Normalcy doesn’t push progress forward. People don’t transform industries by following in their predecessors’ footsteps. Bold ideas and bold leadership are contingent upon constant change.
Back in the mid-90s, I accepted a position running series development for MTV (my dream job). But what I walked into wasn’t exactly a dream. Viewers no longer wanted a network that only aired music videos all day long. Once successful shows had long since lust their luster (and there were no replacements waiting in the wings). Ratings were sliding. You get the point.
When they called a senior meeting to address these issues, I was excited to see what the best and brightest execs would come up with. Crickets. The only attempt at any sort of solution was short-lived, killed by the jokes of colleagues wanting to comedically one-up each other. This is what I would eventually come to call red light management — a system that unwittingly stops new and potentially ingenious ideas dead in their tracks.
Once You See One Flashing Red Light, You See Them All
During my first few weeks, I struggled to see what the process was for moving ideas forward. I later learned there wasn’t one. When I was promoted to head of all programming four months later, I knew I needed to challenge the way things were done. I wanted to push my team to be recklessly creative.
In opposition to red light management, I established green light management. This philosophy involves working processes from beginning to end, minimizing risks along the way by continually vetting ideas and improving or rejecting them as they come up.
Green Ketchup: An Example of Green Light Management
Ketchup has always been red, but why? What if ketchup was green instead? I know what you’re thinking: sounds weird and a little disgusting, right? Not to 90s kids.
Back then, there was a stint where Heinz’s market share remained unchanged. That is, until one of their employees (my old Harvard Business School classmate), Casey Keller, asked a focus group of kids if there was anything that could make ketchup more fun. One girl’s response: make it green. Casey laughed until he realized it was a genius idea. A year later, green ketchup was not only making headlines, it put an extra $200 million of revenue in Heinz’s wallet.
Ideas don’t always have to make sense. The ones that shake up the status quo often don’t. As leaders, it’s our job to identify, develop, and greenlight these ideas because we see their potential. So, how can you have your green ketchup moment?
The Green Light Management Pledge
Ideas move people, but leaders must also be able to move ideas. Bold ideas challenge leaders while also challenging traditional systems that aren’t accustomed to innovation. But divining a bold idea is one thing. Without proper execution, these ideas are futile. To get to the core of green light leadership, follow these 5 mantras:
1. Say it simply
When I worked on America’s First Wanted, we couldn’t get anyone to understand the show’s appeal at first. Neither viewers nor my bosses could wrap their head around its purpose; if we couldn’t get their buy-in, AMW was dead in the water.
Someone working on the show came up with the term “electronic mob justice” to describe its purpose. It caught fire. Now, AMW holds the title of the longest running scripted series in prime time. We believed in this revolutionary concept, and we made it happen. But I realized that in order to convince others of a vision, it had to be explained to them as simply and as powerfully as possible.
You shouldn’t need lengthy presentations to bring your ideas to life. Green light leaders know that the power of words isn’t contingent on how many you use, but actually on how few you use.
2. Don’t do “no”
A week into my new job at VH1, I called an offsite meeting with my creative team. Ratings were declining and no one at the company was taking any action, which meant employees felt uncomfortable bringing their ideas to the table. At this meeting, I told my team they each had to throw out three ideas on the spot. There was one rule: no negative feedback.
I didn’t want to pull my critical gavel out because I didn’t want people vying for the best idea by beating down everyone else’s suggestions. When you remove all negativity from the room, people are more likely to speak up. The substandard ideas will naturally fall to the wayside, the creativity spitball will gain momentum, and everyone ends up developing and supporting the best idea.
I believe you could argue a case for why any idea could work. When my team shared their ideas, I pointed out at least one positive attribute for every contribution. Soon, everyone joined in. Employees take cues from their leaders, after all. And nothing breaks down creativity faster than “no.”
3. Don’t care how
A red light manager will hear “it can’t be done” and give up. A green light leader, however, takes that as a challenge. During the very beginning of the creative process, you can’t concern yourself with the how — that comes later.
Not caring how helps you generate the dream and produce the dream. Putting the how aside encourages leaders and employees to think big and try everything to make the idea work. After all this, if there is no possible way to make the how work, you start again.
4. Break the rules
Don’t let process squash concept. Sometimes you have to let the concept dictate the process. When Laguna Beach premiered in 2004, we made history. We created an entirely new genre of show: half-reality and half-cinematic. Not only that, but it was the first show to start with a flashback. This broke all the rules that every reality-based television followed up to that point.
The show’s success was influenced by its distinctiveness. If you let yourself be confined to rules, you will never be able to think outside the box. This is what keeps leaders and companies restrained to outdated traditions.
5. Like to watch
Green light managers are perceptive. They are constantly aware of their surroundings and often use their observations to inform their thoughts and actions. Similarly, they understand the importance of perception to others. Show, don’t tell.
Good writers don’t describe a scene as heartbreaking, they depict characters and scenarios that show heartbreak. This is how business should work. For leaders, it’s more important to demonstrate what you want from employees than to consistently debate about it. People want to experience rather than theorize. For employees, if you want a manager’s buy-in, you have to illustrate the idea you’re thinking of.
You didn’t get to where you are today because you adhered to the status quo. And you definitely won’t get to where you want to be by doing things they way they’ve always been done. To be a green light leader is to be a disruptive force in your industry.