Leaders: Specifics matter when communicating key goals

Last week I spent several hours interviewing Martin Madaus, former CEO of Millipore, the large life science company that was purchased by The Merck Group last summer. Martin, who negotiated the sale, talked about the innovation initiative he had led at the company with the support of Creative Realities, an innovation consulting firm headed by Mark Sebell, who also was part of the conversation. One of the big learnings I came away with is about the need for specifics when it comes to communicating key company goals.

When Martin took over the helm of Millipore in 2005, he quickly found that while the company was doing well with incremental innovation it was seriously lagging when it came to achieving breakthrough innovations – those new products, services or business models that would really shake up the marketplace. He spent the next two years talking about innovation at every opportunity and doing all he could to foster it. He hosted town hall meetings, used contests and handed out awards, all to encourage more innovation. He also significantly increased R&D spending. And still, no breakthrough innovations came forward.

While some progress was made, it still wasn’t enough so in 2007, Martin brought in Creative Realities. The first thing they did was to conduct a diagnostic that would assess how well Millipore was doing against nine critical success factors of innovation identified by Creative Realities. Martin said the biggest surprise to come out of the diagnostic was that there was dissonance between what the executive team wanted and what the rest of the organization understood. “We had been saying for the last two years that we wanted breakthrough innovation and yet it still wasn’t clear,” he said.

While Martin and his executive team had been stressing that they wanted “big ideas” they had not defined what that meant so everyone interpreted it in their own way. Martin and his team set about defining very specifically what they meant by breakthrough innovation. From there, things really took off. People could see that the ideas they had in their pipeline that they thought were breakthrough didn’t meet the high bar that their CEO had set. So they started thinking bigger and came up with ideas with the potential to be real game changers.

The most important takeaway for me from this conversation was how important it is to be specific when communicating key goals or initiatives. Martin thought he was telling people what he wanted. But using general terms, like “breakthrough innovation” or “big ideas,” wasn’t getting the job done. To his surprise, when they started to discuss it there wasn’t even agreement among his executive team about what breakthrough innovation would look like.

So while you may feel you’ve talked a topic that is critical to the future of your company to death, check to see if the right message has really gotten through. Is your vision shared by your people? Do they understand what you want and why you want it? Are things changing as they need to change? If not, the problem may very well be in how you’ve crafted your message.

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