Your newsletter on applied creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.
Tuesday, 5 September 2006
Hello and welcome to another issue of Report 103, your fortnightly newsletter on creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.
As always, if you have news about creativity, imagination, ideas, or innovation please feel free to forward it to me for potential inclusion in Report103. Your comments and feedback are also always welcome.
Information on unsubscribing, archives, reprinting articles, etc can be found at the end of this newsletter.
TOO MANY PARAMETERS NEEDED
A common mistake made in many suggestion schemes and idea management systems is requiring too many parameters from idea submitters. Innovation programme managers think: “when people submit ideas, we will make them pre-evaluate their ideas by asking them to provide additional in-depth information such as financial projections, cost-benefits analysis, implementation plan, description of how the idea would fit in the current system, etcetera. This way, they will think through their ideas better, improve their ideas and provide me with more fully developed ideas.”
Such logic is admirable, but flawed. To understand why, let's look at what we shall call “simple idea submission”, which includes submitting a description of the idea together with the option of submitting additional relevant information such as images or background files, versus “heavy idea submission”, which requires that every idea is submitted together with several other parameters designed to have the idea submitter develop her idea prior to submission. Note, in simple idea submission, additional data is optional. In heavy idea submission, additional data is mandatory and must meet the requirements of the person managing the suggestion scheme.
If you could actually compare simple versus heavy idea submission side by side, you would see that the latter results in fewer, less creative ideas than the former. There are several reasons for this.
Time. In “A Survey of Organisational Creativity” By Wayne Morris and published on the jpb.com website (full survey at http://www.creativejeffrey.com/creative/OrganisationalCreativityMorris.pdf; PDF document; 212kb; see also http://www.creativejeffrey.com/report103/archive.php?issue_no=20051004 for a summary), Wayne found that the number one barrier to organisational creativity is: time. And the number one factor that enhances and/or facilitates creativity is: (you guessed it!) time. If your idea management tool uses heavy idea submission, it will clearly demand of users more time than simple idea submission. As a result, employees may simply not have the necessary time to think through their ideas in detail and provide all of the information required. Indeed, many employees will start to submit ideas, find the process overly time consuming and quit before the idea is submitted.
Frustration. Have you ever wanted to download a report from the Internet or purchase a product on-line, only to be met with a long, complex form that demands a lot of information in order to complete the transaction? If so, you have probably also given up on occasion, deciding that the effort required to obtain the report, or buy the product, is too great. Employees who have to complete heavy idea submission forms in order to share their ideas may well feel likewise, particularly if they are under time pressure.
The most creative ideas may not fit into the heavy idea submission forms. Really big, highly creative ideas, such as ideas that transform industries, are often so divergent from existing concepts that they cannot be described using the same paradigm. Imagine a web based business looking for ways to increase on-line orders of their products. An employee wants to suggest “enable ordering via SMS messaging on mobile telephones”. Such an idea could transform their business and turn them into market leaders. But what if the company's idea management tool requires heavy idea submission with demands for information relevant only to web pages? It could prove impossible for the employee to submit her idea, or lead her to believe the company does not want her highly innovative idea.
Heavy idea submission reduces the number and range of participants. Heavy idea submission forms generally require a certain level of expertise in the relevant subject. For instance, a technology company seeking new product ideas will often require ideas be submitted together with answers to technical questions. As a result, the company's engineers may be the only people who have the expertise necessary to complete the heavy idea submission form. This prevents other people in the organisation; people who may have ideas about new products but who lack the technical background required to submit the idea, from submitting their innovative ideas. Not having engineering expertise sufficient for evaluating one's ideas does not equate having bad ideas.
Most importantly: in order to maximise creativity and hence innovation, it is critical to separate idea generation and idea evaluation. This is one of the principal rules of creative problem solving. It is why any professionally run brainstorming session requires participants generate ideas first and evaluate them afterwards. If participants evaluate ideas during the idea generation phase, it discourages them from pushing their creativity. Rather than develop ideas further, participants make their ideas less creative in order to ensure those ideas meet evaluation criteria. Many heavy idea submission forms are really evaluation forms requiring people evaluate their ideas immediately rather than build those ideas up first.
This is not to say that requiring additional information at the idea generation stage is necessarily a bad thing. The key is to minimise the amount of information you require and ensure that the information you require pushes people to enhance their ideas rather than to evaluate or reduce their ideas. Asking idea submitters what the benefits to their idea are; how their ideas would bring value to customers or how they might push their ideas further is useful. Asking submitters for financial analysis, technical data or whether their idea meets certain pre-defined criteria sets is not useful and often dangerous.
Finally, if you absolutely must demand heavy idea submission of your employees, do not make the mistake of demanding different kinds of information with every ideas campaign, event or innovation challenge. Doing so will confuse employees and make worse the flaws of heavy idea submission.
But fear not. If your idea management or suggestion scheme is based on heavy idea submission, it is a relatively simple task to make idea submission simpler. You will almost certainly see an increase in ideas and creativity within a relatively short time frame.
For more information about idea management, please visit http://www.creativejeffrey.com/ideamanagement/. For an example of a product that uses simple idea submission (and, indeed, focuses on simplicity of operation), please visit http://www.creativejeffrey.com/jenni/.
“Duh” is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as: “Used to express disdain for something deemed stupid or obvious, especially a self-evident remark.” When someone says something very obvious, a suitable (albeit less than polite) response is to say, “duh!” (Native English speakers might, in fact be saying “duh” to me right now for defining a word that is already well known. But the majority of Report 103 readers are not native English speakers)
So duh ideas are ideas that when you hear them, your initial reaction is to say “duh”. The funny thing about duh ideas, however, is that although they are blindingly obvious and simplistic almost to the point of stupidity, they are also often brilliant.
Imagine a company looking for ways to cut operational costs in order to become more efficient. They will probably be looking at all kinds of process improvements, staff cutbacks and other complex solutions. Then an office assistant who frequently drives past the office late at night suggests: “why don't we turn off the lights at night?”
“Duh!” might be the initial reaction of her colleagues. After all, such an idea is simple and obvious. But if lights in the office are being left on all night, turning them off will certainly translate into cost savings.
An classic example of a duh idea is the apocryphal story of a truck driving down an incline and under a bridge. The driver is sure there is sufficient space for his truck to fit under the bridge, but about halfway through, he hears a loud scraping sound. Realising the top of his vehicle has scraped the underside of the bridge, he puts the truck in reverse. He hears the same sound. His truck is stuck. He calls for help.
The police and fire brigade come and determine the truck is thoroughly stuck. They call in an engineer to evaluate the situation. Yanking the truck out could severely damage the bridge. So, more engineers come and consider how to dismantle the bridge around the truck in order to allow the truck to back out.
Eventually, a boy in the crowd of onlookers shouts out “hey mister, why don't you let the air out of the tyres of the truck?”
If the story is a true one, the engineers were doubtless kicking themselves when the boy suggested letting the air out of the tyres. The idea is very obvious and very simple. Once the air is out of the tyres of the truck, it's height will be reduced and it will easily move out from under the bridge.
In a business or organisation, duh ideas should be encouraged. After all, simple, obvious and easy to implement ideas are among the best ideas. They do not require great investment to implement. They are so obvious they do not require any great change in corporate culture. And it is easy to convince people to implement them.
Ironically, duh ideas can be difficult to capture for a couple of reasons.
The duh factor actually scares people from suggesting their idea. “My idea is so obvious it must be stupid. I don't want to be laughed at, so I'll keep the idea to myself.”
People assume that there must be something wrong with their duh idea, otherwise the company would have implemented it long ago. This is particularly commonplace for the simple reason that duh ideas often come from people who are not experts in the relevant field. Experts often have structured approaches to solving problems within their expertise. As a result, they often do not see simple, duh solutions. In the stuck truck example, the engineers were used to evaluating large structures, they didn't even think to look at the truck or its tyres. That was outside their field of expertise.
Senior managers may try to block duh ideas because they fear that implementing the idea will make them look stupid for not having had the idea themselves. Alternatively, a duh idea may substantially reduce their area of responsibility, budget or staff. A frightening prospect for any power hungry manager.
Suggestion schemes and idea management tools that require heavy idea submission (see article above) make it very difficult to propose duh ideas, the details of which may not fit into idea submission forms.
What can you, as a manager, do to encourage people to share their duh ideas and ensure that good duh ideas are implemented?
There are several approaches.
Ensure there is an environment of trust in your organisation (this, in fact, is critical to any innovation strategy). If people feel they are in a trusting environment, they will more readily risk sharing a potentially stupid idea.
Encourage people to question regularly internal operations and processes. Many duh ideas come to people who see a process working badly.
Reward not only people who propose duh ideas, but also their managers and those who implement the ideas – to encourage them to encourage duh ideas.
If you have a campaign based idea management tool like Jenni Idea Management (http://www.creativejeffrey.com/jenni/), run occasional ideas campaigns that have people review operations which seem to be functioning acceptably. “In what ways might we improve our logistics?”, “In what ways might we improve the way we cool our machinery?”, “in what ways might we improve internal communications?” and so on. Asking basic questions in the form of innovation challenges invites basic, duh ideas.
It only takes a few duh ideas to transform a business.
One of the most common idea killers you hear in business today is, “we tried it before. It didn't work”, typically said in such a tone as to indicate that asking why it didn't work would not be welcome.
Failed ideas are quickly brushed aside, people fired if necessary and the only lesson learned is: “let's not do that again”. However, most ideas do not involve the implementation of a single action, but rather a sequence of actions. Thus, perhaps only a single action led to the overall failure of the idea.
Moreover, many failures can be converted into successes. As a small example, many years ago in Bangkok I was a freelance copywriter (and columnist, actually). One day, I submitted the text for a brochure to a new client. He looked it over and then called me on the telephone to tell me he found a spelling mistake. I apologised, told him that a spelling mistake in my copywriting work was unacceptable and told him I would not bill him for the work.
He was astounded and told me that he was very happy with my work and wasn't looking for a refund. But I insisted. The work was not up to the standards I promised myself and my clients and so I could not accept payment. As a result, this man, who was the managing director of a venture capital firm, became one of my biggest fans. He recommended me to many of his clients and even helped me out in future business enterprises. In short, my failure was a resounding success because of the way I handled it. Had I not refused payment, I probably would not have made such a positive impression on him. Had I become defensive about my error, I would have doubtless left a negative impression.
So, failures can be turned into successes. And most of us learn more from our mistakes than our successes. Indeed, much of my understanding of corporate innovation comes a variety of careers in a variety of organisations in a variety of countries and seeing those organisations fail to innovate in spite of having employees who are full of ideas about improving products, services and operations.
When an idea fails in your firm, do not brush it under the carpet. Do not immediately fire everyone responsible and promise never to do it again. Do not play the blame game (that is, emphasising who is to blame for the failure). Instead base a “Burn and Learn” workshop around the failure.
A burn and learn workshop involves bringing together a team of diverse people to review the idea, review the actions taken, look at alternative scenarios and attempt to determine how they might have played out. If it is not too late, you can also look at fixes to apply to the problem.
Burn and learn workshops are not about assigning blame. They are about learning from our mistakes in a structured manner so as to avoid such mistakes again in the future.
The workshop should produce a burn and learn report with the workshop's findings, conclusions and assumptions. The report should be extremely short and concise to increase its likelihood of being widely read.
ON-LINE WORKSHOP (BETA) BRAINSTORMING BASICS
As I mentioned in a previous issue of Report 103, we will be experimenting with delivering an interactive, on-line workshop. The workshop, “BrainStorming Basics” will be held tomorrow (Wednesday, 6 September at 20.00 Central European Time, 19.00 UK time, 14.00 EDT and 11.00 PDT. To sign up and learn more about the workshop, please visit http://www.creativejeffrey.com/workshops/
BrainStorming Basics will be an experiment in, what for me will be, a new technique for holding workshops. It will also include supporting, interactive web pages (so it won't be me talking over a powerpoint presentation), which are also experimental. So, if you do join, please be aware that workshop might not be as slick and professional as you may expect. Nevertheless, I would hope to teach you a thing or two about brainstorming.
To participate, you will need a computer connected to the Internet, a web browser (any will do) and Skype (http://www.skype.com) a VoIP (voice over internet protocol) telephone service. Skype is free and easy to use. Visit Skype for more information.
LIVE MINI WORKSHOP IN BRUSSELS: UNREPRESS YOUR CREATIVITY
I shall also be running a mini (90 minute) workshop: “UnRepress Your Creativity”, on Wednesday, 13 September at 19.00 in Brussels. The workshop is part of Thinking Outloud, an informal group that focuses on creativity and innovation and usually meets twice a month in Brussels. Meetings usually comprise a somewhat – or very – experimental workshop, often followed by dinner and a drink.
LATEST IN BUSINESS INNOVATION
If you want to keep up with the latest news in business innovation, I recommend Chuck Frey's INNOVATIONweek (http://www.innovationtools.com/News/subscribe.asp). It's the only e-newsletter that keeps you up-to-date on all of the latest innovation news, research, trends, case histories of leading companies and more. And it's the perfect complement to Report 103!
Report 103 is a complimentary weekly electronic newsletter from Bwiti bvba of Belgium (a jpb.com company: http://www.creativejeffrey.com). Archives and subscription information can be found at http://www.creativejeffrey.com/report103/
Report 103 is edited by Jeffrey Baumgartner and is published on the first and third Tuesday of every month.
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