s and well…if you’ve seen the Matrix films you know what happens, and if not, well..it’s not pretty. The point though is that eventually a machine overtakes a human’s ability to be creative and creativity becomes obsolete. Sure, both of these realities are a bit far fetched, but if Watson is any proof, they are a possibility; algorithms can be made to predict choices, outcomes and even wants. It seems the outlook for creativity is looking a little bleak.

I think that the form of creativity that spurs what Clayton Christensen author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma” calls sustaining innovation will be become obsolete. Sustaining innovation is when the digital camera went from looking like a normal camera that shot 1MP to now being designed as point and click and shoots 13MP. This type of creativity pushes what is already known further, but it is not creating anything new. Creativity that leads to what Prof. Christensen calls “disruptive innovation” will never become obsolete.

So, if you don’t want your creativity to become obsolete, make sure that you are flexing your creative muscles towards disruptive innovation.

How to get your creative or innovative ideas heard


Have you ever had a great idea, creative or otherwise, and just knew that it was the most amazing thing out there. Sure you have! Did you try to take that idea and explain it to your boss, co-workers, friends, cat, etc. to only be shut down because the person, or feline, thinks your idea doesn’t make sense, or worse, the person thought they had a better idea and YOU thought their idea didn’t make sense? I’m sure you answered yes to at least one of those questions, and are wondering why that happened. I’m going to explain why that happened and how to avert it again so your awesome ideas can be heard.

I believe it has something to do with you and the other person overusing the rhetorical tool of advocacy or being stuck at the conclusion level – coming into the conversation prepared to advocate and argue for their idea and theories. The better tactic is to rather foster a dialogue called assertive inquiry. This term is built on the research of organizational theorist Chris Argyris at Harvard Business School and I was introduced to it at The Rotman School and it is discussed in Roger Martin (Dean at the Rotman School) and A.G. Lafley’s (CEO of Proctor & Gamble) book “Playing to Win.” As quoted from the book, “…this approach blends the explicit expression of your own thinking (advocacy) with a sincere exploration of the thinking of others (inquiry).” Now, let’s go through the steps of assertive inquiry and revisit our previously mentioned situation.

1. You need to have the right stance going into the conversation

When I say stance, I mean, what is your mindset i.e. where do you stand. So you have your great idea and you want to tell the world about it, but your goal with that conversation needs to shift slightly. You need to recognize that you have a view of the world that you feel the other person should hear, your idea, but you might be missing something. Approach the conversation with your conclusion as an option and have a genuine interest in listening to what someone else has to say and to understand their view.

This is extremely powerful, because you are going into a conversation with an opinion or perspective that you will advocate for BUT you are open to the possibility that your idea may not be the best answer and others can contribute to your idea, i.e. you will listen and question alternative views. Both of these skills are so important to have if you want to be successful.

2. Both you and the person you are talking to have ladders that lead to your respective conclusions

Alright, so now you’re ready to go into that conversation and advocate for your idea and surely you have a set of data or information that lead you to that idea. You can think of this data as being the rungs of a ladder that lead up to your conclusion. Naturally, the person you are talking to has data or information that lead them to their conclusion. Again, think of that data as rungs of a ladder that they climbed to arrive at their conclusion.

Now that you recognize everyone has a ladder of data leading to their respective conclusions, your goal becomes getting that person, as well as yourself, to reveal the steps or data and the thoughts they hold that lead to their conclusion. This is the topic of the next step.

3. Turn questions from yes/no, to questions of too what extent

The key to talking about creative or innovative ideas is to develop understanding of that idea, and you can’t do that by asking yes/no questions. Yes/no questions can easily be answered in one word, yes or no, and this doesn’t promote understanding. By adding “too what extent” to a question, the person is forced to explain their thinking, i.e. the rungs of their ladder. For example, I could ask, “do you agree with my idea?” Probable answer, “no.” There is a disagreement and you have no idea why; not helpful. Now add to what extent, and the question becomes “to what extent do you agree/disagree with my idea?” Now answering yes or no is impossible, the person has to give some details for their thinking, and this is the ultimate goal; to achieve understanding of someone else’s position.

Remember, you are giving your conclusion as an option and are open to possibly missing something. You want to invite the challenge of your assumptions, “here is what I think, to what extent do you feel this way or that.” Now you are advocating your idea, but remain open to inquiry. People are more amendable to a solution if the process is fair or that they at least had a voice and were heard. Asking “to what extent” does that.

4. Every conversation has a framework

Think of the last conversation you had with a colleague or co-worker. I bet going into that conversation you intended to get something out of it, perhaps approval for a chosen path in a project. You were taking some action to get there; convince your manager that it was a good idea. Finally, I guarantee you had a result in mind or an end state; get your manager’s approval. Notice, the intent – action – result framework. Now let’s think about this in terms of assertive inquiry and getting your ideas heard.

Just like you are trying to have someone reveal the rungs of the ladder, the same applies to where someone is within the conversation framework. This is especially true if trying to achieve consensus. You and the person you are talking to may have the same intent, ex. explain my idea, the action might be the same, ex. talk it over with the person leading a project or the initiative, but the result could be different; I want approval for my idea and the other person wants to find a strategy. The same logic of a mismatch applies to any point in the framework. Recognizing where the person is in the conversation is somewhat easy to find, because it will be the point of disagreement! Now, if you are not able to move past a point in the framework, i.e. you’re asking “to what extent” and you’re stuck, the best thing to do is to go back to a point of common ground. Recognize where your actions or intent or result are the same, i.e. you agree on some data or information leading to a conclusion. Bring the discussion back there and then work to understand what is blocking the conversation; this bypasses the argumentative element and can cool things down. Steps 3 and 4 then repeat and hopefully, consensus or at the least understanding is achieved.

Final Thoughts

I hope the above steps can help you get your creative ideas heard and at the least discussed. Here are some additional thoughts that can help ease the process.

  • Keep your explanations and questions succinct – long-winded answers dance around what you hold and are truly thinking
  • Remember that people pay attention to the end of a statement, so have a strong final punchline
  • Start a conversation with a brief, “I’m asking this question because…and this is the type of information I’m hoping to get out of it”
  • Don’t have preconceived notions about an answer, because they typical turn out to be untrue
  • Consider determining and pointing out the point of contention at the on-set and simply asking “what do you need to hear to get past …”

This is not a comprehensive system or process and I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences sharing your creativity with others.