At the recent Ecommerce Expo at London, there was an interesting Director's Club session on creativity in business, led by digital leadership guru Sofie Sandell - and while the exercises we were invited to do were, well, let's say unusual (at 10am in the morning - it's amazing what you'll do for a free breakfast), the tenor of the talk was inspiring. How, exactly, should businesses approach the issues of creativity and ideas generation, considering that in the fast moving digital world, innovation is the lifeblood of growth?
An example Sofie gave was HMV - in the years prior to its fall, she invited us to imagine how many thousands of hours of meetings were held, presentations researched and written, spreadsheets reworked, in an attempt to make a decision on how to restructure the traditional music selling business in the face of the digital onslaught. And yet nothing happened - they still went down. It's almost as if management were paralysed to act. Whether this was down to a lack of new ideas, we can only speculate, but even if all the right ideas were on the table, a large and traditional organisation like HMV will inevitably find it hard to change - or pivot in the lingo of Shoreditch and Silicon Valley - quite simply because the stakes are enormous and the consequences of failure so much larger. As one speaker at the recent Internet Retailing conference in London put it - you can only effect change in those circumstances by changing the people.
But however large or small your business, the importance if generating ideas cannot be underestimated, especially in today's digital economy, where if you don't keep up you fall away. There are three steps you need to consider.
Step 1 - Create an Ideas Factory
First, new ideas need encouraging and surfacing, not just at board level, but across all the staff. This is not just good for business, it's also basic management common sense - you need to make people feel valued, and that they have a say in the success of the company. However, how you do it is important, as so often it's managed in a way that is purely window dressing. This, in a way, is the most important step of all, and the one that is commonly done badly. After all, a business's most valuable asset is its staff, and if you are not utilising the people who work in your business for ideas on how to do things better, you are wasting a huge resource and opportunity. At the end of this post I will suggest an idea of how to structure this.
Step 2 - Validation
Second, you need a mechanism for sorting and validating ideas. The flip side of ideas generation is that the more you generate, the more you generate!
A few years ago I took time out to write a novel - where I discovered the writer's secret, which is that as you start to write, and concentrate on it over long periods, your mind becomes increasingly fertile with ideas. It's as if you are watering a garden, and it's true that many novels write themselves. However, when you stop, or you focus goes elsewhere, the creativity dries up, even if you preserve an hour or so every day to carry on writing. So as a business, if you are going to 'open the floodgates' to new ideas, you need a way to rigourously channel them, because once you ask (provided you do it in the right way), you'll get a flood of them. This step is the simplest to manage, but it does need a process, and it's not thought about properly, it can destroy your business. Ideas are dangerous things. Like unexploded bombs, they need handling with extreme care.
For example you need to be ruthless about spending time on only those ideas that further the main goal of your business. Ideas are cheap, it's the execution that matters, and it's the execution that takes massive resource and focus. So if the idea does not directly reinforce the direction of the business, then it should be discarded, however good an idea it is. This is a danger especially relevant to smaller, start-up businesses - businesses that may not have finally settled on a direction, in a world where pivoting is a pretty easy option when the ship you have to pivot is a small one. It's tempting to panic at the first sign of difficulty and change direction, or follow the money, not realising that the money may be temporary. The very nature of start-ups is that there will be a ferment of ideas swilling around, and masses of excitement about creating new things.
The danger of undisciplined chasing of new ideas and avenues is magnified when it gets to tech development. For example you may have a new client, and they tell you they'd like this 'cool new feature' that would make their life easier. That's a good idea, you think, and it looks even better coming from your client, who you want to please, right? So, do you build it or not? Will any of your other clients (clients you may not yet have) want this 'cool new feature'? Above all - and this is the key question - is it going to improve your chance of future sales? This is where iron discipline needs to come in, at the risk of disappointing your client (and your developers/designers!). If it's an edge use case that's 'nice to have', it's not worth devoting resource to.
Step 3 - Match to Resource
Which brings me to the third step: you should only consider ideas that you can actually execute. This may sound a no-brainer, but resource is something of an elastic concept, and it can be allocated in many directions, and you have to look far enough into the future to assess whether you have the resources and skills to bring it to market. Build is the easy bit. Start-ups are littered with cool stuff that went nowhere - not only those that were 'nice to haves' that not more than a handful wanted, but also those that really would add value if only they had been marketed properly.
The Importance of Sticking Your Neck Out
So ideas generation is a three step process - generation, validation, and then match-to-resource. But like a funnel, what you get out of the bottom of it depends in large part on what goes in at the top, so setting up a process for generating them a key first step. For larger organisations, it's more of a challenge, as there are so many layers of management and stakeholders that need to have a voice in the process - and I can imagine the challenge at HMV. Moreover it can be daunting for a junior member of staff to stick her head over the parapet and risk rejection - which in a larger organisation may be as much about the politics as anything else. This is key when it comes to inviting ideas - you must create an atmosphere where people can be encouraged to take risks and not worry about looking stupid. Nowhere is failure more important that in ideas generation, because, as any writer will tell you, you need ten unworkable plot endings for every one that works.
An Ideas Factory Template
So here's a suggestion. Once a week - and it could equally well be less frequent - finish work a little early and find a quiet, warm room and stock it with beer. Friday is the one possible day to do it, since you don't have to worry about carrying on in the pub afterwards, but some people may be dead tired on a Friday, so Thursday could be an alternative. You might add pizza, cookies, whatever. Then one person starts the discussion and you open the floor, and it's crucial that everyone feels relaxed and not in 'work mode'. Small numbers work best - anywhere more than 20 and you need separate groups.
It's also important that people don't feel they have to be there. Somebody is delegated to take notes, and you you can also theme the evening - it could be you are looking for new features ideas, or new ways to service your customers, or new marketing or growth hacking strategies. The session will last a minimum of one hour and most likely not more than two, and people may drift in and out. But at the end of it you have a bunch of ideas, which are then summarised, in the cold light of day, by the note-taker on Monday morning, when whoever are the decision makers shortlist the ones to take forward for further validation.
That's the fun part. The hard part - execution - I'll leave to you!