At Work

The eureka moment

This article is about innovation or creativity in business. The “Eureka” moment refers to that blissful moment which signals the solution to a challenge.

But isn’t innovation or creativity the reserve of poets, artists, musicians, inventors and scientists, brilliant people working on their own and having fantastic ideas?

Sure, these people represent the popular stereotypical “creative genius” but innovation or creativity is fundamental to all business and organisational success.

Without creativity, stagnation, decline and demise are ever more quickly inevitable in a frighteningly competitive globalised marketplace.

I rather like the quote by John Sculley, a former boss of Pepsi and Apple, who quipped: “The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious”. According to Steve Jobs, late iconic guru of innovation at Apple, IBM were spending huge sums more than Apple on R&D but it is Apple’s white earphones you see everywhere connecting bobbing heads to an IPod!

Let’s have one more quote to free up what we mean by innovation. This time it’s by Einstein, the legendary physicist: “Imagination is more important that knowledge. For while knowledge defines all we currently know and understand, imagination points to all we might yet discover and create”.

Innovation in business – and that includes any private or public organisation - is not easy. Famous names from finance, manufacturing, retail and the public sector are now memories in the business graveyard. They got stuck in the rut of “it worked in the past so it’ll work in the future”.

Of course creativity in business isn’t just about product innovation, important as this is. It’s also about staff morale, customer and supplier relations, finance, HR and manufacturing processes, shareholder relations, marketing and PR, including social media profile, and government and professional body relations.

This means innovation/creativity has to be part of the leadership “vision” and given the enablers like support, encouragement, incentive, time and opportunity to make creativity part of the organisational culture, part of corporate life, year in and out.

Innovation is essentially an exercise in collective wisdom tackling - in creative ways - a realistically defined problem which has eluded solution by conventional means but which, intuition and experience suggest, should be capable of cost-effective solution in the marketplace.

The failure of the conventional solution process is essentially a failure of the traditional analytical or “convergent” thinking which successfully drives the day-to-day functioning of the processes of any organisation.

What is required is the play of creativity or “divergent thinking”. This doesn’t proceed from a fixed point in a logical, linear way, dissecting, comparing, evaluating, selecting; rather it jumps, expands, is naďve, silly, outlandish, futuristic, rule breaking, fun, provocative, intuitive, new, wise, clever, imaginative, challenging, shocking, different – AND provides the solution. Phew!

There are many pitfalls on the road to creative solutions. The biggest is not having the commitment of top leadership to the creative process of problem or opportunity solution.

So it is essential that any group hoping to solve a problem creatively has the support of the problem’s owner who should also have the skill to recognise the solution and the authority to validate and then implement it.

Probably the next biggest obstacle is getting the wrong group of people together. Eight to 10 people should be enough. Diversity is the key. Yes, expertise is essential; but the experts have been looking at the problem and not come up with a solution. So include a majority of non-experts. Mix the ages and the sexes and the status levels. The 16-year-old junior may have just the fresh take that is required. So may the 60-year-old customer service manager. Within the creative group, rank consciousness should disappear when in session.

The facilitator will need to spend time breaking down age, gender and status barriers, establishing an atmosphere of trust and confidence and supporting an informal style symbolised by casual clothes wearing (whatever the usual dress code) and the use of personal names. For these reasons, creative groups tend to work better when working on neutral ground, perhaps a hotel.

Warm up, barrier breaking games such as standing in a circle and keeping a balloon in motion round the circle, or keeping a paper ball airborne, followed by tasks such as asking each group member to nominate 10 ways humans could fly (without aircraft), collectively agree the best three options and/or then nominate 10 ways a stuck lid could be removed from jam jar without the contents being spoiled and agree the best three solutions should help the group into the right frame of mind.

Suitably warmed up, the group needs to focus on preparing a “challenge statement”. This is a way of clarifying the real problem or challenge, not just symptoms, and how it relates to the future. The challenge statement always takes the form “We must…So that...” The statement should contain only one challenge; and the “So that” part no hint of the solution (often suggested with the word “by”).

A bad challenge statement might therefore be: “We must increase our market share of hard wood flooring by reducing supplier costs so that our prices will be more competitive and our profit margin maximised”. Better worded it might simply read: “We must become more competitive so that our profit margins are maximised”.

With a challenge statement in place it is helpful to submit the “We must” section to some “Wouldn’t it be Wonderful If (WIBWI)” thinking. These WIBWI suggestions can be collected into categories (manufacturing, sales, marketing, costs, customer care etc) and than translated into “Opportunity Statements”.

For example, in a “reduced costs” category we might find “overheads could be shared by more businesses or people” and in a “customer care” category we might put “customers could have a named contact for ongoing support”.

Group members can either write their suggestions on postnotes or call them out to be scribed onto a chart. The writing option helps counteract shyness and gives the introvert the same opportunity as the extrovert.

It is vital to kill negative comments: “That would never work….that’s stupid….we tried that five years ago…the CEO would never agree etc”. These are the invisible chains or rules that don’t exist in the creative group. The facilitator should spell out they are unacceptable at the outset.

The group has identified the core problem after subjecting the challenge statement to WIBWI interrogation. Next follows brainstorming possible solutions to the problem. Each group member is asked to write down 10 solutions. These are passed to the person on his/her right. The new group of two (or three, depending on numbers) must then produce five new ideas based on the original 20 or 30.

The ideas generated can be grouped by the facilitator into categories and shortlisted by discussion and agreement on stated criteria of practicability – things like company competence, cost, timescale, supply, distribution, negative/positive PR etc. It is important to avoid a single “eureka” solution. Have at least three, preferably five. List them in random order to help keep the mind free.

The group now needs a break for the ideas generated to incubate. Twenty four hours are best.

Gathered the next day the group could try “pattern breaking”, subjecting the previously agreed shortlisted ideas to attack in a final effort to break out of the box of company thinking as a way to unleash real “blue sky” creativity.

The facilitator can try “reversing” – taking the opposite – of the good idea: rather than extend customer contact hours what if we stopped them altogether? What if we had customer service provided from Manila or Mumbai or by online Qs and As?

“Free association” can work very well. The facilitator might use toys, random words or magazine pictures. A rubber snake, for example, might get someone to say that snakes shed their skin…they get a new start….so how about a complete repackaging and rebranding of the problem product under discussion? A picture of an old woman might get the response old people don’t buy our service…they might if we advertised it on daytime television.

“Comparison” or metaphoric thinking can be another good unblocker. Take something the group knows well: a paddy field, say. For each of the key components, farmer, earth, seed, water, sun, weeds, fertiliser, scarecrow, pests, harvest add a company equivalent. The harvest would be profits; pests might be competition or weeds inefficient processes etc. What about the scarecrow? Is there an equivalent, especially one that relates to our problem and solution ideas? If not, why not?

“Other perspectives” can also be fruitful. How would a named celebrity, scientist, artist/filmmaker or sportsman/woman, past or present, think about our problem/opportunity and our solutions? The celebrity always cultivates fans, for example. How could we cultivate our customers better? What use are we making of social media marketing opportunities?

Finally, the “outrageous idea”: what if we halved all our prices for a month? Or used a pink python as our advertising big idea? Or only traded online?

The pattern breaking may or may not have introduced a brilliant new idea among the previous day’s shortlist. At very least it will have shown them as robust.

The remaining task is for the group to agree the best solution generated and, for the problem’s owner who has been present and participated throughout, ideally, to undertake the process of validation and, hopefully, implementation.

Have fun being creative. It’s the magic ingredient.

Article extracted from LET'S COMMUNIC8 by Alex Cummins, Star Education.