Michael Werner had been searching for a new business opportunity to satisfy his creative urges, but he never expected to find it over breakfast in a small restaurant nestled in the mountains of Colorado.
It was here that he used a napkin to draw up his plan to make a lot of money for Scott Ouyoung, founder and chairman of Globe Union Industrial Corp. The two men were on a trip to do some hiking in the mountains, but the topic on this morning was not over which trail to take. It was about business.
“I didn’t have any paper, but I was chock-full of ideas and I was kind of laying it out for him,” Werner says. “We really started laying out the foundation of what we wanted to build.”
Ouyoung wanted to expand his faucet business and Werner felt like he had a plan to make it happen. Some people would probably question how one could satisfy a creative urge by selling faucets, but Werner says your approach to a product can often do a better job of fueling your creative spirit than the product itself.
“You might say a faucet is not that innovative,” Werner says. “But our business model and the way we approach things is innovative.”
Werner and Ouyoung realized that they could help each other achieve their goals if they joined forces. Ouyoung took the first step by making Werner his head of North American operations as president and CEO at Globe Union Group Inc. in Chicago.
Werner quickly rewarded him for his faith. The Danze faucet brand went from nothing in 2002 to $100 million in sales by 2009 and global revenue increased from $125 million in 2002 to more than $700 million in 2009.
North American revenue totaled more than $400 million in 2009.
“It’s all been based upon the strategy and plans that I literally inked out on a napkin with him when we were hiking in the mountains of Colorado,” Werner says.
Enable open minds
Werner wanted to come up with a faucet brand that would stand out from the competition. It wouldn’t be easy.
“There are about 300 faucet companies offering products in North America,” Werner says. “So how do we create Danze so it’s not just another faucet company?”
It started with a simple premise.
“Most companies can provide a satisfactory level of service or product,” Werner says. “What you need to do is figure out how to go beyond satisfaction and truly delight them. If you can delight them, then everybody prospers. Satisfaction equals survival and delight equals prosperity.”
Werner starts by giving his employees a blank canvas on which to work toward this goal of delighting the consumer.
“Our approach is, we say to ourselves, ‘Rather than being constrained by what is, what if you could do anything? How would you create it differently?’” Werner says.
His philosophy in part stems from the book, “Ban the Humorous Bazooka,” written by his friend, Mark Sebell.
“Part of his thinking is that you have to really enable people to have flights of fancy,” Werner says. “When they come up with ideas, you can’t have the humorous bazooka, which is where you just explode it and shoot it down. You can’t have an idea that is so buttoned down that by the time the senior person gets it, all they can do is whack it and kill it because they can’t develop it. We try to have these innovative sessions where we say, ‘OK, how do we take this opportunity and pretend we’re creating a new company around it?”
Your goal is to foster an environment where people won’t be afraid to say anything if they think it’s a good idea. If you can do this well, you’ll also avoid getting ideas at a point where it’s too late to offer your own thoughts and input that can help your team.
“I actually get frustrated with my people when they want to present something to me when it’s completely finished because at that point, I have two options: Thumbs up or thumbs down,” Werner says.
“You’re much better off with an interactive process. In most businesses, the leader didn’t get there because they were born there or because they were anointed. They earned it. They have good ideas and they can provide good input. In my case, I am highly creative and I can think outside the box.
“So I’d much rather work with my people as they are developing something and have regular updates and be able to problem solve with them and help them solve their problems rather than get something when it’s all wrapped up with a bow around it and you either love it or hate it.”
In evaluating the faucet market, Werner wanted to get a sense of what the others did well or didn’t do well and how he might be able to capitalize on it. He also wanted to steer them away from just buying in to his ideas.
“You hear what you want to hear and you interpret things in a way that is consistent with your value set and what you’re looking for and that’s how you end up with groupthink,” Werner says.
His solution to avoiding this problem was to have his employees take on the roles of competitors and the customers that those competitors were trying to sell to.
“Somebody might pretend they are Delta and somebody might pretend they’re Moen,” Werner says. “They try to look at their strengths and weaknesses. Then we also try to have people who represent the customer, the B2B customer and the end-unit customer. We try to identify what’s most important to them. A lot of this is initially traditional market research. The difference between us and others is that we do it internally.
