A weekly newsletter on creativity, ideas, innovation and invention.
Tuesday, 5 October 2004
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.
Some years ago, I took my brother-in-law to a monastery in Ayudaya (many young men in Thailand and other Buddhist countries do a brief stint in the monastery in order to obtain merit; this is what my brother in law was doing). At the time I was running two businesses in hectic Bangkok. I remember taking him to his room where there was a simple wooden plank bed, a mattress and a shelf with a small pile of books about the Lord Buddha and his teachings. For the next three weeks he would lead a simple life of meditation and learning. Most of all, I remember thinking that if I could replace the small pile of books with a variety of literature and a few tomes on technology and e-business practises, hiding away in a monastery in the countryside would be a truly great thing for the creative mind: a chance to really think without the interruptions of a business: telephones, e-mail, meetings, staff problems and so on.
I was reminded of this the other day when I read that a couple of times a year, Bill Gates does essentially what I dreamed of doing in Ayudaya. He takes a stack of books on the latest business trends to a remote cabin in the woods where he spends a week or so of uninterrupted reading and thinking.
Sadly, in our modern world, this is an increasingly hard thing to do. It wasn't always this way. There was a time when vacations meant taking a break from work and refreshing the mind. In part, this is because 20 years ago, mobile telephones were not commonplace and only technical academics even knew what e-mail was. So, employees turned off their day to day worries and focused on enjoying their holidays.
These days, most employees – at least at the management level and above – feel obliged to stay in touch with the office when they go on holiday. They leave their cellphones on and regularly check their e-mail. I understand this work obsession is at its worst in hard working America, but few European or Japanese managers would go on holiday without at least bringing their work cellphone along. Most would be hard pressed not to check in with the office once in a while.
This is great for managing the mundane, day to day operations of your business, but lousy for thinking big thoughts, reviewing the big issues and generating those revolutionary ideas that could transform your business. Indeed, senior managers who insist on remaining in contact with their companies every single working day of the year are probably doing their companies a disservice. They are doing fine on the details, but failing on the big-picture. Most senior managers should be focusing on the latter.
If you are a business owner, senior manager or otherwise responsible for strategic issues (rather than day-to-day issues), you should follow the example of my brother-in-law and Bill Gates. Spend at least one week a year where you disconnect completely from your company. Switch off your mobile phone, leave your laptop at home, select a few good books, get yourself a nice thick blank notebook and run off somewhere quiet and inspirational where you can think. It will take a couple of days for your mind to break away from the day to day issues and, like an newly ex-smoker, you may even have desperate pangs for a cellphone and a call to your secretary. Ignore these pangs. If your secretary and staff are any good, they will manage fine without you. You should think, innovate and make notes.
After three or four days, you will be amazed at how clear-thinking you have become and the kind of ideas you have. The only problem is that you may not want to go back to work!
At jpb.com, we've taken this concept one step further by designing a collection of brainstorm retreats. The idea is that a team of executives leave their cellphones, laptops and trivial worries behind and retire to a secluded hotel in a naturally beautiful area (such as the Belgian Ardeenes, the Swiss Alps, the Dartmoor in the UK, Chiang Mai in Thailand or the like). Once there, we run through some exercises to clear the executives' minds. This is followed by a number of customised brainstorming exercises designed to get the executives generating ideas related to the key strategic issues relevant to their companies. It is a time to think about strategy and the big picture.
Brainstorming retreats combine the collective innovative potential of a team of executives together with the concept of getting away from day-to-day distractions which not only distract them from thinking, but also tend to focus their thinking on the wrong issues.
WHY YOU NEED IDEA MANAGEMENT
I've written a lot about idea management in Report 103 – which isn't surprising as it is my company's major product. And I have often stressed the advantages of idea management for companies that want to grow through innovation.
But to discover the real reason why medium to large companies need an idea management tool to innovate better and grow from innovation look no further than the company canteen or the nearby pub where staff go for a drink after work.
If you were to visit either of these places and listen, you would discover that the employees of nearly every company have lots and lots of ideas about how the company could operate more efficiently, how the company could improve its products and services, how the company could improve customer relations and much more.
Even in companies where the staff have a low opinion of the company, you will find that staff desperately want the company to operate better. People want to feel good about working for their employers. They want their employers to do well. And, most importantly, they have ideas about how to work towards these goals.
Unfortunately, when most people come back from lunch at the canteen, there is no convenient way for them to communicate their ideas to decision makers. The employee with a great idea must either make a determined effort to communicate that idea – usually by scheduling time with the manager she reports under. She then must hope that the manager will communicate her idea upwards and, if she has a normal ego, she will also hope the manager will credit her for the idea if it succeeds.
For most people, this is too much effort. They do not bother. They talk about their ideas at lunch and at the pub – but lament that their company is too set in its ways to adopt such a good idea. Then they forget about their ideas as they get back to work.
With an idea management system, however, people can immediately enter their idea into the system where it should eventually be viewed by a decision maker. If the idea management system is an open, collaborative system (like ours), other colleagues can read her idea and collaborate on it – in the same way that they do at the canteen or pub. Thus the idea grows.
Simply having a system – collaborative or not – to collect ideas is not enough. Such a system would soon overflow with ideas and staff would quickly ascertain that while the company is keen on collecting ideas, they are not very interested in actually doing anything about those ideas. In such a situation, staff will soon stop sharing their ideas outside the pub and canteen.
Thus, it is critical to have an evaluation system for determining the best ideas and an open implementation system where employees can see ideas being implemented; as well as oversee the implementation of some of their ideas.
It is only with such an open, collaborative idea management system that employees will share their ideas with the organisation – instead of with their office drinking buddies – and strive to successfully implement those ideas.
I've often discussed methods of boosting your creativity and coming up with ideas. But it's also important to look at what activities can reduce your creativity. Here are five:
1. Watching TV. Have you ever known someone who has been watching TV for hours to suddenly stand up and say “I've just had a brilliant idea!” There is a reason for this. TV zaps creativity. It's fine for relaxing, but seldom stimulates the mind.
2. Thinking of potential consequences before thinking of potential results. Certainly, you need to consider the consequences of implementing an idea before implementing it. But too many people focus on the consequences at the ideation stage. This generally causes people to reject ideas. Always focus on the potential results first. If they are worthwhile then look at the potential consequences and work out how to deal with them.
3. Being afraid of making a fool of yourself. The best ideas always seem crazy at first. If you are afraid of making a fool of yourself, the chances are you will keep your best ideas to yourself. Always bear in mind there are worse things in life than making a fool of yourself; such as hearing someone else being praised and promoted for implementing an idea you had first but were afraid to act upon.
4. Accepting the first idea that comes to mind as the best solution. When looking for solutions, we generally come up with the tried and tested ideas first. Tried and tested ideas are not necessarily bad – they may even be the best solutions sometimes. But they are seldom creative.
5. Hanging around squelchers and negative people. Squelchers are people who always criticise new ideas, usually with phrases like: “we've tried that before. It didn't work”, “that's not the way we do things here.”, “it'll never work” and so on. Squelchers will drain your ideas dry and stifle your imagination.