Baby steps and innovation

Implement Ideas with Baby Steps

So your creative, collaborative team has come up with the stunning, incredible idea to power all of your factories with wind and solar power. It's an idea that is sexy, green and sure to garner good publicity for your company. At least it seemed an awfully good idea when your team dreamed up the idea over beer at the pub around the corner from the office last night. But now that you are back at your desk, it seems a rather overwhelming change to inflict upon your company. Worse, everyone whom you've shared the idea with thinks you are "out of your mind!" And, indeed, you are beginning to wonder how many beers you and your teammates had last night.

This kind of thing often happens following the birth of a great idea, whether it is over drinks after work, the result of a brainstorm or a suggestion submitted to your idea management software. Big, crazy, breakthrough ideas seem wonderful when you are dreaming them up, but frightening when it comes time to implement them. Fortunately, the field personal development has a technique that you can apply: personal development planning (PDP). Indeed, this approach is so simple and effective, I have included it in as the fourth and final step of the anticonventional thinking process.

Personal Development Planning (PDP)

PDP is about achieving personal goals. Just like creative ideas, personal goals can seem desirable when you dream about them but overwhelming to implement. The 50 year old accountant, who is bored with her job and dreams of travelling around the world on her bicycle, finds it easier to dream about her big goal than to take the steps necessary to achieving it. Why? Because the dream involves a lot of frightening change: giving up her job and reliable income; travelling to strange and possibly dangerous places; funding the trip; and returning to the world of work after a year or more cycling the world.

PDP says you should break the goal down into smaller, achievable steps and envisioning each step. In the case of the accountant, the first steps might include: joining a bicycling club to gain more experience and talk to others with the shared interest; planning relatively short bicycle trips during her holidays, calculating costs and putting aside some money each month; and so on. Small steps such as these are sometimes called "baby steps". Baby steps are less intimidating and eminently more doable than running blindly into your goal. PDP says that when you take such a baby-steps approach you are much, much more likely to achieve it than if you just dream it.

PDP also says you should focus your thinking on each step, what needs to be done in order to achieve it and how you will feel about. This will make it easy to tackle each step towards your goal. Importantly, with each completed step, you will achieve some of the satisfaction of accomplishing a goal.

Applying It to Innovation

In business, a creative idea is essentially an original way of achieving a goal. In our example, you and your team came up with a great way to substantially reduce your business's carbon footprint and reliance on fossil fuels. However, implementing it in one fell swoop would be a massive undertaking. No wonder it seems scary when you get to your desk. No wonder your boss won't approve it. The end point of the implemented idea -- or goal -- may be desirable, but the necessary change is intimidating! But, just like our 50 year old accountant who dreams of cycling round the world, you can break your big idea into baby steps. These will make the idea more doable, easier to sell to your boss and much more likely to happen.

In our example, your first steps might include: identifying factories suitable for a pilot test; getting sunshine and wind information for each of those locations; selecting a factory to serve for the pilot test; installing a small wind turbine; installing solar panels; compiling results; extrapolating requirements for a powering an entire factory with renewable energy; and so on. Each of these steps is relatively small, will cost little and poses minimal risk to you or your company. If you see failure early on, you can re-evaluate the project and make changes or even cancel it before any substantial investment or change has taken place.


However, there is one more thing you need to do. In personal development, the person who is developing herself needs to take charge off each step in her path to achieving her goal. In team led innovation in an organisation, you need to ensure that there is a person responsible for each and every baby step. And, in the very first steps, the people in charge need to be members of your team. If you do not do this, you can be sure even the baby steps will never be taken! (In a recent anticonventional thinking workshop in which participants were breaking their ideas into baby steps, I saw a small team enthusiastically preparing a list off steps. Indeed, I thought they were a little too enthusiastic. When I spoke with them, I found that they were happily assigning steps to their colleagues and none to themselves! I pointed out that while this would make the tasks easier from their perspective, it substantially reduced the likelihood of their idea being implemented. At minimum, their first steps would have to be to convince their selected colleagues to take charge of their assigned steps. I am sorry to say that the team's enthusiasm was reduced substantially by this insight --but their planning improved dramatically!)

This approach is remarkably effective1, whether you want to implement changeS across your company or within a team or division. Moreover, it empowers the owners of an idea to take steps towards implementing it. For this reason, it has been included as the fourth step of the anticonventional thinking (ACT) process. But it can also be used with ideas selected from idea management tools, brainstorming and elsewhere.


1) Fernando Cardoso de Sousa (2102) "What if you change IWWMI into WASNT?"; Report 103 -


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Jeffrey Baumgartner
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Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium




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