Archive for the ‘Collaboration’ Category

Entrepreneur: Day 53

Some great news is probably coming out so just be patient. In the meantime I’m taking an hour or two a day and devoting it to learning something new. Python has been hanging out there for a while and it’s the development language for one of our potential platforms. After two days I’m about half way through Dive Into Python. I’m not quite accustomed to writing blocks that are defined by how they’re indented but I assume I’ll get used to it. Other than that it’s pretty simple.

One interesting tool I have found recently is Balsamiq Mockups. This is a great tool for mocking up screens quickly and there are over 75 controls (including iPhone widgets) that you can drag and drop. Far better and much easier than Vizio or PowerPoint. It also has plugins for Confluence or XWiki – sadly, no bugzilla. It’s also less than $80.

Rewards & Incentives

For those creative individuals that are submitting new cost cutting or product ideas, the incentive may not be strictly financial. That may be a portion of it, but the overall thrill of creating something may be from getting an opportunity to participate in bringing the idea or product to fruition. Money and schwag are great but can be a fleeting experience. I contend that people will get a greater sense of satisfaction, will last longer and spread further through the organization if you reward them with the ability to contribute to the project. If you haven’t done so already, poll your organization to see what they consider to be the best rewards. You’ll probably find that it’s more money and more time off. However, there is an alternative – not everybody is in it for strictly monetary rewards. There are many who want to participate in creating something new and exciting so give people the opportunity to say “I built that” and you may be surprised at how engaged your most creative people become.

Empowering Workspaces

Last night I was watching, yet again, The Pixar Story from ’97. I’ve seen this a number of times and each time I usually get something new out of it. This time wasn’t any different – I picked up on something Jobs said about creating spaces to foster ‘unintended collaboration” for the staff and artists at Pixar. The interesting thing here was that although everyone has an office there were also massive open areas to meet. I also picked up on the phrase ‘…offices are like blank canvases…’ In my opinion the environment you work in, that you create in, and that you are supposedly generating your best work in, should be areas that are comfortable and make you NOT want to go home. If your office isn’t comfortable, if it doesn’t reflect your perspective or your point of view, then you’re going to be out of sync. Research has shown that offices and meeting rooms with higher ceilings tend to create loftier ideas. Lower ceilings promote more constrained thinking. I’ll go so far as to say that if everyone’s office looks the same then everyone will be generating the same ideas. Great if you’re a CPA firm or a law office. Bad if you’re creating new products or trying to change the world. Give people some freedom to create an area that reflects their personality.

Brainstorming 101

If you’re setting out to brainstorm new ideas and concepts, here’s some things I’ve experienced over the past few years that may help.

1) Get a great facilitator. Someone that’s open minded, will keep people on track and will get people to contribute.

2) Put a great question together and figure out how to answer it. It helps if you can define what you’re trying to do as much as possible. Free form brainstorming rarely turns into anything of value and usually leads to something that you probably can’t execute anyway. Make the question as specific and restrictive as possible. “How do we solve problem (x) with (y) dollars, (z) time, and existing skill sets?” You may be surprised at how many ideas you can come up with. You may get a lot of resistance at first like “You’re limiting us” but to get really creative you usually need to deal with the realities of the situation. [I forgot to include a very important point here – if somebody is telling you that your approach to the problem is wrong or suggests a different way of approaching it, listen to them. It’s possible that they’re lateral thinkers, these people make all the difference in innovation. Lateral thinkers are game changers.]

3) Put a time constraint in place. Give yourself a limited amount of time to generate ideas and the ideas you generate MUST address the question asked in #2. Don’t go over, stop on time and move on. However, people may go home and think about it a little longer. They may also have an epiphany. Make certain that you account for this as answers to problems are rarely straightforward. The subconscious may chew on it for a while and come up with something spectacular.

4) Isolate yourselves. Set aside a time and place where nobody knows where you are or what you’re working on. Turn off cell phones and focus on what you’re doing.

5) If it’s not coming together, say so. You can’t force people to come up with ideas to solve a problem. But you can create an environment where people feel comfortable and willing to participate. If it’s just not working for whatever reason then reschedule. Or move to a different location. Or get different people.

