Forbes: Growth Stories: Breaking Free From Old Assumptions

By Alastair Dryburgh

Sometimes growth can't come from doing more of the same. You need a creative leap. And that creative leap is also destructive — destructive of assumptions and principles that have served you well in the past but now hold you back. How do you break the impasse and find the new assumptions that will take you forward? I talk to Christian Madsbjerg of ReD Associates.

 Source: ReD Associates

Source: ReD Associates

Alastair Dryburgh: Christian, we're talking about growth and we're particularly interested in the creative leap, the thing that you need to do when you've reached a point where simply continuing what you're doing or doing more of some things, less of other things, doesn't work. Tell me a little bit about how that process actually works.

Christian Madsbjerg: There is a myth in lots of businesses that creativity has a certain look to it and a certain style to it, which is beanbag chairs, lots of Post-it notes,very free-flowing conversation, lack of critique. No pushback, all ideas are good ideas. And the brainstorm is the symbol of that. I've never been in a productive brainstorm and I've been in hundreds . That's the myth that that's how creativity happens and how people take creative leaps, yet that's not what I see.


Dryburgh: Tell me more...

Madsbjerg: It's much harder than that, unfortunately, and that's the bad news. It really is about thinking, so what I see is that when a company starts, it's founded often on particular principles or assumptions about the market, about the way something should work.

In the pharmaceutical industry in the 70s, it was decided, not that anybody raised their hands and voted on it, but it was decided that there's a certain way of going to market, which is hiring people, probably good-looking people, giving them a car and a bag of material, and then-

Dryburgh: having them drive around and visit doctors.

Madsbjerg: Having them drive around visiting doctors, and that assumption has been there for a long time. But at a certain point, it's so clear to everyone that it isn't working any more. The dissonance, the distance between reality and the internal assumptions about reality is so great that it ends up creating a crisis. That's when good leaders and people who want to grow say, "What are the new assumptions we ought to make about this, and what are the consequences to the way we operate and invest and think about things?"

So when the number of minutes that our sales rep gets with a doctor falls from eight minutes to seven minutes to six minutes, and now down to two and a half minutes on average, then there's a point when the dissonance, the distance between assumption and reality gets so large that they can't maintain it anymore.

And that's exactly where we're at now in the healthcare industry. The healthcare industry is now reconsidering their assumptions, the ones Pfizer really invented in the 70s. Only the ones that reinvent a helpful model based on a view of reality and a view of what doctors need, what patients need, how patients and doctors and nurses work together, will regain trust and regain the ear of the doctor and be successful.

Dryburgh: Has anyone done that yet, or started on that, or come up with a plausible replacement for the old way of doing things?

Madsbjerg: I think there's a lot of exciting experimentation going on. I think Novartis is doing interesting things, where they're saying "What are the digital support mechanisms we could create around that?" Then Novo Nordisk, which is a client of mine, are thinking "How do we get people in control of their disease," rather than "How do we push more pills?" How do we create systems where the doctor and the patient get into a conversation that isn't a negative one and isn't about guilt?

Dryburgh: This is an adherence problem, yes.

Madsbjerg: Yes, that's the big elephant in the room in the healthcare industry, the adherence problem.

Dryburgh: It sounds from what you're saying, that this experimentation is still in fairly early stages?

Madsbjerg: It's been going on for five years, but changing the model of one of the biggest industries in the world of how they go to market and getting it right is really hard. And then the first couple of times somebody does that and is brave enough to challenge their own assumptions they might fail, and then everybody says "Oh, we go back to the old model." So it goes back and forth.

Dryburgh: I think that's a very, very common theme. It's that the assumptions that got you to where you are, which may have driven huge success, then cease to be useful and become counterproductive.

Madsbjerg:  The great leaders are the ones that can stare into that with some clarity and transparency, and say "What got me here might not be true anymore."

Dryburgh: That's interesting. You said the great leader or the effective leader is the one who can see when established assumptions no longer apply and come up with different ones, so tell me a little bit more about that person. If you were to look for those sorts of people what would you be looking for? Is it the personality type, is it the sort of experience they've had, is it the sort of education they've had? What is it that makes people effective in this way?

Madsbjerg: That's a good question. I find that the people I enjoy working with are the ones who explore things, keep things open longer. They tend to have broad, rounded backgrounds. Not just pure finance or pure technology... maybe they understand finance, but they will also be interested in people or interested in language. They will quite likely be readers. I've found that the people that are best at challenging things do it on an ongoing basis in all parts of their life, and reading is one way of getting access to that sort of muscle of investigating and training yourself for something. They don't just go with the assumption, they go "Hm, I wonder if that's true?"  It's a critical thinking skill. We looked at the numbers in America and we found that the normal discourse is if you study science, technology, engineering and math, you will get a good job, fairly well paid right out of school.

Dryburgh: Yes...

Madsbjerg: But then we looked at the top five percent earners, the people that make the most money in America, and we found that people with a liberal arts or humanities background are three times more represented there. There are three times more of those in the top five percent earners than people with engineering and science backgrounds. The critical thinkers have a training in how to engage with art, culture, literature, language, and so on.

Dryburgh: This is fascinating. Could you give me the best example of someone who has been particularly effective in this way?

Madsbjerg: Jim Farley, who's the head of commercial, runs all markets at Ford. He is a critical thinker, and he's constantly out looking for the statistical but also cultural changes in how we move around. For instance, one of his big interests is what he calls New Europe. Like we, Old Europe, travel and move in a particular way and with a particular style. But what about all the new people that came to Europe lately? How does that explain the success of the lineups of Nissan and Toyota? The Nissan Qashqai for instance,  is a success, and from any classic western European perspective, it makes no sense. Yet it's successful. How do we understand that?

It would not be enough for him to say "78% of people think this or that," he would want to understand and he's out there constantly reading, looking, interviewing, questioning, to try to understand what's going on. That's probably why he is one of the most successful automotive executives around right now. His brother is a very famous comedian. He's rather different from most executives, but the reason why he's there, is this sort of ability to constantly challenge how we think about something.

This article first appeared on Forbes.com