Go from Creative Chaos to Strategic Momentum

Posts Tagged: ideas to go

Five Ways To Make Your Company More Innovative

The Harvard Business blog asked five Harvard Business School faculty experts in creativity, marketing, and innovation for their advice on making companies more innovative. Our own Yale alum, Ed Harrington, added his two-cents in the comments section regarding Clayton Christensen’s opinion on whether people can learn to be innovative.

Source: hbswk.hbs.edu

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In a recent Inc. magazine article, Margaret Heffernan writes about the balance of order and chaos in creativity. She poses the question, “Does focus on perfect processes displace concern for originality and innovation?” At Ideas To Go, we create processes that embrace and encourage both the chaos and the structure of innovation. Here, Facilitator and Chairman, Ed Harrington, puts his own spin on the idea of creative chaos:

Well, they say that people don’t fall and break their hip, they break their hip and then fall. So what came first, the creativity or the chaos?  It’s not so much that chaos is the environment for creativity, as it is that creativity creates chaos—particularly at the inception cycle of the creative process. And that’s just in terms of process. On a strategic level, the “chaos” should be the willingness to challenge anything regarding the status quo and throw all assumptions and truths into the trash (Side note: I used to say “out the window” but got complaints about the inherent negative environmental impact of all these discarded assumptions and truths polluting the air). That can be upsetting or exciting or both. The point here is not to discard and start over. It’s to think “clean slate” so you can be more open-minded and less restricted.

When we start an innovation session, everything is ready and in order.

The room is prepped with plenty of easel pads, pens and toys, and the chairs are set. All of it is very deliberate. It’s our blank canvas. Then, as the session proceeds, all that order becomes a bigger and bigger mess. Not only do we not have time to stop and clean up, the chaos, at this point, offers additional stimulus for ideas—and sets a very permission-giving environment for coming up with a lot of ideas that range from the obvious to the startling.

Honestly, the room ends up looking like hail holy Hell (as my father would say). And it should. The mess is the byproduct of creativity.

And even though the effluvia of easel sheets, scattered drawings, collages and just plain old pieces of notebook paper may be all over the place, all the ideas have been digitized and ready for the next stage. In convergence, there is a shift in the dynamic, and order starts to set in again. Now thinking goes from generation to selection, the output is organized, and each person reviews it using criteria set by the group.  It’s as quiet as ideation sessions are noisy—creating a different type of think time.

By the next day, the room is reset and there are anywhere from 10 to 30 prioritized ideas pinned on the walls—with an addition list of top ideas in each person’s hand. Chaos rears its head again, as a discussion ensues to find clarity for the ideas. Some ideas are ripped apart, some go unscathed, some get combined and some are thrown out altogether. But at the end of the day, 6 to 15 distinct ideas emerge.  These are edited, refined and made into very clean concept exhibits. And order is restored.

By the way, in terms of my office, I have asked people to rate it 1 to 10 on neatness, with a 10 being perfectly orderly. The most common response I get is: “Call the Board of Health. Immediately!” I like to think of it as a perpetual state of creativity.

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by Janel Stewart, Project Manager Extraordinaire

As any business traveler will tell you on a flight or hotel elevator ride, the travel part of their job is often filled with discomfort—from inconveniences to downright indignities.  In addition to the flight delays, lumpy hotel beds and sub-par eateries, stepping into a new process that may be far from their expertise can be uncomfortable.

Because our clients have invested time, money and personal sacrifice, I am motivated to find ways to eliminate the distractions of discomfort to maintain their focus on the goals of the project. And that’s where the Ideas To Go support team really shines. 

When planning a project, I go by three rules of thumb:

1. Ask

2. Anticipate

3. Provide

Anticipating a client’s needs is helpful, but knowing exactly what they want is far more effective. We ask our clients before they arrive about any food preferences, allergies or other needs that they may have while in our facility. This has involved anything from finding a kosher caterer to creating a private room for new mothers. Then, I think about my traveling experiences and what the little annoyances and niceties were. Finally, I make sure to offer these things in our facility during a project.

I also try to speak to the senses, including sight, taste and touch.

So many facilities and conference rooms are drab and boring, while others are distractingly “out there.” We’ve thought of that! To engage visually, the ITG facilities are designed to be comfortable and visually stimulating without being jarringly wacky or whimsical. The muted color palate sets a mindset ready to create without the clutter of someone else’s “creativity.” That is to say, we provide a canvas, paint and brushes for our clients to paint their picture.