6) Create follow-up tasks, delegate those tasks to individuals and put dates and times in place to get them resolved. The task may be to do market research, speak to your target audience or get a patent attorney. Set concrete and measurable tasks that have a specific owner. Leave no latitude as to who should be running with which item.

That’s it at it’s most basic implementation. Before you get started on any session make sure you’ve got the essentials. Whiteboard, pizza, cokes, etc. The facilitator should set and enforce the ground rules and only let people deviate when it’s in the teams best interest.

If you have other experiences, things that worked in the past, things that didn’t, don’t hesitate to comment here.

Partner Picking

It should be obvious – don’t work with people that you can’t trust when they’re out of your sight. Want a great test to see if you should be working together? Take a long weekend and go camping. Bring almost nothing because you’re going to have to rely on each other to survive. Don’t put yourselves at serious physical risk, but if the two, three, or however many there are of you can’t figure out how to work together for a weekend, you’ve got the wrong people. This should also give you insight into a number of things about the personalities and habits of your partners. Is one of them always standing around waiting for someone else to do something? Like, start a fire. Make coffee. Fend off a bear attack. Well, it will be like that in business as well. Waiting for someone else to make the sales call. Develop the marketing strategy. Negotiate with the VC’s (bear attack!). What may be even more telling is this – if one of the partners has never been camping, never built a fire, never heated snow so you can drink it, or never caught fish so you can eat, but is still doing all those things and figuring it out along the way – that’s the person to have on your team. Because nobody has done it all, and it some fashion we’re all learning or re-learning along the way. Finding the team players who are still able to function as self-directed individuals is a major hurdle. Find out early before you really put yourself at risk.

A Common Innovation Language

One major challenge to any innovation effort, especially one where people from different parts of the organization are involved, is that of conveying ideas clearly and consistently. Although communication skill sets may vary widely across an organization the results can be reached more effectively with some straightforward¬† strategies. One of my favorite books in this area is The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam. He describes how conveying complex thoughts and abstract ideas can be accomplished by just about anyone, artist or otherwise, through the systematic use of pictures. I’m a huge fan of white boards, the bigger the better. Multiple people can contribute – erase, change, rename, or start over completely with very little effort.¬† White boarding is of course nothing new, but the way in which Dan Roam approaches it is. He presents new ways of looking at problems and new ways of describing ideas. However, I also think that he’s tapped into a more efficient way of cross-functional teams to hit the ground running and quickly get their arms around a problem. It makes things much easier if everyone understands what the others are trying to represent and becomes a major advantage the more people you have collaborating. With just two people on a team the communication is easy to control, if something isn’t clear then it’s simple to ask a couple of questions and get some clarity. Becoming more and more common (I hope) is the situation where you have larger innovation teams working together – some of which may never have met each other. The problem of communicating ideas through pictures becomes ever more important then.

So here’s what I propose… The book focuses primarily on problem solving with others based on the concept of “visual thinking” or solving problems with pictures, so pick up four or five copies and hand them out to people you routinely ‘ideate‘ with. Then find a nice big wall and paint it with IdeaPaint or RustOleum’s Dry Erase paint. I’ve used RustOleum on a 13’x9′ textured wall, with a minimum of sanding and 2-3 coats [and] it worked pretty well. Next, have everyone read the book, pick a previous problem that some or all of you had worked on and go through it again after learning the concepts from Back of the Napkin. The first couple of passes through will be rough as you get your feed feet under you but it will start to make more sense as you go. You may even find a couple of different solutions that you hadn’t thought of along the way. Whatever. Once you and your team is comfortable, start teaching it to others. Slowly. Pick one or two people to try it out on. See what happens. Obviously you really can’t test it until your heads down trying to solve a problem or generating new ideas.

If you try this, tell me what happens. I’m interested to see how others deal with cross team communications through abstract mediums.

ideate – I despise this word. It sounds like something we just made up along the way to make it sound like we were working. But since it’s been around since 1610 I guess I just need to accept it. I promise to use it as infrequently as possible.

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