When it comes to creativity, most of us have won the genetic lottery.  Trouble is, most of us get trapped in a “good enough” comfort zone, even when “good enough” isn’t.  It’s not that we don’t have the tools to grapple with business, family, and succession problems and challenges; it’s that we have chosen to use someone else’s best practices.  That can be a fatal flaw when it comes to succession planning.

Roy Williams, The Wizard of Ads, believes that the magic formula for innovation and creative breakthrough occurs in an incubator that includes these three elements:

  1. A gathering of really curious people;

  2. Opportunities to meet each other in common space; and,

  3. Casual, spontaneous conversations involving challenging questions and stories.

Let’s take a look at these one at a time, beginning with really curious people.  You may not have thought about your family members, your employees, or your partners as really curious people.  But I’ll bet they are; especially when it comes to succession planning.  It may not be uppermost in their minds today; but sooner or later they’re going to think about the future and what it holds for them.  To heighten their sense of curiosity and to gain the full benefit of their ideas meet with them individually and ask for their thoughts about successors, successor development, business performance, family governance, and family dynamics.  Synthesize and integrate that information, make whatever decisions you consider appropriate, and then pull the group together to talk about ideas related to implementation of your decision. 

Meeting each other in common space.  You need a “Building 20”, a strange and chaotic domain that forces a group of diverse people to mix and mingle in ways that stimulate new ideas by challenging habitual patterns of behavior and belief, as well as perceptions of reality.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology used just such a building to develop all kinds of gadgets that can be called “rocket science”.  And since succession planning isn’t rocket science, the same approach should work just fine in developing truly novel approaches to the way the business and the family have always been led.  In short, when you’re working on succession planning stay out of the beach house, the luxury hotels, and the traditionally exotic locations.  They’re all too comfortable and too much like business as usual.  The most creative spaces throw us together rather than bathe us in comfort.

Spontaneous conversations, challenging questions and stories.  Because challenging an idea breaks the rules of brainstorming, you need to accept as a given that it’s not only okay but an absolute requirement that all ideas be challenged and questioned.  Such conversations are sometimes unpleasant and, sooner or later, unavoidable.  They may also be an essential part of the process of reaching and implementing ideas vital to succession success.  In his research for an article on brainstorming, Jonah Lehrer concludes that corrective feedback “is the human friction that makes the sparks.”  Without the sparks, we are doomed to live in the “same old same old.”

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