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June 9, 2011 – A few weeks ago, 17-year-old Scotty McCreery was crowned the 10th American Idol. Although I’ve never been a huge fan of the show, Idol offered something different this season: new superstar judges and a baker’s dozen of the youngest, most unique competitors to come down the pike in quite a while.

As I watched each show, it occurred to me that the challenges facing the contestants had parallels in business, and that like winning American Idol, to win in business you need to conquer all of them.

Here are a few that sprang to mind:

Fierce competition – Hundreds of thousands of hopeful singers across the U.S. auditioned, and only 13 made it to “the show.” The margin of differences in talents and skills among the finalists was narrow, and a slight misstep could cause a loss. The business battlefield is no different: blink and the other guy wins.

Change – Each week, the genre of song selection was different, mandating an ability to learn and adjust to a “new model.” Who hasn’t had a fickle customer who changes their mind from one week to the next? The ability to respond makes all the difference.

Social capital – The marketplace—the public—decided on the winners. Therefore, each contestant needed to create a following—a dedicated and loyal audience. The ability to garner a following is the focus of social media in business today.

Performance pressure – It makes no difference what our particular stage may be, we all face the pressure to get results quickly.

Resource constraints – Rarely did the contestant get to choose what they performed. They were given the constraints of genres and songs and time limits within which they had to perform. In business, we’re assigned projects and goals, and whether it’s a deadline, 10 day sales report or quarterly earnings, we all operate under time constraints.

Staying relevant – A few times, contestants sang songs no one had heard of—to their detriment. Whatever you offer, whatever your idea, it needs context to be meaningful. If it’s too far out of the box, people won’t know what to do, so they will wait and see. On Idol that means no votes. In business it means no sales.

Innovation – Copying the rendering and style of the original recording artist doesn’t cut it. Nor does doing the same thing over and over again. New, better and different is the requirement, no matter what the job.

Differentiation – All of the contestants were extremely talented. The key was standing out from the others. Likewise, few, if any, businesses have the luxury of being the only player in the market, so offering a distinct value proposition becomes paramount.

What I found most compelling was the constructive feedback from the judges as they guided the performers in facing these challenges. For the first time, I thought they stepped out of the judging role and into the coaching role. I collected their advice over the course of the series, and here are the best tips, in the words of Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and Randy Jackson themselves (with a bit of interpretation thrown in for good measure):

“Do you.” Know who you are, where your authentic talents lie.

“Grip the audience.” Connect with people, tap into their emotions by investing yours in your work.

“Be specific.” Whatever your performance, you’re sending a message—what exactly is it?

“Be professional.” Prepare, prepare, prepare. Then do it again.

“Eat the stage.” Whatever your resources, exploit them for all they’re worth.

“Mix it up.” Variety is the spice of life, and art. Same ole same ole is boring.

“Don’t overthink.” Keep it simple, stupid!

“Own it.” Take complete control of what’s in your control.

“Bring the art.” Art = ingenuity + skill + passion.

“Step out.” Take a chance, stretch your skills.

“Rip it.” Don’t hold back. Engage fully!

“Have fun.” If you’re not having fun, the rest of us know it. Not only does it diminish your performance, it negatively affects others.

Everyone in business is a performer. The collective wisdom above amounts to a great set of strategies applicable to whatever your role may be.

Matthew E. May is the author of The Shibumi Strategy: A Powerful Way to Create Meaningful Change (2010), In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing (Broadway Business, 2009) and The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation (Free Press, 2006). Matt works with individuals, teams and companies to guide change through a focus on design thinking and problem solving. He pent nearly a decade as a fully retained advisor for Toyota, where he became a master kaizen coach. Matt is a graduate of the Wharton School and The Johns Hopkins University, but considers winning The New Yorker Magazine Cartoon Caption Contest among his proudest achievements.


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