By Brian Lucas
This one is dedicated to Shakia, who would have inspired Byron beyond her physical beauty with the sublime nature of her self-sacrifice.
“The enterprise that does not innovate inevitably ages and declines. And in a period of rapid change such as the present…the decline will be fast.” — Peter F. Drucker
Being agile is not just about how much you can accelerate the pace of business. It’s about increasing effectiveness with less work. Being agile is being innovative! Peter Drucker rightly points out that constant innovation is necessary to survive in a time of change. We live in an era of constant, unending, rapid change as Alvin Toffler predicted. So innovation has to be an integral part of the enterprise if the organization is going to survive.
In the past, business cycles were fairly predictable in sequence, if not in duration. A business cycle is a sequence of economic activity in an economy that normally follows phases of establishment, growth, decline, recession and recovery. Previously, these phases generally mirrored national or even a world-wide economic health. Cycles repeat over time like seasons in a year. Historically, a business cycle averaged 6 years, but could range anywhere from 2 to 12 years in duration.
Today, things are not quite the same. A number of smaller businesses actually thrived during the recession by being creative in developing new revenue streams and innovating. What has made this so dramatic is that this is an economic environment which rapidly exposes weaknesses, even in the largest institutions. This allows the more fundamental strengths of an innovative enterprise to expand rapidly into the voids left when less agile members decline as Drucker predicted. We have seen innovation not only create specific business opportunities for individual companies, but also substantial new sectors.
How do you spur innovation? It doesn’t require huge funds. Steve Jobs said, “Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.” I agree. One great way is through brainstorming.
Before getting into brainstorming let’s look at two factors that prevent it from happening:
- Micromanagers: This is the number one inhibitor in being an agile enterprise today. Micromanagers will absolutely kill your company. You need to change their ways or change them.
- Hierarchic Chain of Command: Look at this as the absolute opposite of empowerment. You are not going to get the sweeping and continuous innovation if people aren’t empowered. Don’t kid yourself that the simple little “suggestion box” programs that corporations implement as a part of good PR has any resemblance to real empowerment.
Alright, now that we have dealt with those two beasts, let’s define brainstorming. Brainstorming is a group or individual creativity technique by which efforts are made to find a conclusion for a specific problem by gathering a list of ideas spontaneously contributed by its member(s). The term was popularized by Alex Faickney Osborn in the 1953 book, Applied Imagination.
Osborn defined two principles that contributed to what he called “ideative efficacy”:
- Defer judgment
- Reach for quantity
By defer judgment, he meant that you should never say an idea is stupid or crazy or won’t work when you are brainstorming. So withhold your criticism. After all M.C. Escher said, “Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible.” So encourage the unusual, the wild and the unexpected.
Reach for quantity means that you need to get more ideas out on the table don’t stop at a hand full. The more ideas you throw out there, the more creative you become. Ideas spark other ideas and innovation follows. Combine these ideas and improve them. Everybody wins when the enterprise innovates and is profitable.
Osborn also had two rules for successful brainstorming:
- Address a specific question
- Work in groups of 12 or less
While there is merit in asking an open-ended question how can we be better, brainstorming is generally more effective and produces results quicker when it addresses a specific question. How can we get our product to market before our competition?
Working in groups of 12 or less is a real necessity unless you happen to be blessed with an organization without politics. A land where complete mutual respect reigns and there are no personal grudges. If you answered yes to that one, look again and see who you are fooling.
There are some inhibitors to look out for in brainstorming:
Free riding: Individuals may feel that their ideas are less valuable when combined with the ideas of the group at large. Diehl and Stroebe demonstrated that even when individuals worked alone, they produced fewer ideas if told that their output would be judged in a group with others than if judged individually. Empirical experimentation has shown however, that free riding has only a minimally negative effect on productivity loss, and type of session (i.e., real vs. nominal group) contributed much more.
Evaluation apprehension: This was determined to occur only in instances of personal evaluation. If the assumption of collective assessment were in place, real-time judgment of ideas, ostensibly an induction of evaluation apprehension, did not produce significant differences.
Blocking: The reality that only one person may gainfully voice his or her ideas in a group at any given time. Diehl and Stroebe examined the question of whether this effect could reduce idea-generation. Ideas suppressed long enough to listen to another group-member’s ideas might be forgotten. Their research confirmed this hypothesis.
Social matching effect: This effect is the tendency for individuals in a group to match the level of productivity by others in the group. When one or more members feel that they are disproportionally contributing added value to the brainstorming process than others, they displayed a tendency to reduce their contributions to the group’s lower standards.
Illusion of group productivity: Members often overestimate their productivity. Groups rarely have objective standards that determine how well they are performing. Individual members can only guess at the group’s effectiveness. Members working on collective tasks are likely to think that their group is more productive than others. Further, individual members overestimate their own contributions to the group.
Tips for holding a successful brainstorming session:
- Find a comfortable meeting environment
- Appoint one person to record the ideas
- Use an warm-up exercise or ice-breaker
- Clearly define the problem you want solved
- Give people plenty of time on their own at the start
- Ask everyone to give their ideas
- Encourage people to develop other people’s ideas
- Encourage an enthusiastic, uncritical attitude
- Ensure that no one criticizes or evaluates ideas
- Let people have fun brainstorming
- Ensure that no train of thought is followed for too long
- In a long session, take plenty of breaks
Osborn’s methods are not the only ones for brainstorming. Here are 25 other techniques you can try:
- Time Travel: How would you deal with this if you were in a different time
- Teleportation: What if you were facing this problem in a different place
- Attribute change: What if you were a different gender, age, race, intellect
- Rolestorming: What if you were someone else, your manager, partner, enemy
- Iconic Figures: What if you were Buddha, Jesus, Einstein, Edison, Gates
- Superpowers: What if you suddenly have superpowers, Superman, Batman
- Gap Filling: What is the gap between your current Point A and your end Point B
- Group Ideation: Get a group of people and start ideating together
- Mind Map: Work out ideas in hierarchical tree and cluster format
- Medici Effect: Ideas in seemingly unrelated topics/fields intersect
- SWOT Analysis: Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats
- Brain Writing: Write ideas on sheets of paper and then swap sheets
- Trigger Method: Identify ideas discard until one remaining
- Variable Brainstorming: identify end outcome variable list all possibilities
- Niche: Mix and match variables in discretely finite ways
- Challenger: List all assumptions and challenge them
- Escape Thinking: Look at assumptions then flip that assumption around
- Reverse Thinking: Do the opposite of what everyone will do
- Counteraction Busting: What counteracting forces are you facing
- Resource Availability: What if you can ask for whatever you want and have it happen
- Drivers Analysis: What are the forces that help drive you forward and act against you
- Exaggeration: Exaggerate your goal and see how you will deal with it now
- Get Random Input: Get a random stimuli and try to see how you can fit it into your situation
- Write a list of 101 ideas: Write a laundry list of at least 101 ideas to deal with your situation
- Meditation: Focus on your key question such as ‘How can I solve XX problem?
Hopefully, you will agree that brainstorming is a very powerful technique to solve the difficult problems of innovation and that you will commit to a serious innovation encouragement program. When creative ideas flow freely in the enterprise, innovation is healthy and constant. There are so many different brainstorming techniques you are sure to find one that works with your mix of people. If not brainstorm and create your own. And remember, till next time – keep agile!