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To Fix A Problem, Go For Broke!
Looking for a creative solution to a tough problem? Pick an idea that needs major repairs!
Your boss comes into your office and says, "I think what we should do is pull the team together tomorrow morning and have a brainstorming session on the problem we were discussing earlier. These communication breakdowns with our customers could cost us several key accounts. If we don't figure out a way to solve them once and for all, we'll all be looking for new jobs."
"Okay," you reply. "I'll get the word out. Nine o'clock? I'll tell them to block out the entire morning." Meanwhile, your eyes roll to the back of your head as you mutter to yourself, "Not another brainstorming session! Three hours wasted on ... what? We'll lose the whole morning just to come up with the same tired ideas that haven't worked in the past, and won't now. Oh, well..."
Brainstorming ... A Good Idea?
As a consultant who facilitates creative problem-solving sessions for businesses, I hear this complaint often: brainstorming may be fun, but in the end it rarely produces anything new. For many - even those who are favorably inclined toward an expressive, free-wheeling approach to generating ideas against tough challenges - the brainstorming process has fallen short of expectations. It's especially disappointing to those managers, team leaders and HR specialists who have worked hard to shift their culture away from one which greets new ideas with cynicism and suspicion, toward one of greater open-mindedness and acceptance.
"We get lots of imaginative ideas at our meetings," one manager told me, "but the more creative they are, the less they apply to the problem we're working on. So, we wind up eliminating those, and go back to the ones that make the most sense. Of course, these are the ones that come up over and over, every time we try to tackle the problem."
I asked him to run through the process he uses in his brainstorming sessions. "First, I assure them that all ideas are welcome in this meeting, and encourage them to express any thought that comes to mind. No criticism is allowed, and I give lots of reinforcement to those who take a chance and come out with a 'wild' idea. This encourages others, and before you know it, I've got thirty to forty ideas up on the board. Some are a little weird, but that's okay. My people are clever, and they like expressing this side of themselves."
"Then what happens?" I asked.
"Then we go through the ideas one by one, eliminating those that obviously won't work, and circling those that show some promise, or seem to make sense." From the latter group, we do some prioritizing and choose several to discuss further, trying to see if we can make one or more of them work. By the time we're done, we usually have something that sounds, well ... very familiar. We're simply re-hashing old ideas. We just can't seem to come out with something that's really new and different."
If this sounds like the way you do brainstorming at your workplace - with similar results - try something different: after the ideas have been generated, go for broke. Instead of eliminating those ideas that are illogical or unfeasible as they now stand, select on the basis of intrigue, curiosity, or what would be a wonderful solution if the obstacles could be overcome. It's not due to a shortage of creative ideas that brainstorming so often disappoints. Rather, it's because those ideas are treated as finished products, with too many flaws to warrant further consideration. The more novel and untested the ideas, the more flawed they appear, and therefore likely to be dismissed. Instead, they should be selected as starting points for a development process that could eventually transform them into useful, practicable concepts that address the challenge in new ways.
Choosing by these criteria is rather an act of faith. Why spend an hour or two generating a range of ideas, only to gravitate toward those that appear least feasible? The answer is that unless you select an untried, unfamiliar, or even strange-sounding idea, there is little chance of your achieving an innovative result, or any result other than what you've already gotten in the past. It's highly unlikely that someone in your group will come up with a brand new idea, never previously thought of, all wrapped up and ready to go to work. The "99% perspiration" Edison referred to isn't expended getting the idea; it comes after a new idea or concept is expressed, and the decision made to spend time and energy molding it into a feasible solution.
Transforming a Metaphor: An Illustration
Let's look at how this might work. A software company is in the final stages of developing a product that is expected to break new ground in the marketplace, but will also require technical mastery for the user to run properly and achieve maximum performance. Enabling the user to attain this mastery in the most painless and expedient manner is critical to the product's success. Realizing this, the product team has instituted several measures for supporting customers: exhaustive documentation, numerous on-line prompts and hints about usage, a beefed up toll-free help line capacity. Despite these - all good, but merely extensions of currently used techniques - the team is seeking something better, a true differentiator in customer responsiveness. They know from experience that many users simply won't pore through the printed documentation, or that on-line help often misses the mark for those having difficulty. Toll-free assistance, no matter how many service representatives are on call, nearly always entails a waiting period.
