Innovation begins with creating an environment where creativity and problem solving thrive. Companies with cultures of fear, creativity blocking attitudes -- "no" or "we can't do that", and complacency -- "it's always been this way", struggle with innovation because they don't have the foundation.
Harvard Business School Professor, Teresa M. Amabile well described the link between creativity and innovation in a recent Harvard Business Review article, "Getting to Eureka! How Companies Promote Creativity". "Creativity is the initial production and development of novel, useful ideas. Innovation is the successful implementation of creative ideas."
As a marketing and management consultant, one of the key practices I can bring to an organization is a process for engineering innovation. That process, of course, begins with creating an environment that fosters creativity. Scheduling a brainstorming session is an easy way to begin.
I learned a long time ago that scheduling a traditional department style gathering is a no-win situation. (I still laugh about the meeting in one corporate winery where we begrudgingly gathered around a conference room at 6pm and were tossed snacks from a vending machine so we could "quickly get creative and figure this out so we could go home". Instead, I like to schedule these earlier in the work day, preferably in an off-site environment or at least free from distractions (with land lines, cell phones, and email announcements turned off). Another welcome option is over a glass of wine, but this tends to work better with smaller groups.
Giant Post-It Notes and colorful markers are always in my toolbox because I want to record ideas and do so publicly -- the idea is to fill up the sheet and "hear" all of the participants. I also either come prepared with a list of questions (and always a few ideas), or ask those invited to highlight the most important things we need to ask before getting started. Depending on the dynamics of the group, fun "prizes" for recognizing truly creative insights can be a way to lighten up the mood,
When hosting a creative brainstorming, it is important to focus on one topic at a time. For example, how to reinvent the wine club, re-engineer the tour, better communicate with distributors, or get the attention of the media. (Trying to cover a combination or all of these would create competing interests for the creative energy.)
Brainstorms work well in a couple different formats. One is to gather for 60 to 90 minutes for idea generation -- a good tactic for producing ideas in a relatively short amount of time. Another is to break a larger group into smaller sections so that multiple sets of ideas are generated, then presented and discussed as a larger group. For annual meetings and retreats, I prefer the latter.
There are a few important "ground rules" prevent creativity killing attitudes, stay focused, gain full participation and promote creativity after the meeting has ended.
First, "no", "we can't", "that won't work", and other associated remarks are discouraged from the beginning. As the mediator, I gently remind people who revert back to this type of commentary that we're in a brainstorm, not a review or planning session -- all ideas are welcomed and respected, because even those not chosen may lead us to the break-through thinking we need to harness.
Second, for the ideas outside of scope that tend to arise, I create a "parking lot", which confirms to the people who offer them that they have been heard and serves as a gentle reminder for the group to stay on task.
Third, to include those who are less communicative in group settings or due to style, I engage them during the process with specific questions. And conclude the meeting asking people to follow up via email or phone with additional insights.
Finally, I encourage participants to compliment each other during and after the process. All members of an organization can model creativity producing behaviors and attitudes, and being positive is fundamental.
When the meeting concludes, it is also important to let participants know the next steps. For a simpler brainstorm, I follow up with circulated notes and schedule a planning discussion. For a meeting that is being held to prepare a more comprehensive strategy, I add a marketing plan incorporating the knowledge gained with specific action items and metrics so that the effect of any changes can be measured. The associated actions represent the innovation and the results the demonstrated success.
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