On Monday I was at the first Like Minds breakfast event of 2013. The speaker was Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg of The Innovation Architects. He has a book (co-authored with Paddy Miller) coming out in March, called Innovation As Usual. His talk, unsurprisingly, was about innovation. Specifically, innovation in large companies.
It was a short talk, not because there is little sign of innovation in large companies, but because that’s the way these breakfast meetings go. The talk is a stimulus for conversation among the attendees. The focus of Thomas’s talk was how companies can stimulate innovation through creating a framework in which it can prosper. A strategy of innovation. Innovation incubation, if you will.
What made the talk particularly enjoyable – and both more useful and memorable – was its interactive element. Thomas had us debating in groups what we thought prevented innovation in our businesses or businesses we worked with. Then we reported back. Discussing a concrete topic was also a great way to quickly get to know the other attendees. This pattern of sharing knowledge with, and eliciting knowledge from, the audience continued throughout the talk. This turned the whole experience from lecture to seminar and was all the more rewarding for it. This also fits perfectly, I think, with the ethos of the group that Andrew Ellis is trying to create at Like Minds.
The case studies of successful innovation were neatly juxtaposed by Thomas with example of missed opportunity gaps – wheels on suitcases, anyone?
But one topic that Thomas couldn’t cover in the time available was the process of innovation as practised at the individual level. In other words, how the spark of innovation moves from initial notion to something that can be acted upon.
The Unexpressed Idea Dies
I believe that a huge number of ideas – and particularly highly innovative ideas – are lost to companies every week because of a simple lack of pencils?
Now, I don’t mean that literally, of course. What I mean is this: ideas rarely get written down. And when they don’t get written down, they die. Sometimes slowly, like the fade at the end of an old silent film, and sometimes quickly, like a sudden breeze extinguishing a candle exposed at an open window.
For many of us, our only experience of seeing our ideas written down is when the facilitator at a brain-storming session scrawls our verbalised idea on a whiteboard or a sticky note. The idea then sits there – undercooked, lonely, and unloved on its yellow background – with little chance of developing further on its own.
There is a magic that happens when a thought moves from your head down your arm and onto the page. Seriously. At the most basic level the thought has taken form. But more than that, it suddenly becomes something that can be worked on.
Writers of books will talk of how the real work begins after the first draft is written. Putting your idea on the page is the first draft of your idea. Even as you write, there will be new thoughts triggered in the process and questions will surface that you hadn’t believed were relevant while the idea sat in your head. When you write something down, it generates questions almost as a by-product. You find you need to impose a structure on your thoughts that automatically forces you to make choices about importance. Which benefit should be at the top of the list? What word best describes the product or service that will evolve from the innovation you’re instigating?
One way to look at this is to see the idea in the head as a two-dimensional representation only. When it hits the page and you can start drawing arrows and mind maps (ironically named, perhaps) and little doodles and large exclamation points, the idea will start to assume depth and even a sense of time. In other words, your idea will begin to assume the dimensions more easily associated with a plan of action and a list of tasks to be completed and questions asked and answered.
Opposable Thumbs Help Grip Pencils
Innovation is an activity that is both essential for business growth and which is part of the very excitement of business. And it starts with the simple act of taking an idea and writing it down. How many great innovative ideas have been lost – or followed the wrong track to failure – for the want of paper and pencil or the lost art of writing things down?
Here are my five rules of early innovation incubation:
- Find a notebook with a flexible cover that can slip inside a pocket;
- Carry sharpened pencils (or, for the more safety-conscious, blunt pencils and a portable sharpener);
- Develop the habit of writing ideas down. (You may find that a necessary precursor to this is the need to overcome the fear of embarrassment when you whip out your notebook in public!);
- Review the ideas, thoughts, and captured quotations in your book weekly and transfer the best ones to another book – or, better yet, a large sheet of paper. Grab a sheet from a flip chart, for instance. Then you can annotate and colour and draw and attach sticky notes to the concept until it starts to resemble the crazed plans of an evil genius bent on world domination;
- Refine and polish the ideas by writing more about them. Write down the questions that come to mind and use these as the start of a plan. (For example, if you have a question such as “What is the best source for X ?”, change that to a list of tasks under the sub-heading “Find the best source for X”.)
I’ve talked deliberately about paper and pencils. As we become more and more dependent on tablets, smartphones, and ultra-portable laptops for our communications and consumption of information, the art of writing things down is increasingly seen as both arcane and somewhat archaic. But we lose the sense of the physical and the ability to ‘play’ with our ideas.
Looking at a large sheet of paper or a wall of sticky notes and suddenly realising that THIS element should go THERE is almost impossible to replicate in software on ever diminishing screen sizes.
The question then may be; is technological innovation actually hindering our ability to make our creative thinking take physical shape?