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Report 103

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

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Tuesday, 7 October 2008
Issue 136

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.

 

THE ABC'S OF INNOVATION

The other night at a dinner, I met a young scientist involved in cutting edge research in... well, she said she'd have to kill me if I told anyone about her project. She is working on a patent - so let's just say she is involved in some very interesting health related research. As she described her work, I realised the approach had many parallels to business innovation and, indeed, both scientific research and business innovation could be -- in very simplified terms -- described as an ABC model, in which:

A = the problem or challenge
B = one or more viable solutions to A
C = the goal

The Scientific Approach

Most scientific research, very broadly, has points A and C in place. The researcher has a clear understanding of the problem as well as an envisaged goal in mind. These are usually very closely related. For instance, a researcher might be looking for a vaccine against cooties (and imaginary illness that US children joke about: http://www.answers.com/cooties). Moreover, she probably has a hypothesis about some methods that are likely to solve her problem. Perhaps she believes a synthetic vaccine using peptides might be the solution.

Her challenge or (A) is simply: "How might we create a vaccine against cooties using synthetic peptides?" And her goal or (C) is closely related: a viable synthetic vaccine against cooties.

Unlike you and I, the expert cooties research scientist has a deep understanding of the disease and hence which peptide combinations might be used as the basis of a vaccine. With her knowledge she forms a hypothesis of which peptides are most likely to work and then experiments, very possibly by introducing peptides to cultures of cooties and monitoring the results. If she finds a peptide which works in this way, she can apply more sophisticated testing to it, perhaps with animals and eventually even with humans.

The Business Innovation Approach

Ideally in business innovation, we also start with a problem or challenge (A) and a goal (C). For instance, we may wish to make our widgets more attractive to middle aged men. Hence we start with

A = How might we make our widgets more attractive to middle aged men and;

C = Increased sales of widgets to middle aged men.

In order to get from A to C, the business manager seeking solutions needs to generate ideas. She can do this by trying to generate ideas herself; by applying tried and tested -- an hence not very innovative -- solutions; or by running an idea generation activity such as brainstorming or an ideas campaign.

Once she has generated a number of ideas, she will typically evaluate them against a set of criteria as a first step. In a sense, this is similar to developing one or more hypotheses. Promising ideas will then be further tested through business case development, prototype construction, market research and other procedures. This is like the scientist's testing of solutions.

An Interesting Difference

An interesting difference between the scientific approach to problem solving and the business approach is that the scientist normally plans to try numerous variations of a solution and expects that most of those variations will not work. However, she learns from each solution that does not work and that facilitates her finding a solution that does work.

In the business environment, on the other hand, the evaluations and business case development are designed to pare down the various possible solutions to one or very few viable solutions that are tested -- and expected to work. As a result the riskiest -- but potentially the most radically innovative ideas -- are not tested and therefore are unlikely to be implemented. This obviously hinders innovation.

This implies that managers avoid testing riskier ideas for fear that they might fail. And in my experience this is true. However, it is the riskiest ideas that, when implemented, have the greatest innovation potential. Thus we can assume that if managers were more willing to invest in testing ideas that had a high risk of failure, they would be more likely to discover significantly more innovative ideas and more effective solutions.

The ABCs of Innovation

The A B C Model of innovation also demonstrates why open suggestion scheme are so inefficient. With A B C, you have a clearly defined challenge (A) and goal (C), your ideation is focused on generating ideas that take you from A to C. This focus not only makes it easier for you and others to generate ideas, but -- crucially -- makes it easier to combine, evaluate and test related ideas in order to develop the best possible solution to a problem.

With an open suggestion scheme, you fail to define A, B and C. As a result, each idea generator has to define an A and a C in her mind in order to suggest a B. Often, the idea generators will not even tell the suggestion scheme organisers what their As and Cs are and only share their Bs. This means that ideas are often unclear, respond to multiple problems and are very time consuming to evaluate since each idea usually has to be evaluated individually rather than in context of multiple solutions to a specified problem.

Returning to the scientific example, imagine the cooties researcher decides she just wants to discover something. So she mixes chemicals, sees what happens and then tries a completely different mixture of chemicals without any set system or structured testing process. Of course it is possible she will discover something. But even if she does, she may not recognise its value because she has not defined a problem or goal.

