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Report 103

Your newsletter on applied creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.

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Tuesday, 20 March 2007
Issue 102

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.

 

EGO: THE SUBVERSIVE IDEA KILLER

There is a classic story often used by creativity and innovation trainers to demonstrate the importance of defining your problem before trying to solve it. The story is probably an urban legend, but it is interesting and goes like this...

Once upon a time, a truck was driving through a town centre, it went down a hill and under a railway bridge. On the bridge was a sign that said: “Warning, clearance 4.2 meters”. The driver thinks, “my truck will just fit under that.” and continues under the bridge. Suddenly, he hears the loud screeching of metal on metal as his truck comes to a halt. He steps out of the cab, looks up and sees that the top of his truck is tightly wedged in under the bridge. He tries backing up, but no luck. His truck is thoroughly stuck under the bridge.

He calls the police. They check things out and see it is a serious problem. So the police chief calls in a civil engineer to look at the stuck truck. He sees it's serious and will probably involve dismantling part of the bridge so the truck can be pulled out. The engineer then calls some of his assistants to come assist and to bring along the architectural plans for the bridge.

At the same time, a crowd is gathering to watch the event. A young girl who has been watching from the beginning calls out to the civil engineer, “excuse me, sir,” she says. “I think I know how you can get the truck out.”

The engineer dismisses the girl – after all what would a little girl know that a civil engineer doesn't – with a friendly, “thanks, young lady, but I'm very busy just now.”

The girl keeps nagging the engineer and finally he gives in thinking that he'll listen to the girl, explain why her idea is silly and hopefully that will cause her to stop pestering him. He says: “Okay, miss, how would you get the truck out from under the bridge?”

“Why, I'd let the air out of the tyres,” replies the little girl. And, of course, the engineer realises that he has been looking at the problem in the wrong way. He was trying to increase the clearance under the bridge. The easier approach would have been to look at how to reduce the height of the truck – as the little girl did. Impressed, the engineer thanks the girl and she becomes a town hero.

At least that's the way the story plays out (and if you search the Internet, you'll find dozens of variations on this story). But, let's be honest. A more realistic ending might read something like this...

“Why I'd let the air out of the tyres,” replies the little girl. The engineer looks shocked for the briefest of instants, but quickly regains his professional composure.

“Well, yes, that's a cute idea,” he replies. “But letting the air out of the truck tyres wouldn't make any difference because the suspension would still push the top of the truck up against the bridge. Indeed, deflating the tyres would just make it harder to pull the truck out once we've dismantled the bridge.”

“Oh,” says the girl, discouraged.

Meanwhile the engineer gets back to work, hoping quietly and desperately that no one else has the same idea as the little girl. After all, he knows her idea was very good, that it would solve the problem in an instant and make him look like a fool in front of the crowd of people and the chief of police. Worse, the local newspaper reporter is watching.

Sadly, in organisations, many people – let's call them “losers” (my five year old son's favourite insult) - like clever ideas when they have the ideas themselves. Losers are reasonably happy when those ideas come from their friends and close associates. But losers do not like it when clever ideas come from people lower in the corporate hierarchy, people without their training and people whom they do not like.

For an engineer with a master's degree and ten years of experience, it can be painful to see someone uneducated in the field come up with a clever idea the engineer knows she should have had herself. For a division manager who is charged with coming up with innovative ideas, it can hurt to listen to a young intern, fresh out of University, devise highly innovative ideas that the division manager should have thought of herself.

In firms where bright people are quickly promoted and non-performers frequently dismissed, the seasoned employee who allows a younger, less senior colleague to share a clever idea with the boss may feel she is taking a big risk. The clever idea could result in the young colleague's getting promoted faster than the experienced one. Worse, if a clever new hire is constantly coming up with clever ideas, the experienced employee may feel that her job security is threatened.

In such cases, the ego often steps in and tries to kill ideas by arguing they are impossible, by stressing their weaknesses or by promising to present the ideas to management and then not doing so. Indeed, it is not unknown for a manager to present a subordinate's idea as her own in order to ensure she gets credit for the idea – and protects her job.

