From Sigmund Freud to Jimi Hendrix to Stephen King, some of the greatest minds have resorted to extreme measures to unleash their creativity and push the limits of innovation.
Now think of your company’s management team — do you feel that same commitment to ground-breaking innovation?
The last time I interviewed project managers, I asked them the typical questions about scheduling, budgeting, difficult employees, etc. and they gave me the typical answers. But when I asked the question, “How do you promote innovation?”, I got a lot of blank stares.
Despite companies across the nation espousing the need for innovation and creativity, in the software industry, “creative types” are usually relegated to specific areas like UI design (the one area, in fact, where there is probably a stronger need for rigorous analysis than creativity). Creativity in process and management is not often a top consideration.
But wait! Management teams don’t have to break out mind-altering drugs in order to bring their organizations to the next level. A simple commitment to innovation will go a long way—a 3-step process we’ve labeled LSD (an acronym we’re sure you’ll remember):
- Let the team brainstorm… on any topic
- Support creative immersion
- Drive ideas to results
Let The Team Brainstorm… On Any Topic
It is well-known that The Beatles would try recording songs in the studio in dozens of different ways. Rumor has it they did 102 takes of the song “Not Guilty”. Now let me ask an almost rhetorical question—does your company’s brainstorming sessions let you get up to 102 ideas? Or do you get stuck on 1 or 2 ideas early on and start debating their merits, whether they are practical, etc.
The company IDEO, a design firm widely known for its creativity and innovation, found that too often in business we’re tempted to be practical and realistic and start cutting down each others’ ideas rather than building on them. That’s why they have entrenched 7 rules of quality brainstorming into their culture, going so far as to engrave them in every boardroom of their office.
Be Visual. Defer judgment. Encourage Wild Ideas. Build on the Ideas of Others. Go for Quantity. One Conversation at a Time. Stay Focused on the Topic. If I had to add an 8th rule it would be this: No Topic Is Off-Limits. Brainstorming is often limited to new feature and UI ideas. But why stop there? Brainstorm on process improvement, management efficiency, and communication methods. These areas desperately need innovation too. And don’t start cutting down ideas until you’ve reached the symbolic 102 takes.
Support Creative Immersion
When my company first decided to be involved in Health Informatics, we held some brainstorming sessions. We brainstormed product ideas, technology ideas, and we held back until we had a lot of ideas. But arguably, none of the ideas were “quality” ideas. Simply, we weren’t immersed in Health Care at the time. Our team didn’t know enough about trends like the drive to adopt EMR, the latest ideas like Health 2.0, nor the problems plaguing the industry like privacy and security. We didn’t have mHealth devices in the office or a runnable copy of Mirth. How were we supposed to come up with quality ideas?
Today, we are immersed in the Health Care space. Our team participates in conferences and works directly with modern IT. Now we are able to build on the latest ideas when we develop products with our customers.
Looking back on the process, admittedly we could have sped things up. Supporting team creativity doesn’t just mean giving the team time to brainstorm in quantity, it means fostering quality brainstorming.
- Keep links to domain-specific blogs and news sites from your intranet. Encourage team members to discuss the latest ideas. We do this using news feeds with Confluence.
- Invest in equipment and devices. How is your team going to be innovative about leveraging your product on iPhone unless there is at least 1 iPhone in the office to use?
- Dedicate time for employees to be creative. Not every company can dedicate 1 day per week like Google, but even a Friday afternoon or 1 official day a month will show the company’s commitment. Asking employees to do their “real work” during company hours and be creative after work hours sends the wrong message.
- Timing is critical — if your team just released a 1.0 product, set up a 2.0 feature brainstorming meeting ASAP while the team is still immersed in that product.
- Reward creative ideas. For example, if your company gives quarterly awards or employee of the month, ensure creative ideas are part of the criteria for nomination.
- Set the example. Start conversations and discussions regarding the latest news and trends. If you are enthusiastic, your team will be too.
Drive Ideas To Results
I met with the Creative Director of a design company recently and had an eye-opening conversation.
“So what does a Creative Director do exactly? Encourage people to come up with good ideas?” I asked.
“That’s only part of it,” he informed me. “Not every idea is a winner. Once people have their ideas, I either drop them or I drive them to either turn them into actions or results.”
“You mean you don’t just try to encourage them?”
“This is business — either you make something out of your idea, or you move on to another one.”
Once the team has developed ideas in quantity and quality, then it’s time to drive those ideas into results — or drop them.
For new product and feature ideas, establish a process for taking ideas to the next step. For example, build ongoing lists of new feature ideas which marketing will use when they start planning version 2.0. Have a dedicated marketing manager who can be reached by anyone with new product and service ideas.
For new UI ideas, employ user testing, a usability technique to verify how users interact with the UI. Observers are often surprised when they realize how the most well-intentioned creative UI simply does not make sense to new users, and vice versa.
For new process ideas, try them out on a small project. A new kind of code review process? A new testing framework? The best way to know if the ideas will sink or swim is to try them for a short time and see the results. Really good ideas usually catch on and spread like wildfire.
The list of authors, musicians, scientists and entrepreneurs whose work is considered groundbreaking goes on and on. But how many software industry players are currently considered groundbreaking in terms of innovation? Apple? Google? IDEO? Comparatively, the software space is wide open for more big innovative names. But just as a band like The Beatles started with a commitment to creativity, so must a company, its management, and its people commit to the same. This doesn’t have to mean millions of dollars in R&D—the simple steps we’ve outlined above go a long way towards shifting teams towards Jimi Hendrix like ingenuity. Minus the purple haze.
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