Hunger diminishes your ability to think clearly, but just feeding hunger will not sustain energy. And without sustained energy, enthusiasm drains and negativity—or worse, the “I don’t care” attitude—can creep into session. We’ve thought of that! When we built our FL facility, Eden McEwan, FL Facility Manager, sought out caterers who could provide customized meals that not only feed clients but also stimulate ideas and sustain positive energy.  Eden formed an ongoing relationship with a personal chef who now caters most of our projects.  We have heard a client say, “We come for the ideas but we return for the food!”

Physical comfort is also important. If you are sitting for 8 hours in a chair that causes back pain, generating the next great idea becomes less important than dreaming of your heating pad or that deep tissue massage. We’ve thought of that!  Each of our facilities feature Herman Miller chairs, which are specially designed for maximum comfort and easily adjustable to suit each person. 

These are just a few of the many way we try to lessen the impact of distractions and provide an environment that supports productivity and creativity in each session. 

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by Jordan Peacock, Word Processing Specialist & Concept Illustrator

To get the right answer, you need to be willing to be wrong first.

That’s one lesson I’ve learned in various forms, and which I see in action in truly successful brainstorming sessions.

There’s something about human nature, and the need to “fix” something that’s obviously wrong, that seems to inspire more action than just some empty space that is in need of filling.

For instance, I confess to, once upon a time, wasting a great deal of time on a popular online MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game). This was mostly just a time-suck, but there was at least one thing I learned about social interactions.

Let’s say there was a quest where I needed to find an object in the middle of some virtual badlands, and hundreds upon hundreds of people have already gone through this same “quest” before me.  After spending a couple of hours wandering, it would occur to me to ask for help on one of the forums. Usually with my cry for help being completely ignored.

Then I figured out the trick. It takes two people to get the responses started.  One person poses the question, and the second person (who doesn’t necessarily know the answer either, or else this whole exercise would be moot) needs only to reply with a completely made-up answer.  This, I found, was guaranteed to prompt a wide range of responses correcting the offending Person #2, and at least a few of those responses might even be useful or correct.

Maybe it’s not exactly the same social reflex here at ITG, but I’ve found that for the sake of brainstorming, sometimes it’s best to just toss something out there, no matter how malformed and incomplete it is, as a conversation starter. 

If everyone has the freedom to be wrong (and not get embarrassed or fear “losing face” over it) it can be quite liberating. Just put it out there, and if anyone has any ideas on how to make a better idea that solves for that wrongness, then throw that idea into the ring as well.  In the resulting conversation, we can generate a plethora of ideas, and maybe, just maybe, that will lead to the solution.

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We asked one of our long-time Creative Consumers® associates (CC), Frank Auer, to tell us what it’s like to be a CC. Here is his response:

Initially it may seem as if being a CC is just fun and games—without being challenging and without a solid application to personal life. Nothing could be further from the truth.

From my experience there are three main challenges to being a CC that also apply to daily life.

  1. Endurance
  2. Acceptance
  3. Understanding 

Endurance – One cannot simply be prepared with one idea. In session this means the CC must power through round after round of constant new ideas. Always stretching for new views and thoughts. I believe that people who always search and stretch are prepared for what life throws at them. There is many a story of a successful creative person having a smashing success, but then floundering because they have no second, let alone, third idea.

Acceptance – As Creative Consumers® associates, we must accept all ideas. We cannot simply reject an idea because it sounds silly or impossible to us. To refuse ideas is to shut down discussion, and essentially not respect the thoughts of others. In everyday life, you would do well to truly listen to people’s ideas. Do not reject them just because they may initially sound strange or too “out there.”  While the idea as a whole may not work, it may very well hold a nugget of great value that you can spin into a unique, fantastic idea. You just have to learn to accept and value all ideas.

Understanding – Understanding what others are asking for, or need, is vital to being a good CC. Being able to interpret a client’s request and understand how it applies to the ideas in my head can always be a challenge.  As Creative Consumers® associates, we have large blocks of ideas but we also need to understand the client’s need in order to shape and sculpt those ideas in a way that is useful to their objectives.  I think of it as Super-Powered Active Listening. You must actively process what you are being told, and be willing to ask questions to fill in the gaps, in order to move forward in a manner that benefits those involved.

