Thursday, December 14, 2006

How To Generate 20 New Business Ideas Over Coffee

Reverse (or negative) brainstorming is an ideal technique for people in businesses of all sizes, either on their own or with colleagues. It can also be slotted into short periods of time such as coffee breaks, bus or train journeys or whilst waiting for someone. And if your board meeting drags on you can always let your mind wander a little!

To start with, select an issue or topic about which you need to generate ideas. The fact that some of you will be more familiar with the topic than others in a group situation doesn’t matter for this exercise. Everybody will get benefit from trying out the technique and swapping notes afterwards.

The topic should have a positive and possibility- focused phrasing, i.e. how can we gain/improve/create/diversify/build etc. Check everybody understands the question or statement.

If in a group, nominate someone to record ideas on a flipchart. If you are on your own then make sure you have a notepad handy.

Then (and only then) take the topic and reverse it. For example if your topic is “How to improve sales in the company?” reverse it to “How could we drive down sales as low as they could possibly go?"

Note down this reverse statement. Brainstorm for as many ideas as you can (about the reverse statement, forget the original topic for now) and record them. This is where human nature takes over, we are more likely to record negative ideas than positive ones.

Note your ideas verbatim. No judging or filtering of ideas to be made during ideas generation. Keep it quick and always include the unlikely, the weird and the apparently impossible.

Next, take those ideas and reverse them again. This can be done:

  • directly so if one had been, say “everybody stop talking”, the reverse might be “everybody talks much more” which might lead to ideas about chat rooms, coffee knowledge sharing hours, skill sharing sessions

  • by extracting a principle or meaning so “everybody stop talking” - interpreted as a restriction of rights - which reversed could mean ensuring that there is a policy for appropriate communication with ethnic groups within the company

Topics that you might like to investigate are:

  • How can I drive down sales?

  • How can I make my production line less efficient?

  • How can I waste as much time as possible during the day?

Even newcomers to this type of thinking should be able to generate 10-20 good ideas in around 20 minutes. Please let me know how you get on.

Solving those difficult business problems

This is a brief introduction to a problem solving technique known as Boundary Relaxation.

A problem boundary is the imaginary line between what a problem is, must be, should be, or could be, and what it isn't, mustn't be, shouldn't be, or couldn't be. This approach works by creating awareness of the different components of the boundary and then seeing how far they can be loosened. Here are some ways of making a boundary more visible.

NOT-ing the problem statement Take each significant term in a problem statement and define it more clearly by saying what it is not, for example:

  • How to develop (not replace, alter, reduce, ...)

  • the motorway (not other roads, airlines, ships, ... )

  • network (not piecemeal)

  • to allow for (not compel)

  • the gradual (neither imperceptible nor rapid)

  • replacement (not augmentation)

  • of rail (not air, ships, ...)

  • transport (not pleasure use, prestige use)

Boundary conditions not mentioned in the problem statement may often be found by looking elsewhere e.g. budgets, policy statements, market analyses, etc., and by 'asking around'. Sometimes you may need to 'read between the lines'.

Once a boundary feature has been identified dearly, then it is usually relatively simple to ask yourself and/or others involved 'Would it make the problem any easier to solve if this part of the boundary could be altered in some way?'. 'If so, under what circumstances could it be altered or ignored?'

It may be easier to get temporary leeway around a boundary by discreetly 'bending' it and making sure nothing goes wrong, than by trying to get formal permission to alter it. Many are familiar with the saying ‘Remember it is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.'

Should Christmas be cancelled?

No this is not a statement from a fringe group who are avoiding the frayed nerves and expense associated with Christmas Shopping, cooking, boisterous children and upset tummies. Christmas is a time where a million and one things must happen and be in place (more or less) by the time presents are unwrapped on Christmas day.

To be honest most of us manage it. We enjoy (or tolerate) the influx of friends and family and for once we seem capable of multi tasking i.e. having a drink, fixing the tree, carving the turkey. Using Christmas as a metaphor, why can’t we do all these things in the workplace? Why can’t we encourage diversity, set objectives, plan and execute strategies?

A subtle clue might be in where the focus lies. As individuals, who do we focus on at work, who do we focus on at home (especially at Christmas)? Now think about where the most dramatic results are achieved!

So far we have considered taking Christmas to work, but what if it were to be the other way around? Here are just a few of the issues that might surface:

  • Tall object with pine needles – removed for health and safety reasons

  • Three Wise Men – disbanded because of contravention of equal opportunities policy

  • Baby in a stable – social services involved, baby now in care, animal rights protesters angry because of displaced donkeys

  • Larger house needed – health and safety dictate that there is not enough floor space per human/animal/present

  • Christmas dinner cancelled – no proper workstation assessment carried out on dining table and various rickety items of furniture that we use

  • No presents – Santa has not been on a manual handling course

The list could be endless. There is a serious point to be made though. Yes we do need some frameworks to work within, and for someone to look out for the less fortunate and disadvantaged, but too many rules and too many people saying NO is stifling.

So its time to decide whether in 2007 you wish to embrace a more creative and productive way of working or wither away under a pile of rules and red tape. Remember, if Christmas really was like work, it would be cancelled. Long live Christmas!