Unfortunately, when egos start crushing ideas, there are all kinds of bad consequences. Most obviously, good ideas are crushed before they can be properly evaluated, let alone implemented. Worse, creative employees quickly become demotivated and learn to keep ideas to themselves rather than share those ideas. Over time, such employees will come to dislike their idea crushing managers – and that only makes matters worse.

What can organisations do to prevent egos from crushing creativity? First, recognise that creativity in an organisation should not be purely an individual initiative. A good manager should be even better at generating ideas from her team than she is at generating ideas herself. After all, if she can encourage her dozen subordinates to come up with a new idea every day, she will be 12 times more productive – from an innovation point of view – than if she alone contributes an idea each day.

Thus, not only should organisations reward the employee who shares good ideas, but also the manager to whom that employee reports and even her team. If the team, the manager and idea owner are all rewarded for their creative ideas, that creates a powerful motivation to co-operate about creativity and innovation, collaborate on idea development and share ideas at all stages. And that results in innovation.

In addition, managers must learn that being complimentary and supportive of people who have good ideas actually makes those managers come across as being more intelligent and better managers. Compare the manager who says, “you must be joking! We could never do that in this company!” to the manager who says, “That is a very interesting idea – and an unusual one. Let's sit down tomorrow afternoon and see if we can figure out a practical way to get it past management and implement it. If you don't mind, I'll ask Sally from R&D to join us. She knows a lot about the topic as well.”

The latter manager comes across as being more thoughtful, productive and – face it – nice. The kind of person that motivates her team to perform harder and think better. Is that not the kind of manager you would like to be?

Unfortunately, for employees trapped beneath a level of egotistical middle managers who fear allowing clever ideas to get past them and reach senior management, there is little that can be done. Communicating directly to senior managers can make middle managers angrier and is actually forbidden in many highly bureaucratic organisations.

If you are in such a position, you have my sympathy. You could try sending your managers a copy of this issue of Report 103. But, frankly, you'd probably be better off looking for a new job – or even starting up your own innovative company.

 

BACK TO THE CONCEPTUAL DRAWING BOARD

“Go back to the drawing board” is an English saying that typically expresses failure. If an idea doesn't work, we take it back to the drawing board, which means the idea has failed and we are going to start from the very beginning of the design phase: at the drawing board.

But the truth is, we should take ideas, concepts and assumptions back to the conceptual drawing board on a regular basis. Most products are developed over time via incremental innovation. The new BMW 7 series, for example, is overflowing with technical gadgetry and innovation. Nevertheless, the basic concept of four wheels at four corners, a piston engine, a steering wheel to control direction and foot pedals to control speed and braking are essentially the same as in the first BMW, the 1929 BMW Dixi 3/15 DA1, as well as in numerous cars developed prior to that.

Vista, the latest version of Microsoft Windows, has all kinds of innovative new features. But the basic principles of the Vista operating system are not much changed since version 3.1, the first popular version of Windows (and that probably was based on earlier versions of Windows, although they were not popular and perceived as slow and clunky before version 3.1).

One of the reasons that products undergo incremental improvements rather than radical innovation over the years is, what we in the software industry would call, legacy issues. Making a BMW hovercraft which is steered by stick (like in an aeroplane)and which has seats one behind the other might be possible. But it would require radical changes to BMW's production facilities, training drivers how to use the new controls and probably even changing road regulations in many countries in order to make BMW hovercrafts street legal.

Likewise, if Microsoft were to radically change the way their operating system works, there would be a number of problems related to legacy issues. Older software might not run on the radical new operating system (when people upgrade from Windows XP to Windows Vista, they expect to be able to continue to use their old XP compatible software). Moreover, people who have learned how Windows works would have to learn an entire new set of rules for the new tool. Hence, every new version of Windows is a collection of incremental improvements over previous versions combined with a lot of legacy.

Nevertheless, it is a good idea from time to time to take a product – or service or process or concept – to the conceptual drawing board and ask your team, “let's take our BMW 7 series back to the drawing board and imagine we are designing a personal transportation device that combines performance, comfort, style and technology in a single unit. What might that device be like?”

As a result of this exercise, BMW would probably not start making hovercrafts. But, there is a good chance they will come up with innovative new ideas about how to improve their cars incrementally, albeit via big increments.