As a CC, I strive to use all three facets of my abilities. However, even if I wasn’t a CC, I think I would endeavor to make use of these skills in my daily life to be a better employee, friend and family member.

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The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, by E L James, is an international pop culture phenomenon. The books, categorized as erotic fiction—and dubbed “mommy porn” by The New York Times—have been at the top of that paper’s bestseller list for weeks. The movie rights have been sold. And the media is gaga over the author’s story. What’s so special about these books? They started as Fan Fiction—as in, one ardent fan’s love for something so much (the Twilight books and movies), that she had to respond with her own embellished twist on the story.

Fan Fiction is a passion-fueled online trend where fans of a particular book, movie, TV show, etc., write their own version as a tribute to the story, characters and worlds they love.

Like Fan Fiction, building on something you love is rampant in ideation sessions. We call it elaboration. And there are lots of benefits to it.

  1. Sometimes it’s easier to respond to something that’s already out there, than it is to come up with an idea on the spot. 
  2. Elaborating on an idea can add depth and breadth to an idea generation. 
  3. Passion for an idea increases the energy in the room—making it more comfortable for others to offer even more ideas, and taking the passionate builders in other new directions. 

Perhaps the most rewarding benefit shared by elaboration and Fan Fiction alike, is the viral enthusiasm that grows from one person to the next. This phenomenon fuels not only the shaping of the idea, but also the adoption—transforming a possibility in the ether into something with real application for its users…which is something anyone in the idea business should be a fan of.

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by Susan Robertson, Facilitator and VP of Business Development

For those of us who love the power of brainstorming, the current trend to bash the benefits of it is tough. It seems to have started with Susan Cain’s book, Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, where she claims group brainstorming is worthless. (A book that compelled me to write an article pointing out some of the issues with her research and assumptions.) And was followed by several articles with similar themes of demonizing brainstorming—including The New Yorker and Fast Company.

These articles prompted me to start thinking about how a responsible client would go about hiring an innovation company—especially when there is so much conflicting information being bandied about. If I were in their shoes, how would I decide amongst all the companies who are offering services that are supposed to help me innovate?  How could I guarantee that the company I picked to help in our innovation efforts would deliver what we need and want?

The answer, of course, is that there are no guarantees in this, just like in life.  So I’m going to offer some thoughts on how to minimize the risks of going wrong, and maximize the chances for success. In short, my suggestion is to treat this relationship like you would any other relationship in your life. 

Do You Trust These People?
This is not about whether you trust their model or their process. Models and processes are plentiful; everybody’s got one. That’s not to denigrate their importance. It’s critical that innovation is repeatable; structure is absolutely necessary. So every innovation firm has a structure, process, or model that they follow. And most of them work quite well. If you think someone’s model seems reasonable, it probably is. So you need to decide if you trust the people as much as you trust the model. If by chance, something does go wrong, are these the people you want in the lifeboat bailing with you, or are they potentially going to bail on you?

Do They Care What You Think?
Early in my career, I was an assistant brand manager at Quaker Oats, working on the Gatorade brand. The senior management hired one of the big strategy consulting firms to rethink the future of the brand. After a meeting with the consultants (in which they pretty much ignored the opinion of everyone on our team), I privately asked my 2-levels-up boss, “Don’t you think they’re kind of … arrogant?” (I actually used a different “a” word that I won’t repeat here.)  Her response was, “Yes, totally. But they’re really smart.” 

In my relative naiveté, I assumed she must be right and that intelligence trumps all else in a relationship like this. Over time, however, I’ve learned differently. I now know that the people I want to work with are the ones who view our work together as a collaboration. 

No matter how smart a consultant is, they will never know your business like you do. They know DIFFERENT things than you know, and have DIFFERENT experiences than you have. The magic happens when those diverse sets of knowledge and expertise come together. So, don’t hire someone who agrees with you on everything, and does exactly what you ask for every time. And don’t hire someone who tries to look smarter than you, and doesn’t value your experience as important or unique. Hire someone who listens to what you say, but also challenges your assumptions, who adds value with their perspectives, questions, and suggestions, and who works WITH you to arrive at the best solutions.