Sometimes A and B Take You to D

An intriguing side effect of the ABCs of innovation is that sometimes the application of solution B to problem A leads to a different result than your expected goal. In other words, your goal is C, but when solution B is applied to problem A, it becomes clear that the implementation of solution B would result in something unexpected - let's call it alternative goal D.

The natural reaction in such a situation is to reject that particular solution and try another oen. However, I would argue that it is worth making a note of the unusual result and save it for further evaluation later. It may well transpire that goal D is a desirable, if unexpected goal.

A good example of this scenario occurred in the late 1960s. A scientist named Spencer Silver was experimenting with ideas to develop a strong adhesive. However, one batch of chemicals was quite the opposite, it was significantly weaker than existing adhesives. In such circumstances, most business managers would have disposed of the solution and tried another one. However, Spencer realised that his alternative solution (B) might lead to an alternative goal (D) and so he kept the solution and its notes. When he had time, he experimented with his weak adhesive and shared it with colleagues. Eventually, that weak adhesive became to sticky solution on the back of Post-It notepaper.

In summary, innovation is as easy as A-B-C except, of course, when it is A-B-D!

 

CONTROLLING BRAINSTORMING EVENTS

Managing a brainstorming event is a lot trickier than it seems. It is not simply a matter of posting a challenge on a whiteboard and asking for ideas. Indeed, a study carried out at Yale University 50 years ago compared the results between two different groups of people. One group generated ideas to solve a problem as a group using traditional brainstorming rules. The other group followed the same rules, but each member generated ideas individually by listing them on a sheet of paper rather than as part of a brainstorming group. The results were shocking! It was found that the individuals generated nearly twice as many unique ideas as the brainstorming groups! Even when the ideas were evaluated, the groups of individuals had more better ideas than the brainstorming groups. Similar research over the years has confirmed this.

This doesn't mean that brainstorming doesn't always work. Rather that it is a lot harder to run an effective brainstorming event than people realise. And when an inexperienced facilitator is put in charge, particularly if she is an employee managing her colleagues, the results are almost certain to be poor.

It is important to bear in mind that certain models of brainstorming are in fact very effective. On-line brainstorming and its more sophisticated cousin, idea management by ideas campaign, can be very effective because although there are many participants, they are all entering their ideas individually via a web interface. In other words they are essentially acting like the individuals in the Yale study.

Also, non-verbal or visual brainstorming, in which ideas are developed in the form of models, images or other non-verbal form can be very effective (see http://www.creativejeffrey.com/creative/visual_brainstorming.php).

However, sometimes you simply need to run a verbal brainstorming event. If so, you need to manage it well in order to ensure that you get the best results from a less than optimal idea generation approach.

Controlling the Method

The first thing a facilitator has to do when preparing a brainstorming event is to design an effective method. If it can be done on-line or non-verbally, go for it! If not, ensure that participants get a chance to work individually as well as in groups.

A method I like to use is to start with group participants working individually. Present them with a challenge and give them time to make their own lists of ideas. After a set period of time, perhaps 15 minutes, pair participants up and have them combine lists and add additional ideas the two people devise. Then get the pairs to work in foursomes and finally have each foursome present their results to the entire group while the facilitator notes down all unique ideas on a white board. This is followed by additional idea generation inspired by the shared ideas. Such an approach combines individual idea generation with collaborative idea generation and can be effective.

Using Post-Its and having participants stick their ideas to a wall can also be effective, although I find that this approach lacks the collaborative element and pushes participants to begin evaluating ideas at a relatively early stage. But this may just be my personal prejudice.

Whatever model you use, it is important to ensure that you can combine individual idea generation with group work.

Controlling Participants

A lot of facilitators have trouble controlling participants in a brainstorming event. Let's look at some key problems that can crop up in brainstorming events.

Problem 1: Squelching

The most serious problem is when one or more brainstormers criticises an idea. Something I like to call "squelching" because when you criticise an idea in a brainstorming event, it tends to push down not only the idea suggester, but also other members in the group who interpret the criticism as meaning unusual ideas are not welcome.

