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VOL. 128 | NO. 65 | Wednesday, April 03, 2013
Graber Atkinson

Michael Graber & Jocelyn Atkinson

Zero Budget – What a Boon

By Michael Graber & Jocelyn Atkinson

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Entrepreneurs come alive when all odds are stacked against them. Think of the famous stories. Walt Disney and Frank Lloyd Wright going bankrupt several times until their visions pay off. Edison brokering the GE deal that meant the West would use the type of electricity the wizard of Menlo Park created. Steve Jobs kicked out of Apple, starting Next. The old saying holds true: the darkest hour is just before the dawn.

Most corporate drones lack this fortitude – and one reason is that it is impossible to take risks if you have the comfort of knowing you have a budget. Not until a concept stares into the void – of life, of death – does it earn the right to try and thrive in the market.

Nothing stymies innovative thinking more than the inability to conceptualize a pipeline of products, services, and leaps in business models without relying on a budget.

Once a budget is provided, it typically narrows the scope of thinking. Worse than constricting the vision and possibilities, budgetary thinking keeps lazy professionals in a rut. Acting in default mental models, they will compare what they do now, how they do it and what they are trying to change by thinking about the how the budget is used today. In essence, the actions inherent in the budgetary mindset pre-set the limits and actions of planning. The golden handcuff theory applies to new product and service concepts when conceived with the constraints of a budget as much as it does to professionals stuck in a bad situation because of a financial compromise.

One exercise that taps innovative thinking is to imagine that you have no money to birth and socialize a new concept, idea, service, or product. As a pilot study, give two teams an assignment. Have them develop a breakthrough concept that will increase top-line revenue by 10 percent or more within 18 months. Then tell both groups that they have to get internal buy-in, develop a go-to-market plan and campaign and craft a full marketing strategy.

Next, tell the first group that they have a budget of $2 million. The second group will have to move ahead without any internal funding. Given them a day to craft and workshop draft plans. Then, it is presentation time.

What you might discover is that the group without the budget is forced to find new and inventive ways to connect with buyers and influencers – and that the radical thinking they employ can be adapted to other, more mature lines of business.

Money is as much as a numbing drug as it can be an active current; it depends on how it is used. By role playing and acting as if there is no budget, those in charge of an innovation are forced to think outside of their normal habitual patterns and limited experiences.

Force your team to get outside of its comfort zone. Assign a zero-budget exercise. You may be amazed at how cunning, crafty and creative your team can be when forced to imagine the impossible.

Jocelyn Atkinson and Michael Graber run the Southern Growth Studio, a strategic growth firm based in Memphis. Visit www.southerngrowthstudio.com to learn more.

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