In a sluggish economy with industries achieving uneven growth, many organizations are scrambling to discover strategies that will beat the competition. Although innovation can be elusive, managers can create an environment that is more conducive to innovation. As we prepare for the 2013 planning cycle, here are some suggestions.

It is a myth that innovative ideas come out of unconstrained, “out-of-the-box” brainstorming.  Most of these processes yield a myriad of ideas that are not relevant to the organization’s business model.  Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” The challenge for managers is to focus the possibility space to the business model and add a diversity of perspectives, or what Jobs called dots. Start with a factual analysis that describes the company and the problems that your market is worried about. Activities could include:

  • Interview key customers with open questions that draw out perceived possibilities and concerns. Get a picture of the role customers would like to see your company play.
  • If your company keeps a scorecard or performance metrics, collect current and historical data for review. Refrain from any interpretation of why the numbers are what they are.
  • Perform secondary research on industry performance and collect short and long-term perspectives from thought leaders in your industry.

The next step is to select the team that will brainstorm ideas to be investigated. The only qualification for a team member is that they are engaged in the success of the company. Give your team time to study the data above and set necessary boundaries for the exercise. Possibilities for the brainstorming include:

  • Construct brainstorming venues that include both large groups and small, diverse teams.
  • Encourage audacity. Stimulate thinking by asking how to achieve highly-aggressive growth goals where the only constraint is technical feasibility. Then ask the team to work within the boundaries.
  • Bring in outsiders. A trap for managers is a belief that a team member needs a decade of industry experience to make meaningful contributions. In Jobs’ words, industry experts have fewer “dots.”
  • Show sincere gratitude and detailed feedback on every idea offered! Participants need to feel listened to in order to remain engaged.

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