#345 from Innovative Leader Volume 7, Number 6          June 1998

Harvesting Profits In The Idea Garden
Jack Ricchiuto, CMC

Mr. Ricchiuto consults to help organizations stimulate creativity and innovation.  He has published Collaborative Creativity (Oakhill Press, Greensboro, NC, 1977).  He can be reached by phone at (216) 766-8280, email ricchiuto@email.msn.com or through http://www.newpossibilities.net/.

For research into my book, Collaborative Creativity, I had the delightful opportunity to peek into the minds of some of the most productive artists, innovators, and inventors around.  The initial question inspiring my exploration: "What are the core competencies of innovative people and groups?"  I found four.

Whether they're working on solo or collaborative projects, innovative people tend to be: 1)  provocative, 2)  open-minded, 3)  practical, and 4)  inventive.  Together these thinking riffs interact like the dynamic elements of a jazz improvisation.  To watch innovators at work is to watch people being boundaryless, curious, realistic tinkerers with new ideas, opportunities, and possibilities.

When we're facilitating groups for innovation, our job is to create fusion between all four elements, so that we cook up ideas that pass the innovation test for originality, practicality, and (when necessary) consensus.

Benefits and Boundaries Of Brainstorming

None of the innovators I encountered "brainstormed" as it is commonly practiced in organizations today.  In fact, some found the idea of brainstorming amusing.

Brainstorming can be an effective tool for letting a group mind dump previously uncommunicated or underrepresented ideas onto flipcharts or electronic screens. Brainstorming is a good, quick way to get existing ideas on the table for voting and  ultimate installation

When groups are disappointed by brainstorming, it’s because the process yields ideas too weak to pass the tests for being new, practical, or consensus-winning.  I can get most groups to produce only low-risk, low-yield ideas by emphasizing the "no judgment-no criticism rule" throughout the process.  This not only prevents the group from using critique to grow general ideas into practical ones, it implicitly acts to encourage the group to produce only ideas that have the least potential for criticism or debate.

In practice, brainstorming is based on the idea that new workable ideas flow best in non-judgmental minds.  In direct contrast, all of the artists and inventors I talked to mentioned critique as one of the most powerful tools for stimulating new alternatives and richer, more sustainable ideas.

As a result, brainstorming can yield low-risk (quite non-innovative), underdeveloped (failure to thrive) ideas that require voting (the creation of winners and losers).  If somehow the group does not do enough challenging of their own ideas, assumptions, and first impressions during the process of brainstorming, the ideas that survive as the fittest often require much post-voting work, research, debate, development, and definition.

Working In The Idea Garden

The discovery of the four innovation competencies quickly led me to tinker with an alternative tool to traditional brainstorming--the Idea Garden.  In the Idea Garden, my interest is in helping a group "jam" around a given theme or focus, using the four core innovation competencies.  At the end of the process, I consider our time successful to the degree that the following exist:

 We had a lot of wild, wicked, unconventional ideas that we used to come up with some very practical versions.

 We solved many or most of the practical problems we discovered about the new ideas that emerged in the process.

 The idea seed-to-harvest yield was productive, given the time and resources invested in the process.

 Everyone was pleased with the ideas passing the tests for novelty, practicality, and when necessary, consensus.

Here's how it works.  I'll ask people initially to start generating "Broad" ideas.  I'll tell them that these are ideas that don't have to have any details, win popularity contests, be "budget-sensitive," practical, or prudent.  Along with provocative ideas, I also encourage low-risk, logical, approval-guaranteed ideas.  This is usually easy for people because Broad ideas are the kind that emerge in traditional brainstorming.

As these emerge, I make sure every seed (idea) gets planted (recorded as expressed--not filtered or simplified to a single anemic phrase), that we go for a wide planting, and that participation is inclusive.  I usually scatter ideas randomly around the posting/recording space.  The messiness and non-linearity become an important not-so-subliminal reminder that we're trying to do lateral thinking here.

Then as ideas sprout up, I'll start asking people for more Detailed ideas--specific examples of Broad ideas.  If "training" shows up as a Broad idea, I'll get the group working on what kind, when, by and for whom, and so on.  The more details the better.  Using a mind-mapping style of recording (branching webs off of Broad ideas), we make sure everything gets posted/recorded.

