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Consensus: The Toxic Enemy of Creativity and Innovation  

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

Judges holding up score numbersSadly, we recently witnessed the sudden death of a good idea.

As often happens within an office culture and politics in medical practices, a healthcare marketing idea was killed off before creativity had any chance at all. And the really tough part is that it was swept away for all the wrong reasons.

In this particular case in point, the concept originator and proponents in this office—talented and experienced marketing professionals—gave up on the idea for fear that one principal wouldn’t like it. Perhaps egos were at stake. New ideas represents risk. A doctor's persona can dominate all aspects of a medical practice.

In this environment, “one vote” crippled the creativity. It was never tested. This idea was DOA for fear of rejection or fear of offending one of the decision makers. Consequently, the top dog in the office was happy while the business goals were being flushed.

It runs against “conventional wisdom” to say it, but creativity, innovation and sound marketing ideas face an uphill battle when their survival depends on consensus. Most often, marketing by committee—or fear of running against the current—means operating at the least effective, lowest common denominator.

Consensus kills courage…

To be clear, consensus BUILDING for new ideas is a vital ingredient. We’re not talking about drawing out the details, finding and encouraging champions, or winning buy-in among opinion leaders and top management. For that matter, we’re not judging if our particular example is a good idea or a rotten one.

It’s the process that merits caution. “Decision by committee” often takes one or more undesirable courses such as:

The Watered-down Result: In trying to please everyone, a good idea is often diluted by add-ons, addendums and one-off extras. While brainstorming and implementation steps can enhance…well, you know…too many cooks can lead to an ineffective middle ground.

The Damn-the-Torpedoes Result: Misguided collective thinking in a group setting can also foster a radical solution. They appear to have merit because they are extreme but not well considered. (Neither this result or the previous one benefit from a reality check or the voice of experience.)

The "Please-Everyone" Result: Well-intended efforts to please everyone invariably please no one. Somehow they “feel comfortable,” but they disconnect the intended goal and fail to produce meaningful results.

Giving up on a good idea for fear of offending one person typically stifles creativity and progress. And marketing decisions by committee rarely, if ever, work effectively. As the saying goes, “If one person can produce ineffective marketing, imagine what a committee can do.”

The better course…

Like it or not, the nation’s health care system is continuing to change and rugged competition is growing. Success in business depends, at least in part, on new ideas and creative approaches that are accepted or rejected on their value, not on politics or allegiance to “how we’ve always done things.”

  • Strong leadership and clear vision, not consensus, should chart the final course.
  • Have a plan anchored in realistic goals and quantifiable measures of results. Ideas that support the plan merit serious consideration.
  • Don’t confuse consensus building with consensus decision-making.
  • Beware of analysis paralysis. Often, life begins at the end of your comfort zone.

In the real world, it’s not always possible to insulate ideas from office politics, committee influences or unfair dominant personalities. What’s more, not all marketing ideas are good ideas. But decisions based on being “safe” or appealing to the lowest common denominator are being vetted by the wrong criteria.

The better course is to hire and trust knowledgeable experienced marketing talent. These are people who understand the ways and means of producing measurable results, who can balance new ideas with reasonable risk, and who are confident in their decision-making ability.


Stewart Gandolf, MBA

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