Richard Mulholland, heavily tattooed and sitting with 21 Tanks co-founder Don Packett in an office that includes a toilet, a skateboard and a bunkbed, is not what you’d typically expect from someone who services the blue-chip corporate market. But you’d be making a mistake if you didn’t take him seriously. His clients do, and they include the likes of Nissan, Media24, Liberty, Nokia, FNB and Hollard. It’s not only his unconventional approach, almost tangible energy or the fact that his mind is quite literally fizzing with ideas — Richard is smart. Smart enough at the very least to recognise when he’s wrong — which is how 21 Tanks came into existence.
While working with Absa on a presentation project landed by his other company, Missing Link, Richard (ever happy to let people know how he really feels) got into an argument with the client. “They wanted to do the presentation one way and I didn’t agree so I told them to do it, but I wasn’t happy putting our name to it and would refuse to charge them. Anyway, it went ahead the way they wanted and I was roundly shocked to discover that it was really successful,” he explains.
His response was to go straight back to his office and set a new rule. “I call it the 10% rule and it goes like this: there is always a 10% chance that the way we do things at Missing Link is wrong. So if you feel strongly enough about doing things a different way, you can invoke the 10% rule.”
What he realised is that every good thing that started coming out of Missing Link was the result of people invoking the 10% rule. “It got me thinking about perspective — about how the more specialised and expert you become, the narrower your field of perspective. We’d become experts at innovative presentation, but somewhere along the way I’d lost an important perspective. So I wanted to create a space where businesses could step outside themselves and get the kind of perspective that would drive true innovation, innovation that happens not when you start doing things a new way, but when you stop doing things the old way.”
The result was 21 Tanks. “Simply put, we want to blow a great big hole in the consulting model,” he says. 21 Tanks organises what Mulholland calls ‘perspective labs’, workshops made up of people from different industries who get together to solve clients’ problems and map out a way forward for execution.
“We have a brain’s trust made up of top thinkers from the other companies we’ve worked with and part of their payment to us is to make these people available for our labs. You find that people want to be involved — they like being part of something that finds workable solutions, even if those solutions don’t benefit their own business
directly,” he explains.
By bringing together people from across different industries, the labs provide just the kind of broad perspective that Mulholland believes is necessary to solve business problems.
“It’s very difficult to read the label from inside the bottle, so outside perspective is essential. And very often you’ll find that a cellphone company has struggled with the same kind of problem that an insurance company is battling with. So why not bring the two together to share ideas and find a solution,” he says.
But, Mulholland believes, it’s not just ideas that are needed. In fact, to his mind ideas are in abundance. “What’s really missing is execution,” he says, “Great ideas are thrown around in workshops but afterwards everyone goes back to their jobs and no one ever executes them.” Part of 21 Tanks’ model is to devote a portion of each lab to identifying what needs to be done, who needs to do it and, importantly, how work will be allocated in such a way to free up the people needed to execute the job.
“Ideas need to be nurtured like children,” he says, “and people need to learn how to become better idea parents. We focus on getting people to take ownership of the ideas that the labs generate, and then making sure the business creates a space for them to roll these out.” And once ideas are entrenched in the business, you can start to break old habits and open the way for innovation. “They say it takes 21 days to break a habit, hence 21 Tanks. We’re weapons of mass construction,” he concludes.
Overcoming the challenge of scaling up
21 Tanks’ offering is unique and compelling, but it relies heavily on the personal facilitation of Mulholland and Packett, a problem common to many entrepreneurs. “Our biggest challenge has been how to scale the business,” says Mulholland.
One of the solutions they’ve come up with is an online brainstorming tool, currently in production. Packett explains: “Modelled on our problem-solving methodology, the tool helps companies solve problems by inputting data into a system, which is a flow of events rather than the problem solver itself. Once the client is comfortable with running it themselves, they can subscribe to the service and run brainstorms using the online service from their own offices.” The service also allows for remote logins, so many computers can be working on the same brainstorm project simultaneously.
Players: Don Packett and Richard Mulholland
Company: 21 Tanks
Started in: 2008
Contact: +27 (0)11 795 2323