Thursday, October 28

Innovation = Leadership? Not quite …

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Readers of earlier posts to this blog will recall that I almost always avoid using the word "innovation".  But for the purposes of this week's article let's borrow that word, along with the following definitions:

1.  "Innovation is ... balancing creativity with the discipline of making something happen"

2.  Innovation has three sequential stages:
  • Creating, elaborating and cultivating ideas
  • Sorting and filtering those ideas
  • Implementation

By these definitions, the most successful end-to-end innovators tend to exhibit a need to achieve, enormous energy, and a belief in the efficacy of their own action.

They thrive in cultures where openness and challenge are encouraged, where there’s freedom to think, act, and take risks.

To run the gauntlet of processes like the new product lifecycle there also needs to be management commitment, a clear and stable vision, and a team which collaborates and shares knowledge.

Thought-provoking, isn’t it?  And it’s even interesting if you’ve recently been reviewing documents on the subject of leadership.  The parallels are striking.

The following qualities are amongst those identified by Bob Anderson in his excellent document “Mastering Leadership”:

  • A sense of personal purpose [need to achieve?]
  • Translation of that purpose into a future vision [clear and stable vision?]
  • The leader's full commitment to that vision [management commitment?]
  • Setting stretching goals, to create energy [energy?]
  • Developing intuition to balance rational analysis [freedom to think, act, and take risks?]
  • Open (or “authentic”) dialogue [openness?  challenge?]
  • Co-operation with others [collaborates and shares knowledge?]

So we find significant overlap.  Successful innovators ought to be competent transformational leaders.  Equally, successful leaders who can harness creative resources towards their purposes should be able to innovate very effectively.

Let’s take care to detach from the word “Innovation” before closing, because this discourse has further disinclined me to adopt the word!  More useful to focus on the creativity required to generate ideas, and the leadership necessary for implementing them.

Friday, October 22

The Power of the Prototype

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Stimulating and gathering ideas is one thing, but making them real is quite another.   It can be extremely hard to make an idea come to life in the minds of your stakeholders, and more often than not there's only one chance to get that right.  If your vision of the future doesn't stick in people's minds, or if it takes entirely the wrong shape there, then a very valuable idea might be discarded for good.

So it's your responsibility to communicate ideas effectively.  If you fail to do so, you'll disadvantage not just yourself, but also anyone else who tries to resurrect the same idea ... ever!  If I fail to convince my boss first-time that there's a mass market for elasticated carrots, then elasticated carrots will always have a bad name, however good an idea they might become.

Words alone might not do the trick.   Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) tells us that different people have different sensory preferencesthat is they each prefer to absorb information and ideas using different senses.  So even if you're highly clear and articulate, you're really only appealling to people with an auditory preference.

Most people's preference is visual, so most of the time a visual articulation of the idea will be much more powerful.  I've recently experimented with 2D mock-ups using simple office tools, and have found that I get much more traction in trying to explain my ideas.

Of course the nirvana is a 3D prototype with moving parts, which can be touched and manipulated by hand.  This appeals to people with either a visual or kinesthetic (i.e. "touchy-feely") preference.  Your investment in a 3D model will tend to be higher, but you only get one chance to get this right, so take care to ensure a compelling demonstration whatever format you choose.   The less well you know your stakeholders, the more investment you should prepare to swallow in order to win them over.

Friday, October 15

The Oxygen of Executive Attention?

So you've accumulated 27 new ideas this week, and one or two of the better ones are really starting to take shape after discussions with specialists.  Does that mean it's time to open a dialogue with senior management?

Unfortunately, it probably doesn't--unless you happen to have an especially enlightened team of CxOs.  Most of the top team will tend to be rather preoccupied with today's pressing issues, and will tend to be impatient with half-baked ideas.  The best you can really hope for at this early stage is a word or two of general-purpose encouragement.

Far better then to spend a little more time elaborating the idea into something which resembles an early business case.  It will be more readily recognised and interpretted that way, and is likely to be taken more seriously as a result.  I suggest thinking carefully about what your senior managers like to see as part of a proposal, and creating a simple template to ensure the main areas always get some consideration.  (For example, one of my templates has slides for each of the following: Need, Costs and Benefits, Solution, and Alignment.)

This is the reinforcing process we often call "Greenhousing", and the analogy with plants is quite a useful one:  Your sapling idea can grow in the oxygen of a breeze, but a hurricane will tear it away.  Protect the early ideas until they've developed.

