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An Ocean of Ideas, a Team Without Nets

Cameron ConawayLast Updated: April 15, 2016

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Businesses are disappearing faster than ever before.”

That’s how researchers Reeves, Levin, and Ueda put it after investigating the longevity of 30,000 companies across a 50-year span. Conventional wisdom nudges us to dismiss our own role in this by casting blame on volatile market forces and the unique technological times we live in. But the researchers found something else:

Companies have increasingly shorter life spans not so much because of the forces or the times, but because of our failure to adapt to them.

In their piece titled, The Biology of Corporate Survival, they state that for companies to adapt “leaders must ensure that the company is sufficiently diverse along three dimensions: people, ideas, and endeavors.”

We’ve talked much about people. We’ve discussed why flat organizations eventually fail, why culture fit is the new form of discrimination, why women bear more of the burden when it comes to collaboration and, most recently, as Vikas Gupta told us, why “Hiring well is the most important aspect to a startup’s success.”

Likewise, we’ve highlighted the importance of aligning your vision with your endeavors through sharing insights from other modern teams, and peppering in a few of our own at Flow.

But… ideas? We’ve talked about creating the kind of workplace culture conducive to generating them, and we’ve even mentioned some great strategies to bring them to life, such as Sledgehammer Innovation, but we’ve not yet talked about a crucial stage: how to capture them.

First, a recap on what kills ideas:

Fear & Futility

Mark Twain once said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Likewise, fear and futility are fatal to the entire continuum of ideation. So you take pride in having an “open-door policy?” Fear is the glass wall in front it. So you look forward to your energetic brainstorming sessions? Futility is why nothing impactful ever grows from them.

On Fear: There’s a misperception about leadership and fear, especially in the world of startups. Many young startup founders are working hard to lead their teams to success, but they’ve never felt what it was like to be an employee. They’ve never come to know the fear of having to walk past aisles of their colleagues to enter a boss’s lavish office, or how much easier it is to remain silent than to put forth an idea that stands in contrast to an idea from the person who writes their checks.

Fear need not come from an aggressive, no-nonsense boss. It can spread through a workplace culture of competition, or even through the lack of an ideation process.

On Futility: This is the “why bother” approach. Employees who have once or twice spoken up to share an idea, only to never see the team make any move on it whatsoever, will likely stop bringing up ideas—and may even lose the creativity of mind to come up with ideas in the first place.

While fear may seem the hands-down reason why teams cannot come up with or share new ideas, research from management professors James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris found this:

In many organizations we’ve studied, the biggest reason for withholding ideas and concerns wasn’t fear but, rather, the belief that managers wouldn’t do anything about them anyway. At one Fortune 100 high-tech company, employees cited futility as a reason for reticence almost twice as often as fear.”

But, let’s assume for a moment that your team has cut through the fear and futility factors. Your team is creatively equipped, and touts its emphasis on design thinking as why you’re able to generate awesome ideas like everyday. Maybe you’ve even created the kind of culture that allows employees at all levels to share half-baked ideas without feeling the pressure of judgment.

And this is where we’ve been led astray.

The net you need to catch ideas is named Criticism

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“This business world is awash in ideas for new products, services, and business models,” says Roberto Verganti, professor of leadership and innovation at Politecnico di Milano. But, while he believes this is undoubtedly a good thing, the overwhelming mass of ideas has served to peel back the curtain to reveal a problem: teams typically don’t have a clue for how to sift through them all and capture the good ones.

At the surface level, researchers Detert and Burris found that:

Some leaders spend millions of dollars collecting ideas, but don’t allocate a single employee to read through them.”

Still, even if these leaders did allocate an employee or two, there’s the assumption that the employees (or someone else) would actually know how to extract the good stuff.

This is why Verganti’s research is so important: He didn’t just recognize the problem, he created a 4-step process to help teams solve it.

A few key principles must be addressed before we dive into the process. First, Verganti believes there are two levels of innovation: improvements and new directions. Improvements are solutions to those problems widely recognized in the marketplace. New directions are those kind of visionary reinterpretations that can help a company adapt and be prepared for the future.

Consider the difference between how Kodak and Fujifilm handled the way digital photography shook up their industry in the late 1990s.

While Kodak eventually declared bankruptcy in 2012, they essentially spent the first decade of the 21st century trying to hold on to existing models, believing their name as a pioneer in photography would carry them through—even as their target market shrank by 90% during this time.

Fujifilm, on the other hand, found new directions. According to Reeves, Levin, and Ueda, it went in quite radical new directions—investing in R&D, acquiring 40 firms, and even moving into the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries where it “could exploit its existing capabilities in chemistry and materials.”

To do this, Fujifilm couldn’t just rely on a treasure trove of ideas. They actually had to judge which ones stood up to scrutiny and should be pursued. In other words, they had to pick a few and go all-in. To simply improve their existing ways would have killed them.

The 4 steps to capturing ideas

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Criticism, Verganti makes sure to note, comes from the Greek word krino, which means “able to judge, value, interpret.” With this definition in mind, Verganti puts it this way:

Criticism need not be negative; in this context it involves surfacing different perspectives, highlighting their contrasts, and synthesizing them into a bold new vision.”

Here’s how he suggests baking a tried-and-true capturing technique into ideation:

Step 1: Individual Reflection. In this stage, employees from various positions are asked to reflect about potential new directions—this can be about the larger role of the company, or about the specifics of a product, but this dimension should be carved out at the forefront.

The employees are not asked to share their reflections in front of a group or even on a team (where competition and deep thought can be clouded), and they are also not asked to submit their reflections quickly, or base them purely on what customers are telling them. Instead, the employees are given one month, while maintaining their current jobs, to really reflect on and criticize their ideas. Some may use customer feedback or company data, while others may rely on gut. But one month seems to be a good timeframe for employees to come to terms with what might be ridiculously out-of-touch and what might actually stand up to the criticism inherent in the next steps.

Note: The time to sit with and criticize one’s own idea is a crucial component often left out of the idea generation process. Failing to incorporate this dimension results in everybody throwing their seemingly equally valid idea against a wall… that someone else is tasked with sifting through.

Step 2: Sparring Partners. As in boxing, sparring partners are there to test each other while keeping each other safe. Implicit in this relationship is a deep level of trust. It’s at this step where each person shares their new direction with a trusted peer.

Verganti suggests finding this sparring partner either through allowing a pair that has a proven track record to work together, or through a “speed-dating process whereby people with similar visions can find each other and agree to work together to polish their ideas.”

While Verganti states that this must be a “protected environment in which the person can dare to share a wild or half-baked hypothesis without being dismissed,” he’s quick to note that this is a time to really dig into the idea, find its gaps, tease them out, and talk about them.

Note: It’s here where a personally scrutinized idea is criticized through a new perspective. Ideas shared between friends tend to be supported and cheered on, but this sparring partner concept demands the kind of ruthless but empathic candor that is necessary preparation for Step 3.

Step 3: Radical Circles. This exercise, which can resemble a workshop model and be held over the course of weeks, opens up a discussion about the promising hypothesis to larger groups at the company (Verganti mentions 10 to 20 peers who have also been working on their own new directions).

These radical circles should strive for as much diversity as possible (in terms of background, personalities, perspective, etc). In addition to keeping the process positive and creative, Verganti suggests using this time to ask employees to focus on where they think the company should not go or on who their enemies are. For example, he mentions how Microsoft viewed Sony and its Playstation 2 console as why it was crucial for them to develop the Xbox.

The next step is to discuss these new directions while focusing on where they contrast and overlap. Maybe two employees have similar ideas, each filling in the gaps of the other. If the team agrees, this can be dissected and perhaps formed into its own, more polished idea.

Note: Typically this stage of opening the idea up to a larger group comes at the beginning, and without either the deep individual criticism or criticism from the sparring partner. As such, rather than a team having 100s of ideas to discuss at this stage, they’ll have fewer, but better, ones.

Step 4: Outsiders. Whereas many teams begin by soliciting feedback from outsiders (customers, auditors, etc.), Verganti believes this should actually be the final step of the process. He believes it’s the employees who typically have the great ideas, but the outsiders who can usually raise the great questions. He puts it like this:

Remember that, unlike open innovation, involving outsiders is not intended to generate new ideas. Rather, it’s meant to raise good questions—to challenge the innovative direction you propose in order to strengthen it.”

Again, diversity of outsiders is paramount. Choose a few from within your industry, but also well outside of it—including artists and people who know very little about your industry or product.

At this point, the ideas that began as individual 30-day reflections have now been put through a safe but rigorous process of criticism. This type of process isn’t typically part of a company’s ideation process, and is the reason why companies, after spending millions to create ideas, are still left wondering what to do with them (or how or if to use them).

Through these 4 steps, many ideas will have been weeded out, others refined, and a few just might be the ones that catapult your team above your competitors and in an entirely new direction.

That is, if you’re open to entering the ocean of ideas with the net of criticism.

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Images: Bully