Dear CMO:

Once our snap judgments paint the Rorschach test-like image of a person or an idea in our minds, it’s hard for us to objectively change our minds. If a new player is deemed to be “good,” then they are given wider latitude and their actions are viewed with more forgiveness than those deemed, “not so good.” Interestingly, once our snap judgments have solidified, our mental frameworks require that our subjects behave in a manner consistent with our own preconceptions: it’s easy to understand that we’re angry and conflicted when our so labeled “good” person behaves in a “not so good” way. What’s harder to understand, given a moment’s objective reflection, is that we are equally conflicted when a C- player turns in A+ work. We don’t expect it, we can’t easily process it, so we kick it out of our mental systems. You’d think we’d be smarter than this, but frankly, we’re not.

Furthermore, we’re all wired to be consistent. We are affected by significant personal and interpersonal pressure when we deviate from a public stance. We don’t like to do it and we’re instantly called on it when we do (are we in a political season right now?). So the idea of “change” is a highly charged one. We feel a need to make our mark, yet those of us not leading change may find a hard-wired reluctance to accept a shift in direction as suggested by another – particularly a new guy, particularly in marketing.

This takes on deeper significance when we look at ideas and the leaders that champion them. Marketers are idea people. If the average CMO lasts less than two years, this is probably why. Lewis had an interesting discussion at his blog this week that sparked this thought, and it resonates with other discussions I’ve had over the past few weeks. Often, the bigger the idea, the worse it is for the person bringing it to the table. Big ideas – often great ideas that can ignite a moribund company and turn around a failing enterprise – are often buried in corporate hubris because they “aren’t invented here.” Ideas, and those presenting them, are alien and hostile to our own consistency.

Let’s step back for a moment and consider this – and please forgive my lack of footnotes on this subject, as the original texts and studies that I’ve come across that illustrate many of these points are out there somewhere, just not linked here – and perhaps even find a way out for those of us who do consider ourselves to be fairly creative. If consistency itself is to blame for our DNA-level resistance to changes in direction, could we not use consistency itself to get ourselves out again? I think so. Here’s how.

· Any change we champion should, if properly constructed, mirror the needs of the company. Deciding “we’re sinking, and only I can save us,” is not the kind of thinking that will win many converts. Understanding and synthesizing that “we need to penetrate the office market with enterprise-quality mobility solutions,” is the kind of thinking that will keep you on solid ground.

· Any change we champion should also mirror the strategic direction – however conceptually described – of the CEO and Board. Knowing that management has specifically, publicly, clearly stated that improving inventory turns is an important acknowledgement, particularly when your idea can help achieve the goal.

· Bold ideas that don’t conform to the needs of the company (in our own opinions) or to the goals of the management of the company can be considered “interesting ideas” at best and “wild goose chases” at worst. Perhaps we should treat them – and frame them – as such. These are ideas that are presented one to one, properly couched in the right settings and with the right words, so as not to completely jump from terra firma onto the ice flow of your unsupported idea.

· Bold ideas that do conform to the needs of the company and leadership are to be treated very carefully: bursting into the board room full of adrenaline and vinegar (to paraphrase) is a sure fire way to get shot at a later date. No one else will share your enthusiasm, but many will enjoy your funeral.

· Carefully constructing the framing of your idea is a more important implementation plan than your idea’s roll-out. Specifically, how will you remind everyone of their previously stated goals and objectives? It should be simple enough if you’ve got a mission statement, an annual report, or a budget deck that lays these ideas out. How will you focus everyone’s attention on the specific square inch of intellectual real estate that you intend to revolutionize? How will you prime your audience as to the extreme need to fix the problem that you’ve just solved? And over what period of time will you bring people into this frame of mind?

Launching dangerously provocative ideas is more like chiropractic therapy and less like surgery than many think. Sure, we’re all in love with speed, unless it’s someone else’s idea. Then, we’re the soul of caution.

We’re all slaves of corporate culture, hierarchical thinking, and our own psychological wiring – most of which hasn’t changed since we descended from the trees. We want the troop to be strong – so long as we don’t lose our position within it. And renegades that emerge from the pack and challenge our carefully constructed social structures don’t last long in the wild, unless, of course, they emerge in such a way that they threaten no one and are viewed as “good,” and not as “dangerous.”


Photo courtesy of Flickr.