Sunday, October 25, 2009

Can Creativity flourish in your working environment?

Here are some golden rules that you can use as a checklist to see if a) creativity could flourish if you are looking to embrace it or b) to find out why your best efforts at being creative are failing dismally.

Here are some rules for dealing with things on a personal level:
  • Mindsets must change, even if the changes are small
  • Explore the 'givens', the problem boundaries
  • Look at the broad picture AND details
  • Value play
  • Build up, say 'yes and' not 'yes but'
  • Learn to live with ambiguity
  • Don't force creativity on people, nurture what is there
  • Involve other people
  • Be receptive, watch and listen
  • Know what your objectives are
  • Cycle often, close late - don't just plump for the quickest option
  • Manage the process, if you don't it will be a playground
... and here are some things from the wider environment:
  • Whatever you do must be fun!
  • Manage interpersonal differences, they will come to the fore
  • Manage status differences, these will appear too
  • Manage expectations, be realistic but have goals
  • Inhibition and risk need to minimised, people need to feel comfortable
  • Minimise group and critical pressure, use the first checklist to help here
  • Ban distractions, ban laptops and mobile phones for a day if necessary
  • Logistics, pay attention to small things such as decor, refreshments etc
Pay attention to the above and you have a good chance of succeeding. Now all you need to know is WHAT to do!

Creative technique - Working With Aliens

This technique is one of a series in which random stimuli are used and alternative viewpoints are adopted. It works best with well defined problems or where new products or services are being considered.

To start, define the problem or situation as best you can and brief those who are taking part. A group of half a dozen or so is ideal.

Imagine that an alien spaceship has landed on earth and the aliens are looking at your problem or the object that you have described. Next try to imagine what sort of questions the aliens would be asking, what would they be curious about? Many of the checklist techniques can provide some guidance here. A possible list could be:
  • What is the purpose of this?
  • How does it work?
  • Why does it have to be this way?
  • Why do these earthlings use these materials?
  • Is it useful to me?
  • Can I eat it?
  • Why does this matter, and to whom?
  • Is it worth any money?
  • Is there any other value?
  • Could it be used for .....?
These (and other questions) should be asked with childlike innocence i.e. assume no familiarity with earthly concepts.

The questions may throw up some ideas which indicate that the original starting point was flawed. If this is the case then revisit the problem definition stage of the creative problem solving process. If some common themes emerge then record these and use them as random stimuli for further excursions or use a form of association to group some of themes to see if they suggest further options, choices or ideas.

Innovation - a human race

I often get asked about the pace of innovation in different countries or their ability to innovate. Many such questions come from people whose awareness of global issues is sadly lacking and who represent so called developed countries. The answer I give to them is the same as the one I give to those in less developed countries who are seeking inspiration and motivation for their efforts.

My own personal definition of Innovation is purely based on Human Capital so I choose a metaphor that involves people. Think of Innovation as a race, but with a difference. Some runners have an advantage in that they start further ahead, perhaps because of a time or resource advantage and some start with varying degrees of disadvantage.

Those initially at the front may be well trained and have the latest sparkly gear but they are running almost as fast as they can - improvements being measured only in small amounts. Our runners at the rear will acquire the trappings of leading athletes such as running gear, coaches etc in due course.

There are still two very important factors to consider. How long is the race and how fast can those at the back run? The race we are in is, I believe, a long one with sustainability and resilience to crises being key. So, the longer race will provide greater opportunity for less developed countries to narrow the gap. If their natural talent is greater than developed countries, the race could be close.

My word of warning to those in the lead currently is never underestimate the opposition and look over your shoulder once in a while. My words of encouragement to those at the rear is to believe in your talent.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Who are your competitors?

It might seem a silly question, but do your know who your competitors are? If you are in retail you might list some shops on your high street or name your local supermarket chain. These provide some competition in that they sell goods and services that compete with yours. The trouble is you may have more competition than you think.

What exactly are you competing for? If you are a shop then you are competing for the money (or credit card) in some one's pocket. What else can they spend their finite resources on? If you are a pub then your customers could do any of the following:

  • buy drink from the local supermarket
  • go to the local bowling alley
  • visit the local chip shop or pizza takeaway
  • go to the gym

So the money can go to a number of places which may also be time or season dependent. The gym option may be number one just after Christmas or before the holiday season.

So you should think about:

  • who else might be competing for the money in your customers pockets
  • what factors might affect the spending patterns of customers
  • what exactly are selling to your customers (and why)
  • do you know everything about your customers
  • can you sell anything different to your customers

This may lead you to other discussions regarding the direction of your business and where you intend it to be in the future (strategy in consultant speak). This may not have been on your 'to do' list for today but it just might help you ride out the recession.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Calling all CEOs – why do you avoid Creativity and Innovation?

The message from myself and many others banging the innovation drum is relatively simple. Embrace innovation and you have a unique competitive advantage. You will be able to fully exploit the skills of your workforce, develop new products, services or processes according to your type of business and most importantly of all you will create a business that is sustainable and which will survive not only the current economic crisis but any that may occur in the future. So why do you not take action, why do you think the risk is too high – or to put it another way, what are you scared of?