Because squelching is an unusual word, I tend to put a big "No Squelching" sign up in the room. I explain the word and its meaning. Then, the moment I hear or see a hint of squelching, I remind everyone in the room that squelching is absolutely forbidden. This is done in a very firm voice, but with a smile on my face.

But, if the facilitator is an employee of a company running an in-house brainstorming event and the squelcher is a superior in the company hierarchy, the former will find it difficult to reprimand the latter. And this happens often. Even if the facilitator is an experienced outsider, she may find it difficult to demand a senior manager or her contact in the client company behave better.

Nevertheless, it is critical the squelching is nipped in the bud. Otherwise the brainstorming won't be effective and the facilitator may well end up taking the blame for the poor results!

Problem 2: Not Following Instructions

Another problem which crops up in brainstorming events from time to time is brainstormers not following instructions. This most often happens when the brainstormers are not clear about what the facilitator wants and, rather than ask, they follow the example of other members of the group who are equally unclear. For instance, the facilitator may ask everyone to write down their own ideas before working in groups. Some people nevertheless start talking about their ideas and soon the whole room is filled with the rumble of discussion. This will almost inevitably destroy the individual idea generation phase the facilitator was aiming for.

Many facilitators are reluctant to scold individuals or the entire group and will let the wrong behaviour continue rather than ask the group to follow instructions. However, if the group do not follow instructions at an early stage, the facilitator loses her authority, it will be increasing difficult to control the group as time goes on and the results may well not be what are expected.

Hence the facilitator needs to be sure her instructions are clear and that they are being followed. If not, she must demand that the group follows instructions.

In some cases, a member of the group may ask the facilitator if a different approach to the facilitator's may be used. For instance, if the facilitator wants people to write down their own ideas individually, a participant may ask "can we just share our ideas right now? That's how we usually do it!" Again, the insecure facilitator may be too quick to agree. Instead she has to evaluate the request and if it is viable, she can consider it. If she is not sure, she should refuse it.

Here's an example of an acceptable modification: the facilitator asks people to write their ideas down. A participant asks: "may we write our ideas in mind-map form?" such a request will not affect the overall idea generation, but will help the individual think better and so can be approved.

Problem 3: Keeping on Focus

Although it is important to permit brainstormers to think freely during the idea generation phase of the process, it is likewise important to keep them on focus during preparations and post ideation discussion, evaluation and action plans. The good facilitator needs to recognise when the discussion is getting too far from the focus and needs to bring it back again. This can often be done with a "that's fascinating, but it's getting a bit far from the topic at hand. Can we get back to it later and focus on...?"

Problem 4: Maintaining Motivation

Related to keeping a focus, another problem that can face the inexperienced facilitator is motivating the group to generate ideas. However, methods of motivation is a topic that is way too big for this article. The best advice I can give is to be prepared. Come to the event with a list of conversation starters, inspirational suggestions and a sense of humour. Most importantly, ensure that you as the facilitator are motivated. Because if you are not, your brainstormers will sense that and feel less than motivated themselves.

Wrapping It all up

Facilitating a brainstorming event is a challenge weighted against your success. As facilitator, the most important rule to bear in mind is that you are in control and you have to maintain that control even if it means reprimanding your superior, your client or a friend. But as facilitator, the brainstormers expect you to take control. Take advantage of that and you dramatically increase your likelihood of success.

 

JENNI IDEA MANAGEMENT

Have you been impressed recently by a clever new snack food product? Do you like the fact that snack foods are becoming healthier and more nutritious? You may be surprised to learn that a leading snack food manufacturer has been using Jenni idea management as a key component of their research division's innovation process. By running ideas campaigns focusing on key product issues like new flavour combinations, making their foods healthier without reducing flavour and even new packaging concepts, this company continually keeps ahead of the competition and remains a global leader in their field.

If you'd like to learn how Jenni can help you develop new products, improve existing products and cut operational costs throughout your firm; check out www.jpb.com/jenni/ -- or send me an e-mail at jeffreyb@jpb.com to arrange a discussion. We're helping more and more companies around the world increase their profit margins through idea management.

 

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 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.

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium