Need Some New Ideas? Ask Your Staff

It has been 6 years since I first started my first workshop in creative thinking and innovation. I can still clearly remember the first innovation workshop that I facilitated at one of the air bases in Singapore. And I have to thank Anne, who has been a mentor to me when I started my training journey, for giving me that opportunity.

I think I was really fortunate to be able to conduct training workshops for the Air Force, Navy and education institutions such as Singapore Polytechnic, Ngee Ann Polytechnic and the Institute of Technical Education.

In 2013, I was engaged to conduct Service Excellence and Employability Skills and what better time to incorporate those idea generation elements into these WSQ programs.

And I have to say… Among all the programs I’ve conducted, I think topics on creative thinking and innovation are my favorites. In almost every one of these workshops, I’ve had the opportunity to help learners generate some cool ideas that could bring some interesting changes to their industry.

Some of those ideas were rolled out but most of them were raw and needs further research and development.

But what is more important, to me, is to begin adopting a work culture that is pro-ideas.

Now, I am not talking about mere problem solving.

Every company faces problems that needs solving.

I am not talking about daily ‘firefighting’ at work.

What I am talking about is a generating long term, high value, ideas that improves work processes, improves customer experience and if possible, contribute to a company’s bottomline.

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Idea generation is a fun process and, if not controlled, can sometimes go out of hand or even become counter-productive.
If you are an entrepreneur or hold a management or leadership position in a company, you need to know this; one of the best resources that you have is your own staff. It’s that group of people, who faced your customers day in day out. It’s that group of people who runs your operations and also those who develop your businesses.

Your staff are the most important resources you can have because;

1. Their consistent execution of tasks and being involved in the various elements of their job grants them experience.
From that experience, they might have some ideas on how certain processes could have been done better.
They might have an idea which product sells better.
They might have an idea on how to ensure timely delivery.
They speak to customers and may receive feedbacks from customers, good or bad, and those are important information that needs to be dissected and studied.

One question that you need to ask yourselves is ‘Do those feedback stop at them or do you have a record of all those feedbacks’? Do you take some time to study and analyze those feedbacks?

Years ago, I had the opportunity to work with a couple of MNCs and SMEs. Almost all of them have a nice wooden box labelled ‘SUGGESTIONS’ or ‘FEEDBACK’. Unfortunately, only a few companies will routinely open those boxes and registers its content for management perusal.

The rest of those companies will use that box as another ‘white elephant’ and eventually turns to a breeding nest for roaches and lizards or even a convenient bin for food wrappers. Yewk!

2. Every one of your staff is unique.
a. They grew up differently.
b. They are educated differently,
c. Lived in a different environment and
d. Have different work experiences.
Each of those experiences lies deep within them; some are active while others are dormant, waiting for some form of connection to be made.

Each of their experiences is represented by a dot that needs to be connected to other dots, either by reading or interacting with other people. That’s why most successful leaders and entrepreneurs advocate learning and networking. It really is to ignite the spark that knowledge, experience and ideas can make.

Some people are able to pour out their ideas easily. Some just needed a little help. And one of the ways to help is to create an environment that promotes the flow of ideas.

One of the companies that I think have really created an excellent pro-idea platform is IDEO. IDEO, based in the United States, is a design company that have worked behind the scenes of almost every well-known gadget that we use. From Apple Computers first mouse to Nike ski goggles and even that huge killer whale from the movie Free Willy.

Some of you may argue,”Hey, IDEO is a design company. That’s why they have tonnes of ideas”. Well, not exactly. IDEO does not have tonnes of ideas just because they are a design company. IDEA has tonnes of ideas because they have a process that encourages the continual ‘birth of ideas’, engages their staffs to interact with one another, sharing ideas to solve any particular design problem.

IDEO’s staffs are not solely from a design background or qualification. The experiences and qualification of the people they employ are very diverse ranging from engineers to medical professionals.

Setting Up The Pro-Idea Platform.

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One of the things that IDEO did that I think is important is to ‘set the rules of the game’. A game without rules is not really that much fun either. These ‘rules’ are really innovation matras that ideo has for example;

a. One conversation at a time.
b. Stay Focused On Topic
c. Encourage Wild Ideas
d. Defer Judgement
e. Build on Ideas of Others.

Any criticism on any idea will get a ‘ring’ of the bell. With all this in place, you can begin your idea generation session..

Tools You May Need
Naturally, you will need to have some tools for this idea generation and innovation workshop. The types of tools you need really depend on your objective and the nature of ideas you seek. If you do require some prototypes, then some modelling papers, corrugated boards or even modelling clay might be useful. Some of the tools that I commonly use in my idea generation and innovation workshop includes;

a. Flipcharts
b. Markers
c. Various colours of post-it notes.
d. Pens
e. Scissors
f. Cutters
g. Coloured papers or construction papers.

