You Cannot Run Out of Ideas

What follows is a true story. The client said to the salespeople sitting in his office, “Wait here, I have to run and get this project I need help with. Our current partner said they don’t have any ideas.” Their existing supplier told them that they were at a complete loss for ideas.

This incumbent is in deep trouble. The company—and the people who work there—need help, and their incumbent partner believes that they have no new ideas to share. Because they think they have no new ideas, it’s true for them. Moreover, without ideas, the incumbent partner is ripe for a competitive displacement. They have forced their client to look elsewhere for help by giving up on a problem that is surely not intractable.

One of the things that makes you consultative is your ideas. Ideas aren’t the same as what is now popularly called “insights,” those being mostly about making a compelling case that the client should—or must—change. Ideas are more about “how to change,” and “how to deal with this challenge” or “solve this problem.” The ability to generate new ideas, to think laterally, combining ideas from one domain with another, is an attribute that is necessary for success in sales (there is a full chapter on ideas in The Only Sales Guide You’ll Ever Need titled Resourcefulness).

The other attributes and skills you need to develop to prevent your running out of ideas is business acumen, which is a general understanding of how businesses work.  That understanding can help you understand a problem and challenge and recognize potential ideas that are worth considering. Maybe even more important, however, is situational knowledge, the ability to see the patterns of what works, what doesn’t, and because you can draw from your experiences serving other clients and the people you serve within those companies.

Lately, there have a been a rash of young bucks on LinkedIn suggesting that one derives no value from reading business books. In their myopic view, they believe that anything that is known isn’t going to have value now, mistakenly believing that anything known is not disruptive enough. By eliminating ideas, they remove the ability to think laterally, to mix and match ideas from different domains, and to explore what might be possible. When you don’t read other people’s view and their account of their experiences, you deprive yourself of the ability to connect the dots. If you have to choose between being well and widely read or being poorly read, choose the former.

Fortunately, your brain does a pretty good job of ideation all the time, mostly when the ideas are challenging to capture, like when you are in the shower or driving. Sitting down with a legal pad and writing ideas down will help you come up with all kinds of new things to explore. Even better, putting an ideation task force together and locking yourself in a room with a whiteboard for two hours is likely to generate more ideas than you could execute. You need only one good one to solve your client’s most pressing challenge to go from “at risk of being displaced” to “strategic partner.” At least until your client is once again challenged, which should be shortly after you help solve the one you are working on now.


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