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Report 103
A weekly newsletter on creativity, ideas, innovation and invention.

Tuesday, 13 July 2004
Issue 25

Hello and welcome to another issue of Report 103, your weekly newsletter on Creativity, ideas, innovation and invention.

As always, if you have news about creativity, idea innovation or invention please feel free to forward it to me for potential inclusion in Report103. Your comments and feedback are also always welcome.


There is an old American joke that goes: “when you assume, you make an ASS out of U and ME.” How true. While I won't deny their usefulness, assumptions can be dangerous things. They are particularly dangerous when made about your customers.

Polaroid was a pioneer in digital imagery, having designed a digital film back for large format cameras in the early 1990s. However, they didn't bring their invention to market until 1996 because they had been trying to find a way to bundle it with a printer. Polaroid was so caught up in producing instant prints, it never occurred to them that their customers might be willing, indeed happy, to look at images on a computer screen. They had made assumptions based on their then current business model, which had been in place for decades.

Likewise, about a dozen years ago a company then called the Nation Publishing Group (NPG), a Bangkok company which produced magazines and newspapers in Thai, English and Japanese, was all set to launch an English language fortnightly tabloid for teenagers. They wanted to call it Nation Junior. The guy in charge of the communications division of NPG said it was a bad title and could kill the magazine. “Teens won't like the condescending 'junior' in the title” he said. The group ignored his advice, published the magazine and it was a resounding success, soon becoming their best selling title. The head of communications was a westerner – who was relatively new to Thailand - and made assumptions about Thai teenagers based on his experience with teens in Europe and America. Truth be told, that guy also happened to be me!

Getting caught up in a corporate culture also includes taking on corporate assumptions. Moreover, it is all too easy to assume your customers view your products in the same way that you do and use your products only in the ways you expect them to do.

In larger B2B (business to business) companies, the situation is worse because often only sales people have direct contact with the customers. Other departments do their own thing, based on assumptions about customers. In the case of B2C (business to consumers) companies, the situation is not so bad because people throughout the organisation are likely to be consumers of their company's products.

What can you do? Destroy your assumptions!

First, put someone in charge of destroying assumptions: an Assumption Destruction Manager.

The Assumption Destruction Manager should initially sit down with a team representing a cross-section of your company's human resources. Run a brainstorm session to come up with as many assumptions about your products, services and customers as you can in 40-60 minutes. One person should make a list of assumptions while everyone else shouts out assumptions about their products and services. All assumptions should be written down. No criticism allowed!

At the end of the session compile all proposed assumptions into a single list. Sometimes, multiple assumptions can be combined under one assumption. Other assumptions may not be relevant. Others may be incontrovertible facts (although be careful not to assume assumptions are facts).

The next step will require some weeks, if not months. The assumption destruction manager must go through all assumptions on the list, on an assumption by assumption basis, and assume they are wrong. This should be done in groups that include relevant staff and, where possible, customers, suppliers and business partners. Alternatively, you could hire consultants – such as my colleagues and I – to assist (is that subtle self promotion or what?).

With each assumption, assume it is wrong and ask:

1. If the assumption is wrong, what alternative situations might exist (call these neo-assumptions).

2. If the neo-assumptions are true, how can we alter our products and services to better suit the situation. A follow up brainstorming session might be useful for generating ideas here.

3. If step two requires a significant change in the way we do business, how can we test the original assumption as well as the neo-assumptions?

4. Perform those tests.

5. If changes are necessary, draw up an action plan.

Once all assumptions have been analysed, compile all the action plans together into one grand action plan.

Destroying your assumptions is no minor task. It will require substantial resources in terms of time and people. Yet, if you've been in business for more than five years, it is probably critical: you almost certainly making out of date assumptions about your products, services and customers.

For more advice on destroying your assumptions, please feel free to contact me.


If you want to discuss issues raised in this newsletter or general issues related to creativity, ideas, innovation and invention, then join ValpoCella, our e-mail based discussion forum on applied creativity and innovation in business. Joining ValpoCella is free and puts you in contact with global innovation and creativity experts. You can join by sending a blank e-mail to or via


I have often written about the importance of collaboration in idea management and innovation. Bringing varied people into the ideation, evaluation and implementation process also brings in a variety of experience and knowledge which can only enrich your innovation process.

Likewise, creative brainstorming teams can come up with more dynamic ideas in a half hour than the individuals could if brainstorming independently.