Why no laptops or computers?
This is a very good question. While the internet is an excellent tool for research, I do not think it is really useful if I want to tap on their knowledge and experience.

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I do not want them to be concerned about what’s already on the market. I do not want them to be concern about what they do not know. What I want is for them to dig deep within their ‘pockets’ and share it with the entire team.

Stage 1 – Make the case

It is important that the case be laid out before idea generation. Making the case sets the objective and informs the staff on the area to focus on. Let them know what the company is facing.

When you are open enough to trust the company’s challenges and growth vision with them, your staff will feel that there is trust. When there is trust, there is rapport.

This entire exercise can only be a success if there is rapport. If you do not have or unable to build that rapport, get someone else to run this activity.

There was a story I read about a senior executive who was treated negatively by the CEO of the company he worked in. He was left out of meetings, instructions bypassed him and he felt that he was being ousted.

Unknown to that CEO, those staffs were watching and learning, from his every action. They learned that they cannot trust their CEO. The staff felt that their CEO can do that to his senior executive who played a major role in the growth of the company, he can easily do the same to them.

Once this happens, rapport is not possible. Zero rapport leads to zero contribution. Yes, the staffs will still work for you but only until they find another job.

Stage 2 – Engage in Divergent Thinking.

What is divergent thinking process? Divergent thinking process requires every single staff to suggest ideas to solve your case.

These ideas are freely given and recorded. Most will be wild and nonsensical.

In this part of the process, I will only encourage continuous flow of ideas.

I want quantity rather than quality. So if you have a staff who is quiet or fear of being ridiculed, this will be a good opportunity to make them open up.

Once they realized that –No Idea Is A Bad Idea, they will pour out as much as they could.
The only challenge here is to have a time limit and to ensure everyone is staying focused on the case.

To help you understand this process better, let me give you a simple case as an example…

“You work as a mee rebus (a type of spaghetti-like dish) seller and you notice that some of your customers leave the table with a small mee rebus stain on their shirts. If this goes on, these office workers may not patronize your stall anymore simply because they do not want to stain their shirts”

Divergent thinking process requires them to think of any idea that they think might solve that case. So the list of ideas can come in as follows;
a. Provide a napkin
b. Provide wet tissue
c. Serve dry mee rebus
d. Provide straws
e. Provide bigger bowls
f. Provide an apron
g. Serve shorter noodles
h. Provide laundry service
i. Place a nanotech cleaner at the stall.
j. Provide a training course on how to eat mee rebus without staining your shirts…
And the list goes on and on.

How do they come up with this? It comes from everywhere within their memory. It may come from their own experience, it can come from the cartoons they’ve watched with their kids, it can come from the restaurant they’ve patronized, anywhere and everywhere!

Stage 3 – Narrow it down with Convergent Thinking.

Divergent thinking process looks into quantity. Convergent thinking, on the other hand, looks into quality.

This is where discussions and debates will take place. Some of those ideas will need to be eliminated.

Elimination will be made on any of these criteria.
a. Cost
b. Safety
c. Time
d. Ease of application
e. Management support
f. Values
g. Technology available
h. Capability
i. Resources
And the list goes on, depending on how your company would like it to be.

Stage 4 – Form tiger teams to research and present their findings.

This is where a more in-depth research will be done. Give them an appointment to present their proposals. Let them know what the management is looking for and follow up closely with each of these teams. Important points such as
a. Prototype
b. Drawing
c. Statistics
d. Survey results
e. Investment/ROI
f. Expected results of application
g. Charts
And many more
Should be included in their presentation whenever applicable.

Stage 5 – Decide with tact
For this exercise, you need to acknowledge that your staffs have gone beyond their job scope. Appreciate them for their efforts so that they can continue to contribute in future sessions.

After the presentation, you and your management team will have one of three decisions to make
1. Accept – the presentation is sound and you accept the proposal
2. Keep in view – the idea may be sound but now is not the right team for a variety of reasons.
3. Reject – maybe there was not enough research done or the benefit of those ideas is not worth the investment of application.

While I will leave it to the management on whether or not to inform the tiger teams on the outcome and/or reason behind it, I will always encourage transparency and sharing of information. Keeping information might ruin the entire effort.

The last thing we need is for the staff to feel that management wants to keep the credit.

Quick Summary

In summary, the entire process of idea generation can be as simple as
1. Make the case
2. Engage in Divergent Thinking
3. Narrow it down with Convergent Thinking
4. Form tiger teams to research and present their findings.
5. Decide with tact

There are many other ways for idea generation and one of the more popular ones is Design Thinking. I’ll cover that on another post as it can be quite extensive.

One very important point to remember!

Whatever technology or tools for idea generation that you think is better, none can work without having the entire team totally involved, an environment that supports the flow of ideas and an open minded management team.

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