#345 from Innovative
Leader Volume 7, Number 6
Profits In The Idea Garden
Ricchiuto consults to help organizations stimulate creativity and
innovation. He has
Creativity (Oakhill Press, Greensboro, NC, 1977).
He can be reached by phone at (216) 766-8280, email email@example.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.
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.
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
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.
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
When groups are
disappointed by brainstorming, it’s because the process yields
ideas too weak to pass the tests for being new, practical, or
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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)
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
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
agenda seems to help each other succeed.
The secret is in their synergy.
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
• Did I
"model" thinking outside the box--or only low-risk
• Did I suggest
obviously flawed (obviously improvable) ideas into the mix?
• Did I
challenge the practical dimensions to potentially successful
• Did I present
my ideas as "just one way"--or did I present them as the
• Did I suggest
solutions and alternatives?
• Did I help
people feel nurturing in relation to seedlings that showed
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
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.
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.