There's one notable exception to all this:  If you've managed (or stumbled) your way into a situation where there's direct executive sponsorship for creative thinking then exposing your ideas early can help you maintain and strengthen that sponsorship.  You're in the lucky position of having a CxO in the greenhouse with you, and you should make the most of that opportunity.

Friday, October 8

Running a Workshop

File:.45 R.P.M. (rounds pre-millennialist) art chair (221416076).jpg

Let me make one thing perfectly clear up-front:  We must avoid calling our creative meetings "Workshops" or "Away-Days" if we're to make any headway†.

Events like these are intended to drive new behaviours, and set some new rules for our thinking.  So the name of the event needs to reflect that intent.  How about names like "Creativity Studio", "Ideas Forum", "Thinking Party" or "Play Day" which may better serve to deflect presumptions.

Title aside, let's look at some of the features of an event which successfully generates new ideas, and some of the reasons why those features are necessary:

Meetings should be far away from attendees' desks, so your contributors aren't lured away by the pressures of the day job.

Take care who you invite:  Attendees should arrive at the venue open-minded, positive and respectful of their peers.  This is not an event for griping, bickering, or seeking to demonstrate our critical superiority.

Select a diverse group, with a wide range of views and experiences to bring to bear.  The size of the group should be between 6 and 10, excluding the facilitator.

At all costs, resist pressure from managers to monitor or regulate the proceedings.  This can only constrain the team's thinking.

Prepare a focus for the meeting:  Most people won't readily generate ideas unless there's some direction, so make sure you take one or more broad strengths, opportunities or challenges into the meeting.  Be prepared to massage them if the group would rather refocus slightly, but don't allow the focus to become too wide to be meaningful, or too narrow to permit fresh thinking.

The facilitator should open the event by making sure everyone feels a right and obligation to contribute.  An opening "round robin" exercise grants everyone that licence up-front.

Similarly, the facilitator should make sure no-one feels any right whatsoever to interrupt, belittle or rubbish anything the others say.  I find it useful to tackle this with a few examples from history where apparently silly ideas have founded highly successful ventures.

With a nod to Edward de Bono, I suggest that the "Green Hat" and "Yellow Hat" will be most useful, and if a meeting is intended purely to arrive at new ideas then the "Black Hat" should be banned.  The facilitator must be straight-faced about this, because if it's seen as a rather surreal and laughable rule then it will be too easily disregarded.

Hang back:  As facilitator your role is not to contribute ideas, but rather to liberate the attendees, track to the agenda, maintain momentum, keep discipline, and provoke lateral thinking when needed (especially in the early parts of the meeting).

Good luck!

† I'm allowed to use the word in the title of this article, because search engines won't appreciate this nuance.

Friday, October 1

Finding our Ideas Manager

I've mentioned in a previous article that I believe anyone with some understanding of the environment can prove an excellent source of ideas. 

I won't be making that same claim about the role of "Ideas Farmer".  The person responsible for stimulating, harvesting, filtering and launching your organisation's ideas must have a range of behavioural qualities which are a little scarce in combination.

For my money, these are the most important qualities in rough priority order.  You'll probably find you can't get them all, but aim for an 80% match ...

1.  Infectious enthusiasm — All-important is the ability to imbue colleagues with the desire to think creatively.  That's the most fundamental gap in many organisations.

2.  Business-savvy — It's best not to pick a functional expert with a narrow field of view, or someone incapable of recognising commercial realities.

3.  Drive, and thick-skin — You need someone who won't get stuck when the organisation can't find a way to accommodate new ideas, or when it is dismissive of creative approaches.

4.  Emotional intelligence — Building on the earlier quality of enthusiasm, your "Ideas Farmer" needs to work closely with a wide range of people, and be able to keep differing stakeholders in harmony using whatever techniques are necessary.

5.  Adapatability — Whilst this person doesn't major on originating ideas themselves, he or she should be skilled at adapting them to fit the circumstances.  Often the originator of an idea will remain narrowly-wedded to the original concept, so others must transform it into the most acceptable shape.

6.  Ideation — This is the popular name for the quality of originating and being fascinated by ideas.  Although by no means critical, it doesn't hurt for the farmer of the ideas to sow a few of his or her own.

Good luck in your search.  The picture above is a little extreme – it’s not really as bad as looking for a needle in a haystack, but don’t underestimate the time it might take to find the right individual or group to fit the bill.   People with these profiles are usually in demand for other important work.