“We do it ourselves. If we need specific knowledge, we’ll go on the outside and somebody will help us. But we try to do it ourselves because we want to have our people all be innovative and think innovatively. If you just rely on an outside consultant, they’ll hand you a beautiful report, but then what will you do with it? If your people help create it, then they really believe in it and it means something. We want our people to think strategically, not just have somebody hand it to them on a platter.”
When you get people to look at something from a different viewpoint, such as through taking on the role of a competitor, you open their own eyes and get them to take ownership. You also keep them from looking at things through your eyes.
“What I try to do is get people to not lock in too early to any one idea because human nature is you’ll kind of grab a hold of something and you own it and it’s yours and you don’t want to change,” Werner says. “People become change-resistant. So I try to get people to hold off committing until we’ve really been through all the ideas.”
Getting people to be willing to change their viewpoint is a critical component to reaching a thoroughly researched and conclusive decision.
“A lot of times with a leader, what will happen is the subordinates worry about what the leader would do and they end up paralyzing themselves,” Werner says. “What you have to be willing to do is not micromanage your people. Let them make mistakes. If they’re going to make a tragic mistake, you’ll save them. But there are very few people who die day in and day out in business. Most things are recoverable.”
Make a decision
Werner’s ability to take the creativity of his employees and harness it to select an idea that would work is one reason that Danze succeeded. If
you can’t do that, you’ll just keep having brainstorming sessions and never get anywhere.
“I can think of 100 ideas a minute,” Werner says. “The challenge for me is channeling them and limiting them.”
Werner uses a democratic system of voting for many situations at Globe Union, but it’s not a simple case of majority rules.
“We might have 20 ideas that get thrown up,” Werner says. “We’ll give everybody dots and everybody gets to vote. My dot counts no more than the newest hire’s dot. We’ll see which ones have the most energy around them and talk not about who got the most votes, but where is the most energy? We’ll try to narrow it down to pick three topics to develop.”
So how do you manage when it seems like you just can’t narrow down your list?
“If you think about ideas, if you have two people going back and forth, you have point/counterpoint and you can kill any idea,” Werner says. “If instead, you try to list all the positives and then, separately, you take what might be the negative and turn them into how-tos, they’re not really negatives. They are how-tos that get in the way.”
If you need to, make people change their language.
“I’ll say, ‘Can you re-ask that question?’” Werner says. “Rather than saying, ‘This won’t work,’ turn it around and say, ‘In order for this to work, these are the how-tos I must solve.’ We’ll literally try to lay out the strategies, the initiatives and the action steps that are required to drive them. We have those pretty rigorously detailed out in a living document that’s in an Excel or PowerPoint worksheet. Each month we review it and talk about it. What are the bottlenecks to success? What are the failures?”
Following a structure helps you take the broad boundaries of creativity and harness them into an idea to help your business.
“A lot of companies have great ideas,” Werner says. “But the next month, they have 10 more great ideas. So we try to pick the ones that really have the most energy and then we’re going to stick with them. We’re not going to a month later move on to the next thing. That’s where our planning process really helps us. We have not 20 inches of documents, but literally 10 pages that create a plan for an area. But the plans are really the initiatives, goals and action steps. They are very organized and all focused on what is executable.”
Still, there is a reason companies have presidents and CEOs. You need to make sure your employees stay on track with harnessing their creativity into workable action plans.
“The only goal is that they have a meeting every month,” Werner says. “If I don’t force them to have a meeting, they’ll get busy and you’ll have three or four months go before they have a meeting. And you find out four months later that half the people didn’t do what they said they were going to do because they got distracted. If they meet every month and it’s good project management discipline, it keeps things on track.”
The key is to start out small and let it build.
“Find some things where you can take one little thing and do it and try to model the success and move on to the next thing,” Werner says. “You can’t do it all at once.”
But you can do it when you let your employees explore a problem from all angles and put their talents to use in search of a solution, such as Werner’s team with the faucet industry.
“For us, the creativity begins with understanding the markets,” Werner says. “And then going through a whole series of exercises, which may be war games and new product development games and all sorts of role-playing and strategic tools to come up with things that are just different.”