Your newsletter on applied creativity, imagination, ideas and innovation in business.
Thursday 7 April 2011
Hello and welcome to another issue of Report 103, your twice-monthly (or thereabouts) 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.
JEFFREY IS ON TWITTER: @creativeJeffrey
As I announced in the last issue of Report 103, I am now on Twitter. I confess I have yet to see the value of adding more noise to the network, but will try to keep my noise useful or entertaining or both!
I strongly believe that stress is the number one issue affecting business innovation today. Moreover, unless businesses tackle the issue, they will find that inability to innovate will be the least of their worries. In short, businesses need to deal with stress issues in order to innovate but, ironically, creativity and innovation are the routes towards solving the stress problem.
Imagine that, working outside of business hours to get work done! And they are lucky! They don’t have to juggle the care of children as well.
Why is this happening? There are several reasons. Firstly, let’s consider cost-cutting. Every time the economy slows down, businesses cut costs. For knowledge industries, people are the biggest cost. In worst case scenarios, businesses dismiss people. In best case scenarios, they offer attractive packages to people who leave the company. Either scenario leaves a company short on staff and those who stay on have to take on additional tasks.
Of course there are other forms of cost cutting, such as cutting down on business travel and reducing the cost of necessary travel (such as cheaper hotels and flying in coach rather than business class) and cutting back on benefits. But when the economy starts to improve again, many of these cost cutting actions are undone. Perhaps that’s because business travellers complain more about travelling coach than about the extra work. However, the additional workload, taken on during the downturn, is never reduced.
Hence, with each cost cutting exercise, employees take on more and more work. And much of this workload stays with them as the company becomes again profitable.
As this has been happening, the ubiquity of computers and networks has dramatically reduced the number of administrative assistants, such as secretaries, who used to tackle the administrative work, thus leaving specialists to focus on their speciality. This means, for example, that principle scientists with PhD’s and dozens of years of experience are not only focusing on high level research, they are also having to deal with administrative tasks, such as filing papers or booking travel, that would have been the responsibility of their secretaries a decade or two ago.
In the past, I have argued that not having time to participate in innovation is not so much about time as priorities. If people give a lesser priority to innovation than to doing spreadsheets, attending meetings, booking travel and so on, then they will not have time for innovation. However, if they truly feel innovation is a top priority, they will find time for it at the cost of another task.
I still believe this to be the case. Nevertheless, if people are exhausted trying to deal with critical tasks, then non-critical ones such as generating new ideas or reviewing ideas will never get the attention and intellectual investment that they deserve.
Moreover, breakthrough innovation almost inevitably involves change. However, jaded employees don’t hear “change”. They hear “more work”. And, they are probably right. With change, not only will they have to handle numerous existing tasks, but they have to find time to learn and adopt something new. It’s no wonder so many people like the word but hate the process when it comes to innovation.
Get Rid of Time Wasting Processes
Once these processes have been identified, it is necessary to eliminate them, find ways to reduce the time they consume or turn them into intelligent processes if they really are necessary.
Re-Introduce Administrative People
One more thing needs to be done. Administrative people need to be de-sexed! There has been a tendency in the past to look at administrative people in general, and secretaries in particular, as being female. This needs to change. As women become more educated and can find jobs more easily than men (this is a demonstrated and growing trend in much of the world) we need to change assumptions in society about the sex of administrative staff.
Fear and Stress
Even top managers and, in the case of smaller companies, owners can get stressed when the going gets bad. They may fear not only for their jobs but bankruptcy, having to make drastic decisions like closing down offices and factories and dismissing large numbers of employees.
When people are stressed as a result of fear, they tend to make worse decisions than they do when they are not stressed. In my experience, and from anecdotal evidence, it seems people tend to take one of two extremes when stressed. For the most part, people tend to make very conservative choices because they are more concerned about about making the situation worse. Hence, innovative new ideas that might have long term potential, but cause short term disruption or discomfort, tend to be rejected. That short term bit becomes scary in bad times.
At the other extreme, when the situation seems very bad, people sometimes make decisions to take radical action in hopes that it will provide a magical solution to their problems. Their logic tends to be: “the situation cannot get any worse, but maybe this idea will save the company”. However, in their desperate hope for a solution, they misjudge the odds of that solution actually working.
