Leader Volume 9, Number 4
Fix a Problem, Go for Broke!
Govendo is President of The Innovative Edge, in Woodville, MA,
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.”
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...”
... 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
• It would create an almost “seamless” transition between
the frustration of getting stuck, to the satisfaction of resolving
• It would provide an added measure of security for the
customer, knowing that getting help from the company will be quick
• It would create a stronger bond between the company and user,
increasing the probability of customer loyalty.
• Customers may be willing to pay for this added measure of
assurance, thus creating an additional source of revenue.
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
• 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
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.
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.
Ideas: The Real Work of Brainstorming
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.