Sunday 17 March 2013

The 5 steps to creative ideas (still relevant today)

I'm not a big fan of workshops or brainstorming.

They are typically done to generate ideas or solve problems, and yet the research suggests that in fact large groups of people has the opposite effect on creating on ideas.  It creates "group think", stifles ideas and can lead to the lowest common denominator being accepted.  It could also be that I just don't like large meetings.

It's not just me though... organisational psychologist Adrian Furnham is quoted as saying "Evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups. If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority."

Innovation and creativity is though of paramount importance to businesses and even more so now because the costs of cutting edge technology become less and less with every month that passes.  Now, a couple of people in a garage (or more likely their spare bedroom) can spin up a new idea in a matter of weeks - mashing together cheap cloud infrastructure with free open source solutions.  This can make established companies, with layers of bureaucracy, established roles and "group think" workshops seem slow and antiquated.

It was interesting then to see on the BBC Horizon programme this week some new research into how we have new ideas - what creates that spark of creativity - and importantly when we have it.

Psychologists and scientists are mapping the brain as they work with people to see how they solve problems, whether this is done analytically or through flashes of insight... and there were some interesting findings.

The spark of creativity is generated within the sub-concious - Using a divergent thinking test whereby they ask a subject to come up with as many uses for a house brick as they can, people were allowed a break after coming up with initial ideas.  Those people who either did nothing or who worked on another complex problem were the worst at coming up with additional ideas after the break.  However, those people who did something mundane during the break so that they were occupied on something different, but not mentally taxed were then able to come up with even more uses for the house brick.

Breaking existing routines can make you more creative - In the Netherlands, researchers showed how just changing simple everyday routines such as the order in which you prepare breakfast can make you more creative, allowing new ideas to flow.  The suggestion is that we need to break established neural paths to allow more things to connect and reconnect and so providing more opportunity for divergent thoughts to collide and provide creative ideas.

What really amazed me though is that all of this cutting edge research into creativity seemed to just be confirming what had been published back in the 1940s by an advertising executive called James Young Webb.  He had no formal scientific training and yet in his book A Technique for Producing Ideas (McGraw-Hill Advertising Classic) he basically lays out the steps required for creative thinking, all of which is backed up by modern science.

Step 1 - Gathering of raw materials - For the first step, Webb recommends reviewing materials both for the immediate problem and wider, from general knowledge, adjacent knowledge, etc.  The purpose is really to ensure that you have enough material lodged in the grey matter to actually allow it to collide in different forms.  Ideas don't really come from the ether, they come from building on existing knowledge.  As Italian sociologist Pareto (of 80/20 fame) is quoted as saying, "an idea if nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements".

Step 2- Work over the materials in your mind - This is an analytical process where you try different ideas, fitting them together in different ways and trying to form relationships.  What Webb is suggesting here is that you start off analytically - this may sometimes produce some immeadiate results, but either way, it's all about creating new connections and relationships.  The research that was presented on the Horizon program showed this too, with subjects being asked to solve various puzzles and to indicate if these were solved through analytical comparison (trying each piece in different ways) or via insight (it just came to me).    This is about breaking existing routines / assumptions and making new connections and relationships.

Step 3 - Incubate the idea - Just like the work with the divergent thinking tests, Webb recommends you simply go and do something else unconnected with the problem.  He says "drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions.  Listen to music, go to the theatre, read poetry or a detective story."

Step 4- The "eureka moment" - This is when the idea comes to you; when you're not actually thinking about it.

Step 5 - Shaping and development - This is where you take the wonderful new idea and begin to circulate it to colleagues, friends, etc.  The chances are the idea will not be perfect and working with others to shape it will turn it from a good idea to a great idea.  The idea itself is a combination of old elements joined in a new relationship; this new relationship will break existing routines and assumptions for those around you, letting their creative juices flow too.

It's interesting that author Susan Cain who has written the book Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking highlights in an article she wrote on this topic for the New York times that "During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010"

In our rush to bring people together for the free exchange of ideas in our open plan offices, it's ironic that we may in fact have suppressed innovation and free thinking.

Whatever job we do, new ideas and new approaches are needed to keep us moving forward and being leaders in our industry.  Understanding better how these ideas form, how there is a process to it and that this process can be helped will lead to a greater number of truly innovative ideas.

Friday 15 March 2013

Rallying cry for innovation - and faith

I've spoken about VRM - Vendor Relationship Management before on this blog and it's one of the topics that I feel is currently mis-understood and undervalued in terms of its future impact on customer relationships and loyalty.  Like many new things, people think it irrelevant, unworkable or simply solving a problem that doesn't exist.  It was great then to see today on the ProjectVRM mailing list, Doc Searls, author, journalist, blogger and VRM evangalist, discuss these challenges and to put them into context.