Finally, when people are in fear of losing their jobs, their work decisions tend to focus on their own security, rather than the good of their employer. This is understandable. But it results in selfish decisions that may be detrimental to the company itself.
Nevertheless, creative thinking and innovative action can help prevent bad situations from getting worse. When the economy turns down, people still need things. However, they become more value conscious. That does not always mean they want cheaper products. Rather, they want products that deliver value for money. Things like reliability and saving costs elsewhere are appreciated. Creative idea generation focusing on delivering more value at less cost to customers and implementing the ideas with the most potential can help your company not only survive a downturn, but in some case thrive in a downturn.
Even if you cannot innovate your way out of a bad situation, acting to reduce the stress of employees can only help the company survive better. Scared and overworked employees do not perform at their best. They make poor decisions, they become increasingly reluctant to change and they start worrying more about themselves than the company. Indeed, the best employees will soon fine better jobs elsewhere.
No Easy Answers
Top management often cannot provide a stress-free environment. Nevertheless, some economies are false economies. Expecting employees to do 50 good hours of work during a 40 hour work week; asking highly paid specialists to do simple administrative tasks (that are not simple for them anyway) and continuing to dump more tasks in the laps of such people is not a route to innovation. It is a route to frustration, stress, loss of your best employees and stagnation.
Rather than work your employees to death in order to compete, innovate to compete. That may sound naïve and idealist. But it’s not a bad thing to aim for, is it?
WHO IS IN CONTROL OF YOUR INNOVATION PROCESS?
Who is in control of your innovation process? If it is not management, your process will go nowhere. Sadly, many companies launch half-baked innovation initiatives and hand control over to ill-trained managers, consultants, customers and even the general public.
All too often, the CEO decides that she needs to take innovation more seriously and names an employee “innovation manager”. This employee is charged with coming up with an innovation initiative to generate ideas and make the company more innovative. Seldom is there any training, any clearly goals or any discussion about linking innovation with strategy
Most likely, the newly anointed innovation manager goes to Google to find some useful resources and tools. Hopefully she will have some budget to buy a couple of good books. But, let’s be honest here. There is a lot of bullpoop out there about innovation. I get sick to my stomach every time I read the posts in the various LinkedIn Innovation groups. This is not a criticism of LinkedIn. The problem is that too many ill-informed consultants and self-proclaimed know-it-alls are shouting utter drivel in the innovation groups on the social networking site! Yes, there are gems of information there. But unless you know the topic, it’s hard to find them. Worse, when any potential client poses a question, she is almost immediately inundated with aggressive sales pitches. It’s not pretty. Indeed, most potential clients learn to keep quiet and stay away from these forums.
The First Go
In a worst case scenario, some kind of crowdsourcing tool will be put up, inviting everyone in the world and their grandmothers to submit any ideas they want to submit.
But Who Is in Control?
Worse, if the idea management or crowdsourcing tools are open suggestion schemes that invite any ideas, then it is no longer the idea manager who is in control. It is the people submitting ideas. Now that may seem grand in a lovey-dovey open innovation way. But if your company’s strategic aim is to produce easy-to-use, durable electronic gadgets, then suggestions about complex new features, incorporating new untested technologies or selling your product in Starbucks are not much good.
You Need to Take Control!
If yours is a bigger company, there are doubtless top level strategic goals as well as goals within the various business units. This is more complex, but needs to be addressed. Business units inevitably need to draw up their own innovation strategies that align with corporate strategy as well as their own.
Once you have aligned your innovation goals with your strategic goals, then it is time to let your newly anointed innovation managers loose. And you will probably need one for each business unit as well as one at the corporate level. Their instructions must not be: do innovation. Rather they should be instructed to set up an innovation initiative that aligns with strategy; that primarily generates ideas that move you towards your strategic goals and that enable you to evaluate and develop those ideas according to relevant strategic business criteria. That is not to say, of course, that there is no room for innovation in non-strategic areas. Only that such efforts should be secondary to goal-oriented innovation.
In truth, it’s not easy to do this and requires an investment of time and thought from your top people. But if you really and truly want your firm to be an innovation powerhouse, it is critical that you take control of your innovation from the beginning.
