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. But think of your company’s management team—do you feel that same commitment to ground-breaking innovation?
As part of a market research initiative my team recently interviewed a group of software executives and mid-level managers. We asked them questions about product management, scheduling, budgeting, etc. and they gave us 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 a stronger need for rigorous analysis than creativity). Creativity in process and management is not often a top consideration.
But 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 I've labeled LSD (an acronym I hope you'll remember):
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
Years ago when my company decided to be involved in Healthcare IT, 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 Healthcare at the time.
Our team didn’t know enough about trends like the drive to adopt electronic medical records, health insurance exchanges an patient self-care platforms, 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 space. Our team participates in all the major conferences and we make sure our office is filled with leading edge devices, access to new software systems, online journals, and even an advisory panel of clinicians who we consult with regularly. 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.
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 often point out everything that's wrong with them and force them to drop the idea and keep thinking. Or if the idea really looks promising, I drive them to either turn them into actions and results.”
“You mean you don’t just try to encourage any idea?”
“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 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 usability testing, a User Experience Design 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.Go Do It!The list of authors, musicians, scientists and entrepreneurs whose work is considered ground-breaking goes on and on. But how many software industry players are currently considered ground breaking 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 I’ve outlined above go a long way towards shifting teams towards Jimi Hendrix-like ingenuity. Minus the purple haze.