Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Brainstorm Meatloaf: awesome if you do it right

Image by Jeffrey W under Creative Commons license
Brainstorming has become synonymous with innovation. There have been hundreds of books and articles written about brainstorming.  Most recently, there has been some research showing that brainstorming doesn’t work.  This might resonate with you a bit because we’ve all come out of a large group brainstorm and thought ,”Wow, that was a waste of time.”  So is brainstorming total BS?  

All brainstorming is not equal. In the Great Depression, meatloaf was used to stretch the budget by mincing cheap meat and cheap grains with leftovers and then baking everything together to make it edible again.  As such, in some circles, it gained a bad reputation as some really bad meatloafs were made (and mostly eaten.)  However, taking the fundamental concept of meatloaf, it is possible to make an incredible dish by applying good ingredients and scientific experimentation (no really, go to this link.)  In the same way, the diligently planned and well facilitated brainstorm of today cannot be compared with populating a meeting with the first 10 people you run into in the hall, wriggling your fingers and shouting “Innovate!.”

It’s also true that  brainstorming ALONE doesn’t work, and that it doesn’t work for everything.  Groups are powerful ways to bring people with diverse backgrounds and skills together to find new pathways to solve problems.  They are not good ways of making decisions, creating action plans, gathering data, or designing and engineering something.  Similar to knowing whether you’re opening or closing the funnel, it’s important to know when brainstorming can be effective.

Here is a simple recipe for a great brainstorm:
  1. Keep it small -  Would an eleventh finger really help?  Five to six people is ideal.  Things start to break down past eight.
  2. Diversity is real - You’re looking for new perspectives, so gather people from different functional areas, roles, backgrounds, and yes, sometimes gender and race matter too.  You can’t bake a cake with just eggs (blend together one brown chicken egg, one white chicken egg, two duck eggs, and bake!)
  3. Define a narrow goal - When opening the funnel, it’s hard to broaden an already broad topic.  You’ll get better results the more specific you can make the problem.  “Come up with new baby products” is too general.  Try something like “Explore new ways to improve bottle feeding for babies between 6 months and 1 year old.”
  4. Pick a facilitator - Just because a brainstorm has people in it does not make it a democracy.  A designated facilitator will allow someone to keep the brainstorm on track.  Otherwise everyone will waste time debating “what should we do next” instead of thinking innovatively.  Other roles can be designated as well such as note taking and time keeping.
  5. Keep it physical - A boardroom setting will result in a boardroom culture.  Avoid presenting slides and having everyone sit at a table facing one direction.  This shifts people from creating to evaluating (which is what we do when looking at slides).  Instead, get people standing and drawing.  Interpretive dance and finger painting highly encouraged.
  6. Make it safe to be crazy - Bad ideas are good.  You must turn off the internal censorship to allow new thoughts to surface.  Trebuchets are a great solution to most problems.  And in this case, it’s okay to mention Nazis.
  7. Say the obvious - Don’t think of a pink elephant.  Ha!  Now you just did.  Obvious ideas are often held back because they’re boring.  But then they stay in your mind (and they’re on EVERYONE’s mind).  So get the obvious ideas out there and on paper.  Then move on.
  8. Keep it moving - Go for speed, not perfection.  It’s great to throw out crazy ideas if we can capture them and move on.  However, rat-holing, or getting stuck on a single topic, can suck up all the time and energy in a brainstorm.  Even worse, the fear of rat-holing creates self-censorship where people “don’t want to go there.”  If the facilitator can’t keep things moving, designate a time-keeper or use a stopwatch.

Yes.  Much more can be said on brainstorming, but for now, go forth and experiment.  It’s the best way to learn to cook, and the best way to practice innovative thinking.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Innovator’s Textbooks: by Asimov, Clarke, and Stephensen

Image by Chris Drumm
Becoming good at anything requires not just practice but some form of study.  Luckily, for innovative thinking, the reading list is highly enjoyable and available for free at your local library.  What better way to expand your mind to new possibilities and learn new paradigms to apply to problems than through the creative thinking and exposition of great science fiction writers?

Many of the most important technical innovations in recent history were predicted by science fiction.  These include communications satellites, earbuds, and debit cards to name a few.  It is important to note that just because a novel contains robots and spaceships does not mean that it is true science fiction (in our use of the term).  A good science fiction novel, for our purposes, is a novel that makes one or more hypotheses of the future (eg. energy becomes free, cyberspace becomes more important than real life, robots do all the work).  Then it explores the resulting world that arises from these hypotheses, looking for ground-changing and surprising repercussions (matter replication and the end of money, immortality and suicide, boredom as a cause of extinction and mass welfare).

This mirrors the process of innovative thinking, a hundred times in as many pages.  Reading science fiction is like reading an endless array of entertainingly written case studies.  Each story is full of lessons and provocative thought experiments to learn from.  It is important to note that the paradigms explored in science fiction are not limited to technological predictions.  Many truly impactful works of science fiction explore bits of economics, politics, religion, existential philosophy, and fundamentally what it means to be human.  When I look back at what has shaped my own way of thinking and inspired me to learn and grow, I always come back to the books that filled my childhood and continue to dominate my reading list even today.

“But this is fiction, not fact!” some might object.  True, but we are not trying to learn facts about the world.  We are trying to learn different views on how the world works.  Paradigms are never true or false.  They are all simply models used to view a problem.  Often opposite paradigms exist, and that’s okay.  They can both be true at different times.  The reading of science fiction and the expansion of your library of paradigms is meant to give you tools with which to tackle problems.  Innovation is not about having one correct lens; it is about having millions of lenses through which to look at a problem, and sifting through them to find the right one to use at the right time.

So what are you waiting for?  Get started by browsing the shelves of your local library, or by checking out some top lists and seeing what catches your eye.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Funnel Cake: Opening and closing the funnel

Image by Ines Hegedus-Garcia
There are hundreds of diagrams on “new product development”, “innovation”, or “problem solving”.  Instead of drawing you a complex GIF, I’m going to simplify the whole process into FOUR LINES.  Ready?

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That simple.  One of the most important concepts to grasp is that you should always be either opening or closing the funnel, but not both at the same time.   These two actions are polar opposites, and problems arise when you aren’t absolutely clear on which you are engaged in.

When you first define a problem you’re trying to solve (say… urban transportation) , you start by opening the funnel.  Create tons of new ideas (dog sleds).  State the obvious (bikes and trains). Branch out (working from home).  Actively seek bad ideas (trebuchets).  Go for quantity (pigeon powered flight).  Have lots of fun.  Draw.  Don’t criticize.  Build ideas up.  Say “Yes, and… “  Use post its or paper or white boards.  We’ll discuss many of these techniques in later posts.  

Now after you’ve generated dozens or hundreds of ideas, it’s time to start closing the funnel.  Different rules apply.  You’ll want to start categorizing ideas (personal vehicles, public vehicles, social structure change…).  You need to decide on which aspects of the concepts are most important (cost, size, infrastructure, distance traveled…)  This is a process of narrowing down.  You need structure.  You need pugh charts and debating systems and voting systems.  Your end goal is to take hundreds of ideas and whittle them down to a handful.

And then you repeat.

With your new narrow focus, you’ll have to widen the funnel again, but this time within the constraints of each concept.  What are all the ways you can utilize dog sleds?  Expand.  Then it’s narrowing time.  Contract.  Yes, this process is one that requires you to be bipolar.  You need to be two different people, but again, NOT AT THE SAME TIME.

This is most important when working with a team.  People will naturally be more exploratory or more critical in nature.  As you can see, BOTH of these are important.  When told expressly to be one or the other, most people can handle this for an hour-long meeting, especially if you remind them.  But if you don’t specify whether you are opening or closing the funnel, then people will default to their natural inclinations.  And that will result in brainstorming meetings where someone kills the vibe by constantly criticizing ideas without proposing new ones.  Or imagine a meeting where you’re trying to decide between two options and someone keeps adding new options in the middle of the debate.  This happens all the time and is easy to avoid.  Just be sure to ask at all times, both with yourself and with your team: are we opening or closing the funnel?