I suspect that a problem that many people have with creativity is that they are too quick to look for ideas. In fact, you should first try to understand your problem better. Albert Einstein is credited with saying that if he had an hour to save the world from some disaster, he’d spend the first 55 minutes trying to understand the problem better (however, I have been trying to verify this quote for some time now and have so far failed to do so. If you can give me a reference, please do!)
In addition to evaluating your problem, it is always a good idea to seek insights that will both help you understand the problem better as well as inspire your creative thinking.
Likewise, visiting the library, asking experts and posting questions on forums (such as LinkedIn groups) can provide insight into your issue or problem – which, eventually, can help you generate ideas to solve it.
However, you need to be careful. Being inspired by someone else’s approach to a similar issue is good. Implementing someone else’s solution, on the other hand, may well solve your problem. But the solution will not be very creative. Moreover, in business, market leaders do not achieve their position by copying their competitors’ ideas. Rather they implement the ideas that their competitors copy! Where do you want to be?
So, in addition to looking at the obvious place for insights, you also need to look for some less obvious insights. These may demand more intellectual investment on your part. But there will be a creative pay-off. Indeed, this is something that creative people do naturally. Rather than look only for closely related insights, they expand their horizons and pull in inspiration from all kinds of places. If you do not do this naturally, no worries! You simply have to learn to do it!
The arts are a fantastic place for insights. Literature, painting, sculpture, theatre, opera, dance and other art forms are the result of creative thinking and can be incredibly inspirational. As a result, they can provide unexpected insights into your problems.
I adore ballet, but I find it so inspirational that I sometimes become completely lost in thought during a performance, to the extent I cannot recall the details of the performance afterwards!
There are many other places to look for non-obvious insights: hobbies, the animal kingdom, sport, religious works, meditation, travel and more. Whatever interests you should always be a source of insight even when the problems seem completely unrelated. Having trouble with your team at work? Think about the dynamics of football teams or packs of wolves.
However, there is a tendency to look at how customers use your product, what they think of your product and their suggestions for improving your product. This information is useful. But, at best, it is useful for incremental innovation. Your customer who has a truly revolutionary idea for transforming your product is frankly more likely to launch a competing firm than to hand the idea to you on a platter.
You need to look at your customers from different angles. Learn how they misuse your product. Learn what other uses they make of your product besides the expected uses.
Learn what else your customers do when they use your product. Learn what they do when your product does not do what they need. Learn more about your customers in general. What kind of people are they? What do they do during the day. What other products might they use in addition to yours? What short-cuts do they take?
A client of mine that makes swimming pool cleaning products held brainstorming sessions at swimming pools. This allowed them to look at the environment where their products were used prior to idea generation. These insights then enabled them to come up with new, complementary products and services they could provide to their customers. It also enabled them to produce better packaging for their products, something that makes more of a difference than most people realise.
Insights Are Not Ideas
TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR INNOVATION
If you are not in control of your innovation or are just starting out on an innovation initiative and appreciate the need to align the initiative with strategy and remain in control from the beginning, then I believe I can help you in four ways.
No matter where you are going with creativity and innovation, I am always happy to share knowledge and ideas. Feel free to email me to talk about your situation in total confidence and in the knowledge that I will not throw a sales pitch at you. You can find contact info here.
I will be speaking at the South African Innovation Summit in Johannesburg which runs from 30 August to 1 September 2011. The details have yet to be confirmed. But watch this space for updates. And do consider attending this conference. South Africa is a vibrant, exciting and growing economy which is grappling with a number of issues that result from its growth, its unique culture and its history. That makes for an exciting mix when it comes to innovation potential! And I know the organisers are going out of their way to create a great event.
I will also be delivering a workshop at the European Conference on Creativity and Innovation in Faro, Portugal, which runs from 14-16 September 2011. Being European in scope, this conference boasts a diversity of exciting speakers from all over the place. So it is a guaranteed inspirational and learning event.
Also, the Algarve is a beautiful region of Portugal, a country that is special to me (I lived there for a year and a half in the mid-80s).
I am also in talks with groups in Namibia, China and Mexico about doing workshops or other activities. Watch Report 103 for more news.
I am also at the Brussels Imagination Club, which I manage with my good friend Andy Whittle, every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. More information at http://www.imaginationclub.org/brussels and http://www.imaginationclub.be/.
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