A genius is only as great as his brain trust: the circle of mentors and consultants who nurture and enhance his ideas. That all great innovators have great collaborators is no new insight. In 1937, when Napoleon Hill interviewed the richest, most successful men in the world for his wildly popular book, Think and Grow Rich, the one thing they all had in common was their dependence on alliances. These pioneering leaders all relied on a board of advisors.
Nearly eighty years later, we can still learn a lot from this model of advisory innovation. Assemble a group of bright, energetic thinkers you can trust. Use them to brainstorm and bounce off ideas. Make these co-creators your confidants–advisors who you can go to before you go to the other people in your organization.
Unlike a board of directors, which is subject to influence by outside financial interests like investors, a board of advisors has no vested interest in your company. Rather, they are committed solely to developing ideas and sharing and exchanging knowledge. The advisory board does the work that the organization can’t.
Seek out people with extensive experience in their fields. Experience can come in many forms–from the theoretical knowledge of a researcher to the practical mastery of an engineer. Remember that experience does not necessarily mean age. In fact, if you were building a project around an emerging trend or a new market, youth would be an asset on your advisory board.
The goal is to assemble a diversity of perspectives and expertise. Recruit individuals who have different visions of your company–some who see it as a radical organization moving toward the future, others who see it as a highly efficient operational machine, and yet others who see its internal culture.
By gathering all these varying–even contradictory–visions, you can established a shared vision that you would’ve never otherwise seen. Here are the four major viewpoints necessary for your board of advisors. Together, these seemingly conflicting forces will create the momentum crucial for any innovation initiative.
Customers and community: These compassionate, socially-minded thinkers thrive on bringing together groups of people and working toward consensus. They are excellent teachers, mentors, facilitators, and team builders–skilled communicators who are sensitive to the needs of others. Jack Ma, the CEO of fast-growing Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba, exemplifies this point of view. Rather than trying to please shareholders, Ma is most concerned with the experience of customers and of the people who work in his organization. He believes that if he has happy customers and happy employees, then the shareholder value will also increase. With this approach, he’s seen vast success.
Competitors and investors: These assertive, often cutthroat strategists understand the competitive landscape of their industry and know what shareholders and investors expect. They are fast-acting workhorses driven by measurable gains: they will make sure you meet the numbers and they are always looking for a better deal. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi is the embodiment of this worldview. She has rewritten PepsiCo’s playbook, eliminating products and divisions that weren’t immediate payouts, focusing the company’s resources on the most profitable opportunities right now. In doing so, she has greatly increased the value of the organization.
Regulations and standards: These analysts are specialists in their field with top technical expertise. They work on a straight, reliable path to make sure everything is correct. They’re committed to the principles and procedures of their discipline, with advanced training and board certification, and are data-driven. Consider, for example, former Mayor of New York City, Mike Bloomberg. He studied the data on things like obesity and crime, and based his decisions on those figures–not on popular opinion. In this way, he represents the analytical approach to problem solving.
Trends and breakthroughs: These visionary revolutionaries inspire breakthrough changes. They’re very creative and value radical originality. They’re almost always dissatisfied with the way things are now and are looking to make things better and new. Larry Page, CEO of Google, epitomizes this viewpoint. He ensures that the company–from its investments in green energy to its plan to deliver Internet access to sub-Saharan Africa through balloons–is always reinventing itself.
Conflict is inevitable when you put such a wide variety of perspectives on one advisory board–and that’s a good thing. Harmony is overrated. Simple accord won’t yield any new or unexpected ideas. It is, after all, in the white spaces between disciplines where innovation happens. The object is to achieve a positive tension–a constructive conflict that leads to hybrid solutions. Who will be the productively dissenting voices on your innovation advisory board?