At a brainstorming session, one member of the team wishes out loud, almost wistfully, that they could have the foresight to "anticipate trouble for the user, the way some animals can sense when a storm is coming." Now, taken literally, they realize it is not possible to know in advance the specific problems their customers will have, much less communicate with each one individually. Yet, the notion is intriguing, for if something on that order could be accomplished, it might be the determining success factor for this product. So, rather than dismissing the idea out of hand, they select it as a possibility, knowing it is more a metaphor than a working concept, and that they'll need to change it in order to make it operational. In other words, they're listening to the idea approximately, rather than literally.
They begin by articulating what they like about the idea, why it's attractive (note that they do not begin by focusing on the negatives; that's the best way to kill an idea). Some of the "pluses" are:
* It would shorten the often maddening wait between encountering a problem and making contact with someone who can help.
* It would create an almost "seamless" transition between the frustration of getting stuck, to the satisfaction of resolving the problem.
* It would provide an added measure of security for the customer, knowing that getting help from the company will be quick and easy.
* It would create a stronger bond between the company and user, encouraging loyalty.
* Customers may be willing to pay for this added measure of assurance, thus creating an additional source of revenue.
Having enumerated the strong points, they now turn their attention to the "downsides," which are stated as obstacles to overcome, instead of reasons the idea won't work. They do this because they know that, as a new and undeveloped idea, it is highly vulnerable to a negative barrage. They can keep it alive only by inviting further problem-solving against its most troubling or unfeasible aspects, rather than criticizing it out of existence. Using positive, action-oriented language, they raise the following issues:
* How can we respond to specific problems "before" they occur, or at the earliest possible time?
* How can we provide support in a way that is effortless for the user (i.e., no plowing through a thick manual to find the solution, no "trial and error" with on-line options, no lengthy telephone queues, etc.)?
* How can we continually reassure the user that help is available?
Focusing on the first obstacle, and drawing upon the analogy of animals "sensing" an impending storm, one member of the team offers a novel suggestion: proactively e-mail each customer a "personal" thank you message several days after registering their software, along with an attached help request form that can be immediately filled out and e-mailed back to the company. This would preclude the need for visiting the company's website, or calling a help line. Depending upon the nature of the request, the response could be either a stock reply to frequently asked questions, or a specifically written reply; either way it is a tailored solution in the eyes of the user. Most importantly, the company would "be there" for the customer when help is most likely needed.
Building upon this concept, a second team member offers another suggestion: in addition to this initial interaction with the user, build into the program the same readily available, easy-to-access help request form, with guaranteed response time by a company representative. Thus, the entire user experience will be accompanied by a reassuring presence by the company, and a sense that the customer will never be far from the help he/she may need. While it doesn't quite reach the level of "anticipating" the problem the way an animal senses a storm, the concept certainly goes further than the conventional customer interface vehicles that are already in place. It breaks new ground.
Developing Ideas: The Real Work of Brainstorming
Understanding that effective brainstorming entails more than simply coming up with creative ideas is a key to fostering innovation. It requires a step-by-step, open-minded development process in which an idea, chosen specifically for its novelty, is progressively transformed into a concept that will satisfy the real-life criteria posed by the task being worked on. Applying these criteria too early in the process - at the time of idea selection - only defeats the purpose. As I often tell my clients, you can take almost any new idea and systematically make it feasible; it's much more difficult to take an ordinary idea and make it new.
So, the next time you're faced with a tough problem requiring a fresh solution, encourage your people to be creative and generate some playful, far-flung ideas. Then, instead of eliminating them in favor of the familiar, select a few simply because they're exciting, unusual - but not necessarily practical. Go for broke, then "fix" them through the development process I've described.
It is within these ideas - not the ones which are familiar and comfortable - that the potential for real breakthrough exists.
What's your opinion?
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