I've repeated the majority of Doc's post here for those without access to the ProjectVRM list:-

[..] Nobody is ever interested in a new category before it is given shape by applications people want once they see them. Personal computing, starting in '76, was positioned as "a way to do your checkbook and keep recipes." Really. None of the early hardware makers were especially successful, with the conditional exception of Apple, thanks to Visicalc. IBM took a look at Visicalc and introduced the PC in '82. But even then the PC succeeded in business in part because Attachmate and other companies sold micro-to-mainframe cards that turned $2500 PCs into $1000 IBM 3270  and DEC VT-100 and -200 "dumb terminals." But by then Visicalc had a foothold, as did Wordstar and DOS. Lotus 123 picked up where Visicalc left off, and a wave of applications followed. The Mac succeeded in part because of Quicken, which really did, finally, eight years after PCs were born, make balancing a checkbook easy. Quicken was an invention that mothered necessity, as were the rest of the early programs. Still, business dismissed PCs from '76 to '82, and ordinary people dismissed them until at least '84.

Likewise the Internet was nowhere until graphical browsers showed up. We forget that Bill Gates saw no way the Net could make money for itself, or anybody, until it was clear that Netscape's browsers and Web servers would threaten Microsoft to the core. That was in '95, when the Net's protocols, which we still use today, were up to decades old. Smartphones were Palm's idea, but not many people took advantage of the apps on them, because they were too hard to get and use. Once Apple showed how it could be done, the market exploded. That was more than a decade after Palm began. I remember an early VRM meeting at Berkman where Paul Trevithick said "Nothing that requires a user install will succeed." That was true, then. But not long after that, Apple made user-install easy, Google followed, and now all of us install apps with ease all the time. Yet it would be easy to say there was no appetite for the Internet in '93, or smartphones in '05. All we needed were inventions to mother necessity.

So, likewise, it's easy to say nobody cares about managing relationships with vendors, because, obviously, they don't. Or, do they?

What about the stacks of loyalty cards people keep on keychains, in their wallets and purses, or in the armrests of their cars? That's a crude form of management. What about clipping and carrying coupons, or spending hours or days adding up "points" from credit cards to trade in for miles on airlines? (I have a friend who is obsessed with doing that.) What about going over stacks of receipts and trying to match them up with credit card bills — arduously reviewing old calendars to see what we did and when, so we can minimize our tax hit? Is there no management in that?

Think of all the pain points any one of us deals with in relating to vendors — or anybody. All those pain points are potential business opportunities. Not all of them will be pursued, but none of them are worth dismissing because nobody seems interested in dealing with them now. As Henry Ford said, "If I'd asked people what they wanted, they'd have said 'faster horses.'" To my Irish grandmother growing up in The Bronx, the biggest problems were horse manure piling up in the streets and the danger of fire from gas light. Neither problems were relieved by the industries of the time. Yet both horse-drawn wagons and gas light were obsoleted by new inventions. 

[..]Everybody manages data today already.

We do it with folders on our hard drives, with bookmarks and tabs in our browsers, with boxes in our mail programs, and with every online service that organizes files for us. Are all these in such a complete and final state that they are un-improvable? Or is there opportunity here for many kinds of new approaches? Again, it's easy to say "nobody is interested." But it's not wise to bet against relieving whatever causes people pain. Or what opens up new opportunity where almost nobody is looking.


And most of us don't care about advertising. (Though some do, and we respect that.)

Fixing advertising's problems, or pursuing its opportunities, is almost entirely a vendor-side issue. My own attitude toward advertising is kind of like Ford's toward horses and trains: those things will keep doing what they're best for, and we'll go invent something else. My guess is that, if VRM succeeds, it will help brand advertising and hurt adtech or alter it for the better. But VRM's purpose has nothing to do with any of that.

Still, business senses that we are on to something here, so we can't help talking about it, and, in some cases, getting invited to conclaves where advertising is a big issue.

For example, yesterday I attended one of those things here in New York. The word "intention" was used a lot. The context was using "big data" to "intuit" what customers "intend," without ever having to listen to what those customers want to say, directly, to the "brands" doing the advertising. So the talk was about "listening in" on "conversations" among "consumers" in "social spaces" so those consumers could be "delivered" a "better experience." It was the sound of one hand slapping, not two hands clapping. A few voices  from within the business were raised, saying "Are we listening to ourselves? Do we not realize that we're abusing people's privacy, and that this will have consequences?" As usual those voices were mostly not heard. But the wilderness from which those voices were raised is called the marketplace. 

Are those voices pointing toward actual requirements, as you suggest? Well, let's look at what the market is already doing.

Today the most popular browser extensions are ones that block advertising and turn off tracking. Governments (especially in Europe) want to switch off tracking altogether, because their citizens are tired of it. These are significant trends. Look up "privacy" on Google or Bing and see how many results you get, and the order in which they are prioritized. Is there no market for solutions here?

Personally, I don't want legislative relief. Anti-adtech laws today will protect yesterday from last Thursday with legal code that won't change for decades, or perhaps ever. On the whole that's not good in a vital and fast-changing marketplace. I'd rather come up with technic fixes that will take care of business without new laws. (Though perhaps with legal decisions based on standing laws. Those are likely to happen in any case.)

Finally, just because a glass is 1/Nth full doesn't mean that it's X/Nths empty, or can't be filled. Faith, St. Paul tells us, is "the evidence of things unseen." Without it we wouldn't have civilizations, or markets. There would be demand only for the hides of animals and sharpened rocks.

VRM isn't complicated. It's only about giving customers means toward two things: independence and engagement. To see how that can be done, one needs to stand on the side of the customer. So that's what we're doing.