Bringing New Ideas Into a Closed System

Families who own family business are essentially a closed system. It’s not unusual for family members to share similar values, and grow up in the same cities or even in the same neighborhoods. They’ve been raised in the company culture, and focused on the ways the business defines and strengthens the family. All of these shared experiences make it hard to come up with unique, original ideas. Even though everyone in the family contributes their own ideas, it will still be a fixed set of ideas because you’re a fixed set of people. You only have so much experience and expertise to draw on.

That’s why a dynamic, adaptable family will be alert for new ways to stir the pot. Sometimes families need to look outside their own ranks for fresh perspectives. Including spouses or partners in the family council provides a full set of new ideas, but they will quickly become steeped in the family culture and more outside input becomes necessary.

1. Family business consultants

Family business consultants can offer a family understanding and background of the best practices in the industry. But they can also draw on their experiences with many other families and clients, so they bring not just their own ideas but the ideas they’ve garnered from working with many other families. A good consultant brings many different options and solutions, and it’s a great way to grow the skills and experiences of a family.

There are some drawbacks of hiring consultants. The biggest problem is that they’re only drawing on the experience they’ve had with their clients. They may not have a full perspective on the scope and history of the family. This is part of what makes it so difficult to find a consultant who’s a good match with the family. The consultant is a closed system, too. Consultants can bring in new ideas and help broaden a family’s perspective, but they shouldn’t be considered a total solution.

2. Conferences

One of the best ways to grow a family’s capabilities is to send several family members to family business conferences. There are conferences all over the world such as Family Business Magazine Transitions conference and Family Business Network conference. The best family business conferences have presentations by family members that are valuable chances to be exposed to a huge variety of concepts, ideas and solutions.

You can maximize the usefulness of a conference by bringing a challenge you’re working on. Throughout the conference experience, try to find people who are dealing with the same challenge, or people who have gotten through it. Go to Q&A periods, meet the panelists and speakers after their presentations, and really work on talking with them about your challenge. Find out what they did to solve a similar problem. You’ll bring back several different ideas of how different families have solved the problem. I’ve done this several times, and every time I’ve come back with the answer.

At conferences, you’re in a room with people who are facing the same challenges you’re facing or have found a solution to the challenges you’re going through. There are a finite number of challenges a family can face. There may be a scale of severity, but most problems are similar. At a conference, you have tons and tons of resources.

The hardest thing about a conference is that you’ll often hear a panelist of experts talk about something that sparks in your mind as an answer to your problem. But you don’t have the depth of understanding of that idea to take it back to your family and present it by yourself. That’s why it’s good to have several people from the family go together so you can compare notes and come back to family with a much fuller picture.

It can be difficult to get family members to go to conferences. One way to get people to a conference is to hold a family meeting at a conference location. It helps if everyone attends the conference and stays at the hotel for a day or so afterward to have a family meeting. I know many families who have done this and every single one has reported that it’s been wildly valuable.

Conferences are also the perfect opportunity for networking. Bring stacks and stacks of business cards. Follow up with every person you met at the conference with invitations to connect over time with the opportunities and challenges you’re both facing. I’ve met people at conferences that I still check in with every six months, asking, how’s it going? I know you were struggling with this issue before. How did you handle it? With every networking situation, you’re bringing some information to the table to share as well as gaining information from others. Networking is really a two-way street.

3. The Family Business Library

If it’s not feasible to bring multiple family members to a conference, it’s still possible to help everyone benefit from expert advice. Every family should develop a library of relevant books to share amongst themselves. Every book that’s really good should be sent out at least to every member on family council, and the group should have a discussion on it. This process helps frame how a decision can be made. It helps inform family members when they’re trying to make a big decision.

The same can be said for magazines. There are several magazines that can be useful resources. Not only will the featured family interviews help build your network, the magazines will bring a series of ideas and challenges that other families have faced and details on how each family managed the situation. There are often several experts who offer advice on a range of topics in magazine articles and profiles. Every member of the family council should have a subscription to a few essential magazines such as Family Business Magazine and Harvard Business Review. If there are family members on the board, other magazines and online subscriptions should be added to the list, including Directors and Boards, Wall Street Journal, National Association of Corporate Directors. One rule many families have is if a person receives any of these subscriptions, they are required to share any relevant article with the rest of the family.

4. Family Business Classes

Lastly, there are some excellent family business classes that can help a family build their net knowledge. Many classes focus on stewardship, leadership, governance, managing relationships, transitions, etc. There are several great courses held at Loyola Family Business Center. One of which is the Family Business Stewardship Institute; an 18 month course. The classes are held once a quarter for the duration and provide webinars and homework assignments in between sessions. The Stewardship Institute provides the students with case studies, guest lecturers, and templates and exercises to easily bring new concepts back to one’s family. At a minimum, every family council chair should attend a class like the Stewardship Institute. The real value of these classes is when several family council members attend the same course. This helps build the overall knowledge of the family and make it easier to introduce new concepts.

Family business classes, like books, magazines, conferences and consultants, help increase the net knowledge of the family. Only with a constant influx of new ideas and knowledge can a family break out of the closed system mentality. This allows for families to build creative and flexible solutions that can address the challenges a family is facing today.

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