First of all, let us look at risk. What is it? In its simplest guise it is just circumstances or events about which we know nothing or very little. So the more we know about something, the smaller the risk. Actually the likelihood of something bad happening may not actually change as we acquire knowledge ,but the fear associated with the potential risk may decrease or vanish. So CEOs may in fact be suffering from a fear of failure or looking foolish rather than actually considering the actual risks or benefits to their organisation.

What can be done to help? If we could provide you with the following, would that help?

  • An understanding of what is involved in leading an Innovative organisation – let’s remove the surprises
  • Support in providing awareness and education for managers and staff – everyone must know where they fit in
  • A proven methodology/framework so that you know what you are doing
  • A method of measuring innovation directly so you know where your money is being spent
  • New techniques to help you predict and plan for the future
  • Provision of some ongoing support

Would this help alleviate the risks so that you can harvest the benefits of Innovation? If not then Innovation may not be for you and sadly your long term future does not look too rosy.

Over and out!

The politics of Innovation – wising up to the gatekeepers

Organisations are filled with politics and organisational games. Here are just a few that are common culprits for stifling innovation.

An interesting idea
In a mild form, resistance can be as simple as declaring that "I thought the ideas in your presentation were really interesting". "Interesting" is the key word here, because it is the word people frequently use when they want to appear supportive and positive about an idea when really they are indirectly resisting. We say "interesting" when asked for feedback and we do not want to reveal our concerns and doubts. "Interesting" can even be a euphemism for "your ideas are rubbish and I will not support them".

Another Time
This is the tactic of resisting an idea or suggestion by pretending that the timing just isn't right (and at the same time implying that at some future, unspecified date the timing may be better) "The only thing wrong with your idea is the timing, come back in the New Year and we will take another look" This usually means "no way is this idea going any further!" Of course, the timing may genuinely be bad but often this tactic is used for sabotaging ideas that someone does not want to see implemented (out of political self interest).

More Information
This is the tactic of deliberately stalling a valid suggestion by continuously demanding more information, hoping that the other party will eventually drop the idea, or forget it.
It is entirely reasonable that before new ideas are acted upon, that they should be researched and tested. It is good practice for competent managers to ensure that bright new ideas do not propel organisations into oblivion but this can go too far. This is a convincing, ‘professional’ and deliberate viewpoint that hides genuine resistance.

The Wise One
They have seen it all and done it all before, and with their vast experience we would be foolish to ignore their protestations when they say it is a poor idea and won't work. We face an uphill struggle against arrogance and ego, it is them or us! Note the key to disarming such a person is that their wisdom is rooted in the past. Times change.

The idea is challenged on the scientific level and the resistance takes the form of long winded, confusing, jargon filled explanations which are presented as just being "helpful". They have seen it all before (and have a pile of facts to prove it) and see no new reason to go down a road which has already proved fruitless.

One recognised, these ploys can often be countered or you may just choose another course of action rather than waste your valuable energy.

Innovation – what terrorists can teach us

Much has been made of the latest terrible development in suicide bombings were bombers now carry explosives inside themselves. This development could be called ‘innovative’ but what is more important are the thought processes involved. Consider the following two scenarios.

Scenario one – a terrorist thinks to himself “I will try experimenting with putting explosives in different places and see what happens”. This is experimentation or play. The output is almost entirely random but in amongst those random thoughts are some ideas worth pursuing. The problem is undefined and the solutions will therefore be extremely random. The results may or may not work.

Scenario two – a terrorist thinks to himself “What sort of checks do the army and police have and where could I hide explosives to avoid these checks?”. This is innovation in action. The problem is reasonably well defined thus leaving the terrorist with the simple task of generating and evaluating ideas. The results are possibly devastating.

Now consider the other side of the equation. Lets try and outfox the terrorist. If we assume the terrorist is not very clever (a big mistake) then we think of a possible large number of methods of attack which we cannot possibly deal with (as in scenario one). If we assume that the terrorist is clever then he will try and find weak points, no matter how unlikely they are.

So which ‘route to market’ is the best for terrorist and which is best for the anti terrorist? For both, a degree of focus (scenario two) is important. The terrorist analogy does, however, go much deeper than this.

Let us consider high level enablers/barriers to Innovation such as vision, attitude to risk, empowerment of staff, knowing how to win, team working, culture, light touch management etc. Taking all of these into account, we can take a strategic snapshot of an innovative organisation such as 3M or Google and also of a known terrorist organisation. Comparing the two, we find that the ‘make up’ of a successful innovative organisation is very similar to that of a terrorist organisation. The major difference is of course ideology or vision.

So if you like your job, there is a strong vision, the culture suits you, you are stretched to your full potential, your organisation is fully aware of its competitive environment and is willing to take on a reasonable amount of risk – just exactly who are you working for?

Using such an analogy takes a bit of getting used to but try it, you might be amazed.