If details don't stimulate the natural emergence of practical questions and concerns ("When would we get the time to train?"), I will challenge the group to come up with practical Considerations on anything that comes up.  I usually set these off using squiggly lines branching off of the potentially problematic ideas.

For each Consideration, I will then ask the group to invent alternatives, solutions--Variations --("distance training via the intranet" or "buddy-system cross-training") to take care of as many of the Considerations as possible.  My tone here is consistently positive--conveying that "downsides are solvable if we stay provocative, open-minded, practical, and inventive enough together."

This process can occur within one meeting or over several.  In-between meeting time can be valuable opportunities for people to do the kind of noodling, research, collaboration and accidental conversations it takes to cook up interesting and innovative possibilities--more Broad, Detailed, Consideration, and Variation ideas.

What typically occurs is a harvest of practical, innovative ideas—often more than we have the resources for immediate implementation (in other words enough for both short- and long-term applications).  It’s not uncommon for groups to generate 20-30 or 200-300 ideas that evolve into a few that easily pass the test for innovation and consensus.  Waste in nature (compost) is always a very necessary ingredient for the efficient growing of new crop.  Rarely is voting (the creation of winner and loser ideas) necessary because ideas have organically grown and evolved, thanks to the dynamic interaction of the four core innovation competencies.

The Magic Of Questions In The Idea Garden

In the Idea Garden, questions provide the nurturance for growth.  They have the magic to stimulate expression and interaction of the four essential competencies required for any innovative process.

1. What would be a really surprising approach to the problem? (provocation)

2. What's one way to make that work? (open-mindedness)

3. Do you see any potential downsides to that? (practicality)

4. What else could achieve the same objective? (inventiveness)

Seasoned group facilitators work hard to bring out these four distinct and complementary thinking styles from the group.  Everyone comes to the table with diverse and variable strengths.   Optimists excel in Broad ideas, pragmatists in Detailed ideas, skeptics in Considerations, and peace-makers in Variations.  The group has the greatest potential for being stuck or unproductive when each part tries to dominate and defend; rather than listen, blend, and "jam" together.  The most innovative groups are consistently diverse, free in their interaction, and connected in collaborative improvisation.  Their agenda seems to help each other succeed.  The secret is in their synergy.

Lead By Example

When I facilitate, I become an instrument in the process.  My tone, my contributions, and (most important of all) my questions add unpredictable influences to the process.  Post-conversation self-reflection inevitably includes questions like:

• Did I "model" thinking outside the box--or only low-risk acceptable ideas?

• Did I suggest obviously flawed (obviously improvable) ideas into the mix?

• Did I challenge the practical dimensions to potentially successful seed-ideas?

• Did I present my ideas as "just one way"--or did I present them as the "only way?"

• Did I suggest solutions and alternatives?

• Did I help people feel nurturing in relation to seedlings that showed promise?

One of the things I’m most sensitive to is the always-expensive use of face-to-face meeting time—especially as the group size and meeting length grows.  I try to optimize the use of between-meeting tools and opportunities.

Local and electronic bulletin boards (especially on intranets) can be great places people can go between meetings to post ideas, revisions, questions, and possibilities in the Idea Garden.  Assignments can facilitate the kind of research and development necessary for idea evolution.

Excessive time in face-to-face meetings can be barriers to interaction if the group is too large, or the potential for people to dominate or disappear in conversations is too high.  An hour of real-time research or field testing of ideas is often worth more than a dozen hours of useless speculations and debating parties in group meetings.  Growing our gardens without meetings is the challenge we face this year and next.  Not only are most meetings expensive (especially when staffing is thin or business is thriving), they are unnecessary.

Rules In The Garden

In his latest book, Circle Of Innovation, Tom Peters underscores the feeling of innovation found in the hottest organizations around: "Rules are for fools."  Innovation is not about following (rules); innovation is about leading (breaking the rules)—surgery that doesn't cut, programs that write themselves, film that needs no processing.

In the Idea Garden’s ecology, the natural evolution of living ideas thrives on the liberation of accidental conversations.  Previously forbidden fruit—including tangents, critiques, and side-conversations—are not only allowed, but are liberated and encouraged.  Inspired by the natural sciences, we know that new ideas blossom only when there’s enough freedom and connectivity.  Look at any thriving market.  These days, innovation pays.  From the garden of ideas emerges a yield of profits.  

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