However, there is one kind of team that tends to be absolutely deadly to ideas: the committee.

I remember back in my advertising days, we had dreamed up a direct mail campaign, for a hotel client, that targeted local secretaries. The theme was: “Don't tell your boss.” Everyone in the client company loved it individually.

But, when those same people sat down together as a committee to review our proposal, they eventually struck it down. They were afraid it might offend the secretaries' bosses. They thought the “Don't” was too negative. We argued (politely, of course), but in the end we had to come up with an alternative. After several proposals, the client finally accepted: “Your Company Benefits.”

Now, if you were a secretary and received in the post two letters, one proclaiming: “DON'T TELL YOUR BOSS” and the other: “YOUR COMPANY BENEFITS”, which would you be most likely to open? Which would most likely go directly to the rubbish bin?

I have no idea why it is the case, but as soon as a group of people form a committee, they feel a need to be critical of ideas put to it. Worse, committees seem to bring out the repressed paranoia in each member.

This is one big reason why small firms are much better at bringing dynamic new products and services to the market: there is usually one decision maker who can say yes or no. If she says yes, the company can go ahead. In large companies, ideas are usually reviewed by committees of one sort or another. These committees criticise the ideas, demand changes that dilute the innovative aspects of the ideas and expect endless reviews with further changes.

If you run a medium to large firm and don't want committees to dilute your innovative potential, there are two things you can do.

One) Get rid of your committees. By devolving profit and loss responsibility to middle managers, you create individuals who make decisions; rather than committees who make decisions for them. Of course some middle managers will be more timid than committees when it comes to implementing ideas. They must be encouraged to be more daring; or moved to a position where their timidity will not slow the flow of innovation.

Alternatively, a lot of companies create separate virtual businesses to develop and launch new products. The virtual businesses are essentially small businesses run by the idea owner, but supported by the company. This provides the advantages of a small company with the power of a large one and can be very effective.

Two) Change the way committees review ideas. One reason committees tend to be negative about ideas is that they do not have a structured evaluation procedure. Providing one forces a committee to look at ideas in a more realistic manner.

Structured evaluation can be as simple as creating an advantages and disadvantages chart and demanding that every member of the committee provide at least one advantage and disadvantage.

Better still is a criteria based evaluation. You determine the criteria relevant for an idea. For example, the criteria for a new product are likely to include expected profitability, uniqueness in the market, cost of development, time of development, integration with current product line, absence of potential legal complications and so on. By seeing how well the product meets each criterion, you can quickly determine its merits and otherwise.

Indeed, we have found this method of evaluation so effective, we have used it as the basis of the evaluation tools in several of our innovation web applications.

If you are a vendor selling a product or a service to a committee, you can neither strike down the committee nor demand it follows a structured evaluation process. But you can encourage a structured evaluation process. For example, if a committee becomes critical of your proposal, thank them for their comments and ask if you could make an advantages and disadvantages chart (hopefully there will be a flipchart or whiteboard available). But rather than tell the committee the advantages of your proposal, ask them to come up with all the advantages and disadvantages. You should simply encourage ideas and write them down. Once this is done, go through the advantages and disadvantages. Hopefully, you can demonstrate that the advantages of your proposal outweigh the disadvantages. If not, at least you will have obtained valuable information about how the committee thinks.

And finally, when you find yourself on a committee, do try to ignore the urge to be highly critical and make every effort to calm the paranoia. Otherwise, you'll only throw away some potentially brilliant ideas.


We have made a few improvements on Sylvia Web Brainstorming, a web application that allows you to run structured brainstorming sessions across the web with up to 100 participants. Improvements include improved efficiency, fixing one obscure bug (that no one but us had found!) and faster refresh rates which result in ideas appearing on the public screen more quickly. We have also added a kill switch which allows users to stop the ideation process and go directly to evaluation. We found that some users are entering longer than necessary ideation times under the assumption that more is better. In fact, the ideal ideation period for a brainstorm session is 30-60 minutes. Beyond that, participants lose their enthusiasm. Moreover, individuals testing Sylvia, rather than using it for a serious brainstorming session, are particularly likely to lose interest after a few minutes of ideation and want to go to the evaluation phase to see how it works. The kill button allows them to do this.

We have also integrated Sylvia with Jenni enterprise idea management and offer it as an optional module for Jenni.

For more information about Sylvia, visit

For more information about Jenni, visit

Happy thinking,

Jeffrey Baumgartner





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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium