“If I had one hour to solve a problem I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and the remaining 5 minutes solving it ”
- Albert Einstein
Is there any such thing as a new idea? it’s an age-old conundrum. Having an idea is arguably just a starting point, bringing it to life is what sets it apart. So perhaps whether an idea is new or not doesn't really matter - it’s what you do with it that really counts. Because without an understanding of the problem you are trying to solve, or the ability to turn an idea into a solution, what is that idea really worth anyway?
We hear lots of talk about ideas. It sometimes feels like everyone is looking for them these days. So we thought that for this month’s #BlabChat it would be good to discuss them, in particular how organisations can ensure a steady supply of fresh ideas whilst at the same time ensuring that the best ideas are allowed to mature into fully fledged solutions that have impact. Once again our loyal #BlabChat(ters) as well as some more new faces, didn’t fail to deliver.
Here's a roundup of the conversation. . .
We can perhaps often overlook that the sheer fact that the human race has arrived at 2018 means that we do, as a species at least, have a pretty good track record of having good ideas and turning them into solutions - given enough space and time to do so. We are after all a creative and resourceful species able to identify problems and come up with solutions to solve them. Perhaps, therefore, as Heidi De Wolf suggests, rather than focusing on ideas organisations should be finding ways to encourage creativity and resourcefulness by giving their staff room to explore. Exploration is an important part of the creative process. Going outside of our sector to draw analogous inspiration is something I find personally useful and as Heidi observes, problems are not always obvious from inside the organisation; encouraging staff to get out of the ‘bubble’ or inviting fresh thinking in can help generate lots of great ideas.
We often require a catalyst to spark our imagination or bridge a gap in our thinking which connects up two previously unconnected elements in our brains to form an idea. As individuals, we all find our catalyst in different ways. We have different working styles and characteristics and we can sometimes shift organically between them depending on a range of situational factors. This is important for organisations to understand. As with much in life, a one size fits all approach won’t achieve the best results. Organisations, therefore, should spend time focusing on creating flexible environments and frameworks which provide a safe and protected space for staff to explore, experiment, fail, reflect and think in a variety of different ways.
Because the ideation process is so organic, ideas come to us when they want to, sometimes totally unexpectedly. So as Paul Taylor suggests, any approach to generating or capturing ideas has to be extremely flexible and open all hours. Neil Tamplin spoke about a section on his Trello board which helps Neil and his colleagues make sure that those random thoughts and concepts don’t get lost. But how often do those of us who have those types of holding space take the time to review them or talk about them openly?
Talking about our ideas can sometimes feel dangerous. Many organisations covert ideas, talking about competitive advantage or intellectual property, but in reality, few ideas constitute intellectual property. So, perhaps the real danger is in not sharing them. Because if you don't share your ideas they often go nowhere. The power of an idea is in the execution, as is in many cases the intellectual property. Personally, I believe in serendipity and that the more we share, the better chance we have of realising that power - after all, what's the point in being a 100% owner of an idea that has no impact?
Perhaps a danger of placing too much emphasis on finding ideas, without the mechanisms in place to be able to turn the best ones into meaningful solutions, is that all you end up with is innovation theatre. It becomes easier to automatically reject ideas that seem to make the least business sense because they fall outside of the current business model. They become too easy to kill dead. As Louise suggests, organisations can often get lost in ‘innovation theatre’ because we’re predisposed to be drawn to ‘shiny’ things, which often drives the wrong organisational behaviours.
Whilst no single person or team should be solely responsible for coming up with ideas in an organisation, adding structure to the process of problem definition, ideation, design, prototyping, testing and implementing can be useful when it comes to turning those ideas in solutions which have impact. As Michelle Butler suggests, it’s not so much about being a gatekeeper than it is about providing a support network in which to embrace the wild ideas and work with colleagues to tease out those golden nuggets - helping them to work them up into something more mature and business ready. Steven Russell talked about Google's 20% time and how given the right support frameworks, side projects could give rise to lots of great ideas. In the Lab, we actively encourage others to bring their ideas as we know we aren’t the experts, they are. Our job is to work with them to develop those ideas and often help them to consider the problem they are trying to solve in a broader sense than the idea alone.
When done well, these kind of support networks can work well. When implemented poorly, the opposite can be true. I’ve experienced a staff ideas scheme which came from a good place, but ultimately failed. Someone was given the added task of processing ideas being funnelled through from an online intranet form. The volume of ideas coming in fast outstripped capacity and because the ideas we random and unfocused they were hard to triage and direct. The person responsible for processing them soon became overwhelmed. The middle management level who ultimately needed to own the implementation of the ideas weren't bought and the staff who submitted them were often left in the dark. The whole framework led to loss of trust and had no measurable outcomes.
Often the things which kill ideas are driven by organisational culture, rather than any personal vengeance, but having your idea rejected can often be demoralising. Building different cultures in traditional organisations and sectors isn’t easy or quick. The problem can often rest with those ultimately responsible for any changes - decision makers who are stuck in the middle, unsure or unable to work out how to turn the ideas coming from the frontline into the solutions which the board desires. Solving problems requires fearless, genuine feedback at all levels of the organisation and above all a leap of faith and a culture where people aren’t afraid to fail.
But killing ideas isn't always a bad thing. As Coco Chan suggests, no one wants investment to be tied up in ideas that aren’t working - and organisations have to understand that around 75% of them won’t. Sometimes we need to be brave and pull the plug, so we can put our time, energy and money into something with more potential.
Finding ways to embrace good ideas, whilst having the ability to kill off bad ideas is essential. As Paul Taylor suggests, we can't have total creativity running riot but equally, we can't have 100% order and compliance either.
Most workplaces are designed for execution. There is an emphasis placed on getting on and doing things, but arguably not enough emphasis on doing the right things. This can lead to what we tend to call initiativitis - a rather itchy and unpleasant condition which occurs when there is an initiative for everything, but none of them tend to be that well thought out.
Once something appears on a business plan it becomes hard to argue for space to step back and take a fresh look at what the business is trying to achieve through it. As Neil Tamplin suggests, it is interesting to consider why thinking time isn't seen as a high-value activity in some organisations, after all, Einstein certainly saw the potential of spending most of his time on researching the problem.
Good quality problem definition should always trump idea generation. If organisations have a good understanding of the challenges they face, business plans can be written which provide scope for those problems to be overcome. Therefore, the real value for organisations is to tap into an ability to see the problem rather than get caught up in a race to generate lots of ideas. Meaningful change depends on problems, but to find them organisational culture often has to evolve in order to find ways to open up a dialogue with those people who experience issues, having the humility to admit that we don't always have the answers . . . yet.
But when all is said and done having the confidence to speak up and share your idea in the first place is perhaps the most important first step in the process, so . . .
NEXT TIME YOU’RE AFRAID TO SHARE IDEAS REMEMBER SOMEONE ONCE SAID IN A MEETING LET'S MAKE A FILM WITH A TORNADO FULL OF SHARKS!
As always, thank you to everyone who joined the conversation on Thursday evening and ultimately contributed to this post! Looking forward to seeing you all again on 6th September 2018 for the next instalment of #BlabChat!