Many firms surely subscribe to a version of the alpha male personality mystique: Through sheer force of will individuals can overcome any challenge, slice through the Gordian Knot of any client problem, work until their bodies scream for a break, and all the rest of it.  I’ve lived this story myself at times, and worn it proudly.  And what’s wrong with that!?, you’re asking.

Where to begin?  If I’m remotely representative, the alpha-you story leads to:

  • A growing and ultimately frantic need to recharge intellectually: To read, reflect, take a walk and turn things over in your mind untethered to the grid;
  • Impatience and near-dismissal of colleagues who want to collaborate, who need to unburden themselves or seek advice;
  • Loss of focus, efficiency, productivity, and even compromised quality of what you’re putting out;
  • And the striking and undeniable shock of recognizing that in a business where one’s value revolves around the ability to think, there’s mailing-it-in reflex “thinking” and there’s profound, recursive, probing, analytic testing of your first, second, third, and Nth hypotheses.

Maybe the Alpha Story shouldn’t be the scriptural verse you assumed it to be?

But when it comes to change, or (word that makes me want to flee the room lately) “innovation,” stories are specially potent.

They can frame and condense an entire array of challenges for your firm, and how you plan to respond.  They give everyone who will listen an intuitive grasp of where their personal internal gyroscope should be guiding them.

That’s the message of a current McKinsey feature, Telling a good innovation story (McKinsey Quarterly July 2018), which presents the authors’ experience and suggestions from judging over 1,000 nominations for an innovation award at the London Business School (26 of the 1,000+ actually earned a prize).

They condense their experience into three lessons to ponder in forming your story:

Use fresh language and don’t mimic: Be distinctive.  The authors cite the example of ditching “fast follower” to describe a contestant’s strategy and substituting “Best beats first.”  The first is denatured, abstract, and fundamentally unlikable: “We won by imitating.”  The second implies outfoxing the first-to-market, seeing something they missed, making a customer connection they were too obtuse to see.

Similarly, if your firm needs to cannibalize an old business to invest in a new one, don’t say “cannibalize.”

Master reinventors bear in mind that people want to hear about the emergence of the butterfly rather than the demise of the caterpillar. Acknowledge your declining products and the external changes causing you to reevaluate, by all means, but don’t linger on the internal struggles you have gone through to kill them. Instead, focus on the forward-looking reinvention story with its new array of potential successes.

Seize on serendipity.  Serendipity is the antithesis of luck. To be sure, it starts with seeing something unusual, which you can assume is itself accidental, but its essential ingredient is having the perspective to connect it to real-world problems and imagine how you could reconfigure or capitalize on it to address clients’ issues in a new way.  It requires a prerequisite from you: That you have immersed yourself in thinking about what kinds of problems clients bring to  your firm, how you and other firms address them, and what clients are really trying to achieve.  “Because we’ve always done it this way” has zero weight when you’re extrapolating from serendipity.

Finally, read the winds of change.  What are the macro trends affecting your clients?  Globalization or its reversal?  Increasing bank regulatory scrutiny and the rise of non-bank banks? The digitization of everything? Millennials’ anytime/anywhere work proclivities?

Don’t underestimate the power of positioning yourself in front of trends that are converging.

Just don’t say you were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.  That’s not a story-line anyone wants to subscribe to.


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