Get beyond the first date before you tie the knot. Who are you really?
A client recently said to me, “We hired Firm X on the basis of the guy who originally presented to us. He was charismatic, smart, funny, and he really won over our whole team. As soon as we hired the firm, they sent in a bunch of inexperienced 24-year-olds to do the work, and we never saw or heard from him again. Obviously, we were a lot less impressed with the resulting work than we were with the initial presentation.”  Ask some questions about who will actually do the work. Is it the person/people presenting?  If you’ve only ever spoken to the Business Development specialist, ask to also speak to the person who will lead your project, and make sure that person also feels right, before you sign the contract.

Do you like them well enough to live with them?
It’s quite likely that you are going to work closely with these people for a while, and in some relatively intense environments. For example, you may find yourself in a dark back room of a focus group facility with them for several days. Would you enjoy going out to dinner with these same people every night afterward? Do you think that would be fun and/or relaxing after working with them for many days? If so, then dive in and hire them. If not, look around a little more. The best kind of consultant-client relationship is one where you’re actually so energized by the hard—and often exhausting—work you’re doing together, that you still want to hang out at the end of the day.

Of course, all the rational factors will play into your decision — quality, price, timing, output, etc. But even after you apply those filters, you will likely still have lots of potential partners to choose from. If you consider the human factors into your decision, you’ll ultimately be happier in your work with them, and more satisfied with the results.

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Written by Susan Robertson, Facilitator and VP of Business Development

While we have to remember that it is entertainment—and that some parts of it might not be totally real—it’s been an interesting study for me to watch the differences between the judges on American Idol.

Randy Jackson exhibits all the hallmarks of a flaming extrovert. He interrupts the other judges, and host Ryan Seacrest, all the time. Not because he’s being rude, but because he’s thinking. And extroverts think out loud. He says a lot of words when he talks, and often repeats one or more of them many times—especially if he’s passionate about what he’s saying. His gestures are large. His voice is loud. And while the last two don’t necessarily point to extroversion (I’m a rather loud introvert myself), they do often go hand-in-hand.

Steven Tyler exhibits the tendencies of an introvert. I know it seems hard to imagine that this rock star, who has made his name (and fame) by being the exhibitionist front man for one of the most famous bands ever, could be an introvert. But based on his behavior as a judge on Idol, I’d guess that’s who he really is. He rarely speaks until he’s specifically called upon by Ryan. He never interrupts the other judges. He says far fewer total words than Randy does.  His speaking voice is relatively quiet (again, not that that necessarily means he’s an introvert, but it seems to fit the demeanor in this case). His gestures and body language generally aren’t flamboyant (again, not necessarily the sign of an introvert on its own, but another clue). While he does make the occasional grand gesture (like diving into the pool fully clothed at the end of one episode) it appears to me that this is him performing. I think the “real” him is the thoughtful, relatively quiet, more introverted person.

Jennifer Lopez’s preference for introversion or extroversion is less clear, based on her behavior on the show. I tend toward thinking she prefers more extroversion, but that’s more speculation. The other two’s preferences seem more clear to me.  So I’m going to focus on the differences between Randy and Steven.

While Randy might, on the surface, appear to be giving more feedback, if you really think about what’s being said, Steven contributes an equal amount of thinking and feedback as Randy, just more in the style that an introvert contributes. He’s equally effusive, although less wordy, when someone performs outstandingly well. And he’s equally honest when someone doesn’t.  He appears to think through what he wants to say before he says it—a classic trait of an introvert.  Randy, true to his extroverted style, appears to do his thinking as he’s talking.

How Does This Relate To Your Innovation Work?

Well, besides the fact that I just find it interesting, it can illuminate how to get the best of each person on your innovation team—by making room and space for both introverts and extroverts to do their best thinking.

A lot of innovation work, particularly in the early discovery and idea generation phases, tends to be done with a team all in a room, or on the phone together. This group work is where extroverts are most at home—they love the energy of bouncing ideas and thoughts off other people, it’s often where they do their best thinking, and it’s how they get jazzed about a project. So make room for that in your process. Let them talk all they need to, because that’s how they think best.

But, to ensure that you get the best thinking from the introverts too, you need to give them their commensurate time and space. You can start by publishing the objectives and agenda of any meeting well in advance, so they have time to incubate on it privately.

