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.
Or… Allow your employees the latitude to become experts on their own.
For those rare and truly passionate people who’s outside interests and daily jobs mesh – giving them latitude to grow and be recognized as team, corporate and then industry experts grows you and your business as well. It creates a positive feedback loop and if you help these people through honest commentary, attending conferences and eventually having them speak at those conferences, the amount of credibility flowing back to the organization will be phenomenal. Not to mention the expertise that these individuals develop and bring back with them. Expertise is what helps organizations separate themselves from their competition and should be developed as a strategic imperative. When you marry an employee’s passion with objectives of the company – you’ve got a killer situation – but only if you listen and allow it to develop.
How do you recognize these individuals? Talking to them is a great place to start. Reading their blogs, is another. Watching them in meetings, how they contribute, which meetings they tend to participate more in – all are signs of what their interests are.
How else can you help build experts? If you’ve got the space then let them host an event on the campus. Demonstrate your support by sponsoring an event or even go so far as to help these individuals put on an event. Keep it small if this is their first one and and allow them to prove themselves. As long as it all ties back in some way to the corporate strategy and objectives. All of this leads back to thought leadership and it’s the social currency that’s driving a lot of individual contributors who want to stand out. Do this for one person and soon you may have several stepping up. Once that begins to happen you may see a lot more resumes, and business, coming your way.
In reality, the 80/20 rule is 90/10 when it comes to innovation. Only 10% of “ideas” that are generated could be considered in the “good” category. However, of the entire population of ideas, 1% would be considered “great.” The difficult part to begin to grapple with is that of all ideas that a team comes up with, only .001% will be in the “fantastic” category. That’s it, 1 in 1000. For some, just coming up with that 1/1000 is enough of a thrill. All too often that’s the extent of it. There is no follow through, no attempt to build a consensus of opinion, and no attempt to prioritize and take the “idea” all the way to the “product” stage. For some, “I thought of that” is enough. But that doesn’t create sustainable business and it doesn’t create effective people and teams. What does create a business is follow through. After reading Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky, it’s clear that a process is needed to move things from the innovation stage to the execution phase.
As Scott puts it…
Only through organization can we seize the benefits from bursts of creativity.
So how do you move repeatedly from idea to launch? In my experience the easiest way to make this happen is to create a simple project plan and set milestone dates and stick to them. For example…
- Brainstorm, conceptualize and refine the idea for 30 days.
- For the following 3 days we will review objectives and prioritize.
- In 15 days we’ll have a working prototype.
- For 10 days following that we’ll review results and have a working solution.
- In 5 days we’ll launch in specific pilot areas.
Keep going from there. Put a process together that you can follow. Not too detailed just a general sense of what everybody is doing. If it’s more complicated than a football play then you need to stop and rethink because nobody can follow it. Pick a project manager to oversee the process. No Gantt charts, just clear and simple markers to show where you are as opposed to where you should be. When dates slip, ask “why” not “who?” If the “why” is associated to the same person every time then the “who” will answer itself. It also polices your process. You should also let the people following the process police it as well. In my opinion, anyone that is a part of a process should have the responsibility of calling “bullshit” on any portion of the process that impacts them directly. They should also be required to offer a workable solution, not just complain that the process is broken or too difficult. Once the issue and a potential solution are voiced, the rest of the team following the process needs to have a say in changing the process. Whatever you do, don’t wait to make the change if everybody approves. Make it now. Test it. Do a dry run and see what happens.
Once you’ve got one team up and running with this, split off a smaller team and move new people into the original team. Add people slowly so they can get their feet under them and get accustomed to the culture. Have the teams work on different cycles, one conceptualizing and the other executing. Create a pool of the top 10% of ideas to draw on and see if they can be enhanced. The two teams should get together at regular intervals to discuss what they’ve learned about each other and about the process. Have ONE process. Not one for EACH team. Shuffle people around from time to time to avoid group think. Mix things up again by having a different person lead the initiative. That gives people experience at leadership and making decisions without all the facts available. That type of experience will prove to be invaluable to your people, your teams, and your company.
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.
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.
“The focus for 2011 will be on the jobs that are pivotal to driving growth.”
On page 14 of January 3rd’s issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, Ravin Jesuthasan of Towers Watson points out that certain job categories will see increased demand…
…as companies accelerate growth through product development..
How many great ideas have been sitting on the sidelines waiting for capital to free up? With the US economy now projected to grow at around 3.5% for 2011, are companies finally looking to stoke growth through business development and innovation initiatives? I’m pretty sure executive teams will need to see another quarters results of sustained demands before committing fully but there are clear signs that sentiment is turning positive. In the same Bloomberg article, Business Roundtable’s Q4 CEO poll shows that chief executives are the most positive they’ve been in five years. The research and poll from Business Roundtable can be found here. If you’re heading up an innovation team and have had to go dark over the past couple of years then now’s the time to start queuing up projects. It may be premature to push initiatives at this early stage but your executive teams may be coming to you in a couple of months looking to shovel some cash your way.
Back again for 2011 will be West Coast Cycing, this time with new sponsor, Suncoast Trailside Bicycles. Last year saw a successful season with Embe Associates and 2011 should be no different. I just spoke with Davey A, the president of the team, and committed to racing both Squiggy and the Ft Desoto Time Trial Series. I lost Squiggy by 1 second in 2009 and I don’t want to repeat that experience this year. In 2007 I tied for first place at the Ft Desoto Time Trial Series, not sure I’ll duplicate that performance but I’m putting everything into it again this year. It’s gonna hurt.
What problem are you fixing, and who’s problem is it? If you’re fixing your own problem and then pushing it at your customers, step away from the keyboard. A better question to start asking yourself is this, who approves the purchase of the solution I’m creating? If you’re not fixing an explicit problem for that individual then you’re wasting your time. If you’re making it easier to order your products then ask yourself if the decision maker that you’re pitching to sees order entry as a problem. Call the decision maker, make it a point to understand where this individual is experiencing pain – then create a solution to address that pain point. That’s a product which is sale-able and in demand by at least one person. Hopefully they’re not the only ones experiencing this same pain point and you’ll actually have a market for your solution. Unless you are a complete visionary and see a demand for a product that nobody is asking for yet, then stick to the basics. Do your research and talk to people.
There are certain events that occur in everyone’s life that (should) make you stop and think about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Every once in a while you may come to the decision to chuck it all and start over. If we’re really innovators then we’ve been pushing change at others for a long time and trying to make them comfortable with it. How comfortable are we when change gets pushed at us? To be honest, it’s un-nerving. To be equally honest, it’s something I can use when talking people through making dramatic changes.
I just caught Seth’s post from this morning about needing a permit to make a dent and it got me thinking a little more. The number of people who truly support and encourage people to make and stick with a change is only slightly higher than the number of people who are comfortable with making a change in/for themselves. So I think as innovators, as change-agents, we have a responsibility not just to point out where and why to make changes, but how to deal with the emotional tumult as well. Maybe we should inflict more change on ourselves to break us out of our comfort zone in order to support others as they go through it.