Idea generation

There are many techniques for developing new ideas. For some businesses like 3M, IDEO and Frog, these techniques are ingrained into the very DNA of the company culture and structure. But what about the business that knows it needs to change, how do they do it? The World is filled with great companies, endowed with great technical experience of their respective fields but without the technique to realise their aspirations?

Here are some methods of generating good ideas

Empathic Design

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Created by Dorothy Leonard and Jeffrey Rayport – the 5 stage process of putting the technical experts into the space where the good or service is in use. Similar to the Lean manufacturing principle of ‘Gemba’ – the place where ‘it’ happens – it suggests that more can be learnt by being in the place. learning from users and developing products based on direct observation. Empathy and understanding in the good or service will provoke the designer to innovate for end-user needs. Harley Davidson, IDEO, Frog and Proctor & Gamble are proponents of this technique

  1. Observe the people: those engaged with the good or service or the environment where the proposed innovative solution is to be positioned offer 1st hand, empirical feedback
  2. Capture data: What are people doing, their expressions, their conversations, their problems. Use illustrations, photos, interviews, videos etc…
  3. Analytical reflection: Field teams go back to the office and pass on their observations to a fresh team. The Q&A brings insight from new minds and enables divergent thinking to occur
  4. Brainstorm: either in isolation or in small breakout groups working through scenarios, talking about what is and what could be, imagining alternatives, what if’s.
  5. Prototyping: Build tangible goods or services and test them in the place where they are to be used by the demography that have been identified as the target user group.
  6. Go back to step 1 to itiratively improve it or move into productisation phase

The Skunkworks

Creating free-thinking space within a company is not a new idea.  As early as 1940’s companies were exploring the design of office space – as a means to inspire and provoke behavioural change in the workforce.The idea is simple, change the environment to change to mindset – which in turn enhances personal performance delivering competitive advantage for the company.

For many organisations, Google being the classic example, this means making areas that distract, delight, enthrall and relax the minds of the employee. The belief is that when taken away from a formal office structure, an individual is more likely to explore unconventional thoughts, which in turn lead to innovative problem solving. Facebook and Apple share this same advanced behavioral change strategy, they take it further with the provision of free lifestyle extras such as high nutrition food, creative classes, childcare, family events and corporate fun breaks.

The term ‘skunkworks’ came from Lockheed Martin that took a diverse team of 40 of their best engineers and moved them into a completely different facility. Their mission was to design and build jet fighters without being tied down to the stifling bureaucratic culture of the mother ship organisation. The result was a radical shift in aerospace jet designs that would have fallen at the first hurdle if the heavily formalised gated process of idea creation had been enforced upon this team. Furthermore it was only possible for this team to collaborate by being brought together at a new location – the mother ship building was simply too large for serendipitous meeting to have naturally occurred. The space and its surroundings enabled them to walk in the wilds, climb hills together, talk about their ideas

Idea competitions

Sometimes an organisation is not really aware of the true creative capability of its workforce. Businesses like EBay and Google spend vast sums of money keeping their staff in a constant state of innovation readiness. Without a clear employee enagement strategy it is possible to simply lose talent in the noise of getting the day-to-day job done. This is particularly the case for large organisations with physically demanding tasks – such as a manufacturing plant for machinery such as automotive. In such an environment you have highly dexterous workforce engaged in a semi autonomous process. In such an environment its is possible for exceptional moments of divergent thinking to occur – kind of the body in autopilot enables the operative to hand over a portion of their creative mind to musings on any number of technical or social scenarios. Taken one step further, in biotech companies it is not uncommon to see teams of highly advanced neurologists and chemists playing with Lego bricks in groups – the same principle is at play. Give an enquiring mind a simple manual tasks and there is a high probability of creative spontaneous thought occurring.

Therefore it is entirely logical for a company to try to garner some of this untapped intellectual capital and one easy way id the idea competition.

  1. Put a poster on the noticeboard around the company “Ideas Competition – win £500 for every great idea”
  2. Let the staff in all areas of the business discuss their ideas and give them a simple form to fill out that captures these ideas
  3. Identify a team of execs in the business that can become mentors to these ideas
  4. Filter out the non starters and let the team of two (worker and exec) build a simple business plan based on this
  5. All business plans that are accepted provide a small cash prizes for the entrants (£100)
  6. The shortlist of business plans get a senior business leader sponsor (now a team of three – worker, exec and business leader) to flesh out the plan
  7. Any ideas that make it through this gated stage get the cash prize
  8. Repeat this process every six months

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