When you need to generate new thinking in a group, ask that all participants do a preparation assignment in advance.  This allows the introverts to do some deep thinking about it when they’re alone and can do their best thinking. It also offers the added benefit of getting the idea generation off to a quick start when you do get the team together. The introverts will come with some ideas already thought-through. The extroverts might come with their thoughts less fleshed out, but they’ll use the energy of the moment to generate even more.

And when you do need to come up with ideas more in the moment (when there isn’t time for a prep assignment), make sure you have a few minutes of silent thinking before people start talking. The extroverts will be chomping at the bit to start talking, and will think the three minutes of “thinking time” isn’t necessary. But if you skip this, the introverts in the group will never have time to think, because it can be tough for them to think when everyone else is talking. So, if you’re the one running the meeting, say: “Everyone please take a quiet moment to jot down some thoughts before we start talking.”  The three minutes you spend, even though they feel wasted to the extroverts, will buy you dramatically better input and participation from the introverts.

In summary, keep in mind that you need to allow both types of people to feel like they’re contributing at their best. An easy way to remember to do this is to remember what they might say: 

An extrovert would say, “I don’t know what I think until I say it.”
An introvert would say, “I don’t know what to say until I think about it.”

You need to create both individual thinking time and talking time into your innovation process. Or you just might end up with ideas only Paula Abdul could love.

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Why Jeff Bezos LOVES Consumers

Forbes magazine will profile Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, as one of the best leaders in America in its April 23, 2012, issue. And it’s his love of customer-driven innovation that helped put him there.

According to the article:

"For Bezos a data-driven customer focus lets him take risks to innovate, secure in the belief that he’s doing the right thing. ‘We are comfortable planting seeds and waiting for them to grow into trees,’ says Bezos. ‘We don’t focus on the optics of the next quarter; we focus on what is going to be good for customers. I think this aspect of our culture is rare.’”

Source: forbes.com

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In February 2012, we sponsored the Yale Center for Customer Insights Trends in Marketing ConferenceThe Higher Velocity Marketplace: Technology, Innovation, and Engagement in the New Marketplace. This intimate, one-day gathering of marketing innovation thought leaders highlighted emerging trends and ideas in technology and customer engagement across a wide spectrum of industries.

Ideas To Go Chairman and Facilitator Ed Harrington and Word Processing Specialist Rickie Friedberg attended the conference and highlighted some of the learnings that we’ll post over the next few days. We hope you enjoy Part 4!

Claire Hughes Johnson, VP of New Products, Media, and Platforms at Google is a firsthand witness to “the acceleration of everything.” In the early days of the internet, she describes, its benefit was simply increasing the accessibility of information that had previously been difficult to find. Between 1998 and 2003, distribution and commerce became prominent. Companies were surprised when consumers were willing to hand over their credit cards and wait for their stuff to arrive, signaling a critical shift in how they would be required to think about the web. 

Since 2003, the internet has become social, a place where talking, engaging, and creating are the most prominent activities. We produce massive, unimaginable amounts of data and digital information—800 exabytes (That’s more than 800 billion gigabytes) today.  That number is expected to increase to 53 zettabytes by 2020.  Math doesn’t have words to express how large that is. Sixty hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, and 87% of that is consumer-generated content. 

The way that content is consumed is expanding as well.  We don’t just watch TV anymore; we use our smartphones and tablets while we watch TV.  In fact, much of the time we use those devices to search for the things we’re watching on TV while we’re watching it. We take our tablets to bed with us, playing games and reading newspapers instead of reading a book the way we used to. YouTube is now the number two search engine in the US—if we don’t know how to eat a pomegranate, somewhere on YouTube there is a video ready to explain.  In the days leading up to Christmas, L’Oreal took advantage of this, taking over the front page of YouTube and driving traffic towards their beauty how-to videos. The total cost? $1.7 million, incredibly low compared to the cost of a television campaign.

The next step in successful marketing will be to take advantage of the new technology and make the conversation two-way. One example: President Obama recently held a “hangout” on Google+, allowing people to interact with him via webcam. One woman put her two kids on screen, and they got to “meet” the President.

The message here is that marketing and advertising need to be about people, not technology. Humanity is what connects us, and makes things meaningful. The technology is just there to help.


Ideas To Go is pleased to also sponsor the upcoming 7th annual Yale Customer Insights Conference in May. Registration has already begun. The fee is $495, and seating is limited. Register for the conference here.

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