Solving your problems with creative thinking techniques
Does Innovation have to be revolutionary, disruptive or managed in-house? We use a series of my favourite, real life examples of creative thinking to demonstrate our point.
This question will never be fully answered to the satisfaction of everyone. You get the open school of thought on the left stating that even minor changes can be innovative. Then, you get the hardcore righties who suggest that it has to be disruptive. I’m definitely more on the left and I’ll explain why with some real examples from our training courses.
Researching Creative Thinking and Innovation
I was lucky enough to have my employer fund my Masters degree in Innovation and Creative Problem Solving at Cranfield University. There I learned my biggest lessons about Innovation – that (a) it has to drive benefit, and (b) it’s completely subjective.
Because my research was funded by my employer, I couldn’t just play with theory. I had to demonstrate something meaningful, which is what we should all be doing for the better commercial understanding and use of innovation. I’ve since instilled these lessons in more companies than I care to remember using the following basic simple definition:
“Innovation is to gain benefit by doing something different”.
This does, however, lead us on to another question – how do you define the level of “benefit”?! What brings benefit to me may be a standard everyday process to you – so therefore, what’s innovative to me may not be for you. The challenge we have to get over, is “does innovation NEED a firm definition”? Surely it’s more important to measure the impact that innovation has on a business, and that it’s worth investing in?
The types of Innovation
Despite my last point, I DO like my logic and definition. So, 20 years on, we’ve defined 3 types of innovation for people who come on our courses:
- Local Innovation – new to you, standard to others in your industry. Low cost of entry, very low risk, minor rewards, Used for catching up but you won’t take a lead with this.
- Sectoral Innovation – traditional “knowledge transfer”. Typically based on knowledge or practice used in a different industry, but adapted for your use. Medium cost of entry, risk and reward. You can take a lead with this, but it’ll be minor and the chasing pack will soon catch up.
- Universal Innovation – here we’re talking new to the world any maybe disruptive. Higher cost, higher risk, but higher rewards. This is the revolutionary stuff that brings clear market lead.
A lot of people may look at the Local or Sectoral Innovation and think “that’s not enough – it has to be disruptive”. I’d like to present with a real life example that negates this thought, and had significant benefit to a business.
Creating Thinking Case Study 1: Suit Repairs
I’m going to change the scenario a little to protect the identity of the business. Let’s say this £multi-million turnover business has a division which repairs suits (which isn’t far from the truth).
They offer 2 levels of service – standard and priority repair, with the major difference being time. When a suit arrives, a sticker was placed on the front of the suit stating which service was required. As the suits build up on the suit rack the repair team couldn’t easily see the sticker. So, they picked up whichever suit was at the front of the rack rather than spending time looking through all of the suits to find one with a “priority” sticker. The consequence was that priority jobs weren’t prioritised, leading to customer complaints when suits weren’t repaired in the time stated.
After a brief development session, the team decided to invest the great sum of £5 in some red and blue hangers. The standard suit repairs went on blue hangars, the priority jobs went on red hangars. The repair team were immediately able to see the priority jobs, and picked these out quickly and with ease. This didn’t just reduce customer complaints – it completely eliminated them.
Measure Impact, not Definitions.
Through creative thinking, the organisation received great benefit through improved customer satisfaction. This is something which is difficult to present in monetary terms. Are you going to tell me that this doesn’t fit the definition of Innovation?
You can argue as much as you want over how you define Innovation all you like. But what I care about most of all is doing something which delivers real benefit to our businesses. Developing an innovative culture within your workforce is the best way to enable continual growth from within your company. What matters most of all isn’t how you define Innovation, but that we have a system to help our businesses and economies thrive.
So I say forget trying to define Innovation and let’s ask a different question – how can Innovation help you grow your business in the best way possible?
Open Innovation drives Creative Thinking
One solution is to network openly with people from other organisations, sharing problems, opportunities, experience and ideas. This is called “Open Innovation”. It’s about looking outside your company boundaries to seek the best ideas and solutions for your innovation activities. Effectively, we’re taking the “not made here” mentality and throwing it where it should be – firmly in the bin.
The biggest challenge we encounter with open innovation is that companies don’t think widely enough when seeking sources of information. Another good example happened in one of our workshops a while ago (cue wavy lines and flashback scene…).
Features, Benefits and Application
Before we provide the detail, let’s jump sideways to look at the a little theory. Good salespeople always ensure that they clearly differentiate between Features and Benefits. Equally, good innovation managers need to add a third aspect to this equation – Application.
Consider a “feature” to be defined as a distinctive characteristic, “benefit” as the value derived and “application” as the specific properties associated for use within a given area. For example, when considering a contactless payment card, one may consider the following:
- Features may include as data transfer speed and transmission distance,
- Benefits include reduced purchase time and hence reduced overall queuing time
- Applications may include small transactions in shops or motorway toll booths.
Bring all of these together and you define the make-up and use of a contactless payment card pretty well.
How else can you identify where use this technology? Simple. Remove the application, and ask the question “what industry requires a technology that provides contactless data transfer at a given distance to make things move faster”. Immediate thoughts include event ticketing and clocking systems. Suddenly you have a rapid basic solution for anything where delays as a result of queues are involved.
Creating Thinking Case Study 2: The Chocolate Coated Crisp
So back to the confectionary story. In a creative thinking training session, asked the question “How can you make a chocolate coated crisp” (we didn’t want to – the exercise was hypothetical!) to which a confectionary expert suggested “it can’t be done, as the crisps would break during the chocolate coating which requires a process known as tumbling”. That response missed a small but essential point – what it should have said is that “it can’t be done – using the existing knowledge and limitations within our industry”.
Now remove the application of the confectionary and ask a slightly different question: “what methods can be used to coat a number of small, relatively fragile, objects with a semi-solid coating which dries relatively quickly”? Removing the application made the problem more “open” to the transfer of ideas from other sectors.
Within 5 minutes, we had progressed from “it can’t be done” to having 3 different ideas which were all utilised in other industries, including thickening the substrate (crisp), a semi-permanent stiffening process, and a complete change in process called “just-in-time coating”. This translated to providing the crisp and the chocolate separately, and having the crisp dipped in the semi-solid chocolate immediately prior to eating – think choc-dips for example!
Whether the thought of chocolate coated crisps rocks your boat or makes your stomach turn isn’t the point. The point is, by temporarily “removing the application” you make problems open to new solutions, and you make solutions open to new applications. By doing this, you’ve just multiplied your potential sources of new ideas which are relevant to your problem by at least an order of magnitude.
Communication Apprehension can stunt Creative Thinking
These sessions were great as the people present all had a fantastic rapport. However, this isn’t always the case. Often, people don’t speak openly due to “communication apprehension”. This is one of the biggest barriers to businesses wanting to identify new ideas. There is a common “fear” within staff that if they voice an idea, no matter how good or bad it is, they will be ridiculed by someone – This makes them apprehensive about communicating (hence the term). The comment might come from the extremely negative person who simply doesn’t see the creative aspect, or it may be the budget holder who thinks it’s too expensive. Or worse still, a manager who doesn’t want to accept that their staff can have better ideas than them.
This is a factor of culture more than anything else, but getting over this is essential if we’re going to capitalise on the capabilities within our workforce. However, we found that when you ask an employee to become someone else – a “persona” if you like, then the rules of the workplace no longer apply.
People can be passionate about the value of their personality and reputation and don’t want to damage this. However, when they’re acting as someone else then it’s that “persona” who absorbs and suffers the damage from negative comment. This means that the “persona” is more likely to push the boundaries of what they’s normally do, bringing in wider life experiences, knowledge and creativity – and suggesting new ideas they wouldn’t have otherwise suggested.
Creating Thinking Case Study 3: Become Someone Else
We asked a client team to give themselves new names and become the board at Disney. Pete from Marketing became Donald from Disney. They then addressed the same problem that their company had, but from a tongue-in-cheek Disney viewpoint. Communication Apprehension went out of the window, and a wealth of new ideas came from the team. While some would have been deemed “ridiculous” by the original team in their true selves, the ideas prompted further thought and rationalisation, leading to a much wider set and scope of final propositions.
The moral is simple – provide your workforce with a creative environment, and they will reward you with creative solutions.
What’s more, is that they’ll enjoy it so much they’ll want to contribute more and more to the business. Before you know it’s you’ll be developing an organisational culture of growth through innovative thinking.
Hopefully, these little stories have helped you think out of the box. If you’re still stuck for ideas (or want us to help your business think creatively) don’t hesitate to give us a call. We offer a range of courses to help you create new opportunities by thinking differently.
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