Saturday, January 29

Facing the Cynics


If you're lucky, you might start with reasonable freedoms when you first experiment with creative techniques at work, even if you're in a traditionally analytical sector. 

But it doesn't usually last long.  For all sorts of reasons, you're likely to be challenged about the value of your new approach, and you'll need to consider how to tackle that.

The obvious responses are supported by:

Evidence - Demonstrate where the approach has generated something of business value rather than purely of academic interest.  Ideally this should have occured where other more sequential methods had failed.  For maximum impact the exercise should have been conducted like a scientific experiment, with an initial hypothesis, controlled variables, and measured outputs.

Opinion - Draw on support from steady, well-regarded people who have always believed in the value of creative thinking, and more importantly from those who have recently become converts.

Direct action - Cajole, wheedle or reward your cynic for getting directly involved in creative brainstorming (though you might improve your chances if you call it something else!)  This is one area where your cynics' pre-dispositions can help:  Invite them to critically analyse the effectiveness of other competing techniques, and also to recognise the merits of experimentation.

Analysis - Consider what might be behind the cynicism.  Is it that the opposition results from previous experience (find out what happened), too little time (take some load away), jealousy (be inclusive) or just received opinion (arrange for alternative opinions to be aired).

Creativity - Use your preferred techniques for creative thinking to arrive at your own alternative responses, by focusing on the specifics of your situation.

If all else fails ... ignore the cynics, and try to take comfort in knowing something they don't!

Friday, January 21

New Capitalism and New Business Models

There's interesting new territory to be explored for those of us keen to implement radical business ideas ...

This month seems to be dedicated to "Business Model Innovation".   There are suddenly serveral articles about this on the web, and it was also the focus of the latest issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Business Model Innovators argue very plausibly that any innovation ultimately becomes a commodity as our competitors catch-up, so we always need to stay one-step ahead to ensure our survival.  This philosophy affects not just what we sell, but also how we sell it.  And critically, we mustn't delay the development of innovations #2 and #3 just because operating profits from innovation #1 are still rising!

It's reasonably compelling I think, even from the scant summary above. 

So where can we look for visions of our future business models?   A regular PESTLE analysis can clearly help, but if we simply turn back a few pages in our now-well-thumbed Harvard Business Review issue, we find another source of inspiration:

Michael Porter's article "Creating Shared Value" argues that the business eco-system is seeing a gradual shift towards embedded behaviours which improve profits but also benefit consumers, employees and suppliers.

Over in the UK, Porter also appeared on BBC Radio 4's "In Business" programme this week, to make these same arguments.

He talked about three "levers" to create shared value:
  1. Reinvent products which are good for consumers, instead of creating demand for bad products
  2. Reduce wasted resource, thereby reducing cost and time, as well as environmental harm
  3. Building businesses according to local "cluster" capabilities

The rise of the ethical consumer and the growth of  Generation 'G' will certainly have stimulated this shift.   Corporate Social Responsibility really didn't get to the heart of this new capitalism—it was more of a sticking plaster to protect companies and consumers whilst they developed more sympathetic sets of values.

Much of this thinking represents a reversion to the habits of some early industrial companies, which put enormous energy into the wider wellbeing of customers and employees.  Often this was stimulated by the beliefs of company owners who didn't feel beholden to shareholders.  But also, prior to the development of the advertising industry consumers just had more commonsense, and tended to spend greater proportions of their hard-earned cash on products which were actually good for them!

So it seems the time may be ripe for us to reconsider our business models along the lines of shared value.  Not only can we improve the lot of our customers (and let's hope they remember!) but we can also expect to improve our balance sheets, especially if we can reach a place our competitors haven't even dreamt of.

Porter now considers that this kind of thinking will become the biggest source of growth and innovation in the next 10-20 years.

Let's make room for disruptive innovation then, and consider whether provocations like these could stimulate into being entire new business models which meet our customer's burgeoning expectations of shared value.

  • Could you benefit by abandoning your biggest channel-to-market during 2011, given that it's now in decline? 
  • Could your management accountants examine contributions by consumer instead of by product?  
  • Could you stop advertising and rely on incentivising the crowd to do that work for you? 
  • Could your best employees become more valuable by spending one day a week working for the competition? 
  • Could you stop selling tools, and start providing experiences ... perhaps at no charge to the end user? 
  • Could you sell at higher margins by persuading your customers to take products they don't know think they want?

Have fun, and please let me know how you get on!

Thursday, January 13

Brainstorming alone

 In a previous post I shared my views on how to get the best results from a group session on creative thinking.

We ran another workshop last week, so perhaps it's time for a few additional reflections.  It transpires that some "rules" are more important than others, so here are my top three ...

  1. Be careful who joins the exercise.  You should have a diverse group, and each participant should be open-minded and realistic about the likely outputs.
  2. Take the group outside their natural environment, but make them comfortable there.
  3. Keep the pace up:  If there's any criticism of ideas, or if you're spending more than two minutes on any one idea, then it's time to move on.
These workshops usually generate excellent results, and last week was no exception.  However I'd also like to draw attention to the power of using creative thinking techniques alone.  Edward de Bono is a keen advocate of this (see bibliography) and I wholeheartedly agree.  

For the last six months I've taken ten minutes a day to do exactly this, and it works every time.  I always run out of topics of interest long before I run out of ideas to address them!   And I have psychometric evidence to demonstrate that ideas aren't really my forté, so I believe this is a trick anyone can perform. 

If you're keen to discuss this then I'd welcome the conversation.

Sunday, January 9

Method Obsession

A fresh year; and with it a fresh perspective—or so I hope.

I'd like to start the year as I mean to go on, and for the moment my most urgent intent is the deliberate avoidance of frameworks, methods and processes.

As readers of this column you've probably already bought into the need for creative thinking at work (the clue's in the title!)  But if we're not careful, our allegiances to the rules of industrial best practice can overcome us—and of course they intentionally stifle creativity, because their goal is a repeatable set of behaviours, transformations and outputs.

Those of us classed as knowledge workers in analytical fields will often have embraced methods early in our careers, as a way of replicating the successes of our elders and betters.  But we should recognise that those role models don't stick rigidly to methods—indeed their own successes began long before those methods were ever articulated.

Of course this is not to say that methods don't have their place.  They certainly do:
1.  As a reminder to the hasty
2.  As a guide for those lacking in confidence
3.  As a check-and-balance for any of us
4.  In other situations where a wholly formulaic response is the right one

But if we're smart about the pros and cons of methods, we can repeatedly ask ourselves "Is this the right approach, given my situation?"  This simple question allows us to venture outside defined process in addressing challenging tasks, and creative thinking is just one response.  If instead we confine ourselves to prescribed methods then our activity becomes increasingly commoditised.

For me, the Gaudi building in the picture above is a splendid representation of this freedom to do the right thing:  You get the feeling that he could only have arrived at this design by throwing caution and convention to the winds, drawing-up something unusual which he believed people would like, and only then consulting the rulebook for the finer details of the construction.