To some extent, this is already happening in the software industry – which, of course, is much newer than the car industry – where innovative young companies are asking how they might make software tools that are controlled directly by the mind; or how they might make software that responds to voice commands.

Taking business products and processes back to the conceptual drawing board is an exercise you should do from time to time. Look at the products and services your firm offers as well as your operational processes and choose one to take back to the conceptual drawing board. Via brainstorming, ideas campaigns or other approaches, ask yourselves, if we had to take the idea behind this product (or service or concept) back to the drawing board today, how might we design an all new product?

Even if you cannot implement the radical new product idea you dream up, the chances are you will come up with some powerful innovations you can apply to your product.

Then again, who knows? You might just come up with the radical innovation (or disruptive innovation) that completely changes your industry. And being the one who introduces the disruptive innovation is usually more profitable than being the one who desperately tries to catch up with the firm that launched the disruptive innovation.

 

JENNI IN AUSTRALIA

I am delighted to announce that we have penned an agreement with Melbourne Australia based innovation firm, Dynamic Horizons (http://www.dynamichorizons.com) to represent Jenni idea management in Australia. Dynamic Horizons will not only advise and sell Jenni but, critically, provide support to Jenni users in Australia. This is important, with our Belgian headquarters 10 hours behind Melbourne, we have not been able to provide the level of support I would like us to be able to offer our clients in Australia. Fortunately, Dynamic Horizons has the expertise and experience to provide not only Jenni related services, but also a variety of innovation services to your firm.

Dynamic Horizons is a Melbourne Australia based business that specializes in innovation advisory services. Dynamic Horizons partners with medium and large organisations in the Asia-Pacific region to help them develop organisation-wide capability innovation. Since 2002 Dynamic Horizons has demonstrated an ability to deliver new business growth and sustainable value for its clients.

If you'd like to know more about Dynamic Horizons, visit their web site, or give Tim Morris a call on 0415 769 923.

If you would like to know more about Jenni idea management, visit http://www.creativejeffrey.com/jenni/

 

OUTSOURCING IS JUST THE FIRST STEP IN AUTOMATION

I read an interesting article last week about the latest developments in voice technology. These innovations are focusing on call centre tools. In the near future, if you call customer support, you may well find that your telephone call is answered by a computer which can understand your query – well, not really understand so much as recognise words and determine your needs - and reply with appropriate advice. Such technology is getting better and better and soon should be able to handle the lion's share of queries made to call centres. Those few queries – or complaints – the software cannot manage automatically will be redirected to a human being.

This is interesting. A few years ago, large companies started outsourcing call centres and other customer support facilities to countries with low labour costs, such as India. Now, of course, patriotic politicians clamour to rescue those call centre jobs for their constituency who are losing jobs to cost and performance competitive companies in India.

However, it is clear that in a few years, call centres in India and elsewhere will also become largely obsolete as call centre work will be automated by infinitely patient, cost-effective software tools.

Politicians who are now legislating call centre work back to their own countries will find that their efforts have largely been in vain. By the time the legislation comes into effect, computers will be taking and managing customer service telephone calls.

Likewise, as computer software becomes more sophisticated and processors faster, thus allowing further sophistication, more and more repetitive human work will be performed by computers.

What this all means, of course, is that growing economies will have to continue to innovate in order to provide jobs for their people and will need to train their people to perform more sophisticated, more creative tasks. Legislation to bring back soon to be obsolete jobs will not be enough. A creative and motivated workforce is essential.

Otherwise, your jobs will not be taken by Indians or Filipinos or Chinese – but by your computers.

 

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!

Happy thinking!

Jeffrey Baumgartner

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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.

You may forward this copy of Report 103 to anyone, provided you forward it in its entirety and do not edit it in any way. If you wish to reprint only a part of Report 103, please contact Jeffrey Baumgartner.

Contributions and press releases are welcome. Please contact Jeffrey in the first instance.

 

 


 

 

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium

 

 


 

My other web projects

My other web projects

CreativeJeffrey.com: 100s of articles, videos and cartoons on creativity   Jeffosophy.com - possibly useful things I have learned over the years.   Kwerps.com: reflections on international living and travel.   Ungodly.com - paintings, drawings, photographs and cartoons by Jeffrey