Empowering Breakthrough Ideas

If someone looked you in the eye and said, “You have 10 minutes to come up with the most creative, most breakthrough idea this industry has ever seen” you might be tempted to laugh in that person’s face.

After all, you’re lucky to remember to feed the dog after the long days you put in at work, let alone the hours you log at home. Come up with a breakthrough, brilliant idea? Who has the brainpower to do that these days?

Yet companies are depending on workers to come up with the innovative ideas needed to keep them competitive and thriving into the next decade. But anyone who has been forced into a brainstorming session and ordered to submit creative ideas knows the agony of forcing a process that seems more like a punishment rather than as a way to help a company’s bottom line.

“The problem is that the idea of innovation has sort of become the flavor of the month,” says Bryan W. Mattimore. “Even ideas about letting employees have 10 percent of their time to innovate or let them use ‘innovation rooms’ have failed.”

Instead, companies are now grasping the idea that they need to do more than “check off a box” that they have innovative practices, and really look at how they can get innovative ideas to the marketplace, much as Apple has done, he says.

Mattimore, president and co-founder of The Growth Engine Co. LLC, has helped companies like Sony, IBM and Pepsi come up with breakthrough ideas, and says the secret is using the right technique for the desired outcome. In his book, “Idea Stormers: How to Lead and Inspire Creative Breakthroughs” (Jossey Bass, $26.95), he provides examples of how leaders can get the results they need.

Among them:

  • Brainwalking.  Large sheets of paper are taped around the room, each labeled with a different challenge that needs to be addressed. Participants are asked to stop at these different “ideation stations” and write down an idea for meeting those challenges, eventually ending up at the original station.  Participants are then asked to circle a couple of their favorite ideas. Mattimore says the advantage of this exercise is that both introverts and extraverts love it, and can generate a “tremendous” amount of ideas. People also enjoy getting up and moving around, which also seems to increase the energy level of participants, he says.
  • Wishing. “This technique can be a bit more challenging, but can get some real breakthrough ideas,” he says. “The problem is that a lot of people have forgotten how to wish, so it may take some extra time to push people.” It begins by asking participants to wish for the impossible – and then figure out how to make it at least somewhat possible.
  • Picture prompts.  If there is a manufacturing challenge, for example, a leader can present to the group pictures that show industrial scenes. Photos of things being made or transformed can help generate ideas, he says. This technique, he says, is quick and can work well with people who are more visual.
  • Worst idea. This can work especially well if a group if cynical or unhappy (think customer service.) Participants are asked to come up with the worst ideas they can – even if they’re stupid, illegal and gross. Not only can this get a group laughing and more upbeat, but those bad ideas can be turned upside down and used to create some good ones.
  • Semantic intuition. This technique works well for challenges that include coming up with names for a new product. “This is probably the technique that generates the most laughs and is the most playful,” he says. In this exercise, participants are asked to combine several categories of key words to create a name for a new product or idea. Participants should be encouraged to go beyond the literal meanings of the words to create something that can work, he says.

“You have to remember that people are so time crunched and it’s almost impossible for them to come up with innovative ideas because they don’t have the time. They’re just thinking you’re giving them another job,” Mattimore says. “The world just needs to learn how to do brainstorming more quickly and efficiently.”

He even has a suggestion when a boss can’t find the time for everyone to attend an idea sessions. He suggests putting a white board and markers in an open area and posting a challenge. Then, as participants walk by they can add an idea – a quick and easy way to generate ideas for a busy workplace.

“It’s an interactive suggestion box that they use without spending a lot of time on it,” he says.

What strategies do you use to generate innovative ideas in your workplace?

 

Anita Bruzzese

Anita Bruzzese is a syndicated columnist for Gannett/USA Today on workplace issues and the author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy.” She has been on the Today show, and quoted in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, Self.com and BusinessWeek.com. Her website, 45things.com, is listed on the Forbes top 100 websites for women.

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