Early in the innovation process, when the sky should be the limit, avoid the pitfalls of being too practical, too quick to jump to solutions, and too eager to work towards the familiar.
This hack was written as one of the requirements to obtain the Innovation Mentor Certification at CIMp. The CIMp program is part of iVia, The Way of InnovationTM, founded by The University of Notre Dame, Whirlpool Corporation, and Beacon Health System. Learn more at http://innovationcertification.nd.edu/
Innovating with Engineers:
I see the solution, full steam ahead…
So often engineers think three steps ahead, even four. Their minds quickly iterate on possible solutions and they're fast to dismiss the impractical in favor of paths of least resistance. This trait evolved from living in an environment with constant necessity for fast and effective results. Unfortunately, moving too quickly towards solutions, no matter how practical and efficient they may seem, confines us to the world we’re already living in.
I recognize this….and wait, didn’t it work last time?
From learnings early in their careers, good engineers know to draw solutions from previous experiences and wherever possible, stand on the shoulders of those who came before. Above all, they know not to waste time on things that won’t work. While this trait makes for fantastic problem solvers, beginning an innovation journey with this mentality can be severely limiting to the task at hand. Early in the innovation process, as a team explores the world in search of insights, they NEED to cast a wide net that includes the new and unusual, not just the familiar. Without this, the innovation process won't contain the fuel needed to take off.
Innovation thwarted by the pragmatic...
Consider a group of engineers who want to immediately dive deep into the depths of every suggestion, idea, and concept. This group will no doubt find holes in everything...Why? Because at the beginning, there ARE holes everything. But as we’ll learn, that’s ok. Our job as innovation leaders? Convince the team that unease, uncertainty and unpolished solutions often mean we're on the right track. Do this well, and you'll help shift the team into a new gear of discovery they never knew existed.
Now, with the problem framed, consider the task at hand...Avoiding these pitfalls and unleashing these exceptional minds to innovate.
Engineers, they'll build a rocket to the moon if they’re allowed to dream…
So to avoid getting cut off at the knees before beginning the journey, we need a way to clear minds and grant permission to dream. This shift in mindset provides a first step towards developing a culture of innovation and needs to occur at a very important moment in the innovation process….Early.
So how to set the innovation free?
There's a simple exercise I found very effective that begins by having the team list every reason the innovation process we're about to partake in won't work and ends with the team treating these barriers as a "Hall Pass" to ignore the negative and embrace the new and unusual. The exercise goes like this...
Step 1: Break up the team into 3-5 person groups, each with markers and white boards. Ask each group to list all the typical barriers they face when embarking on new projects. This especially includes any reasons that would impede “Shoot the Moon” projects. Each group has the goal to throw up every barrier imaginable...This is a free pass to be totally pragmatic and even a little harsh.
Step 2: After spending 10-15 minutes listing every possible barrier, have each group share what they wrote. It’s likely there will be a lot of overlap between groups. Typical project barriers may include things like “It’s too expensive”, “There would be too much design time involved”, It’s technically unrealistic”, “Management would never get on board”, "It’s not the kind of work we do”, and so on.
Step 3: Now that everyone has had a chance to put on their adult hat and discuss the real-world, it’s time to explain the purpose of the innovation process and why ignoring barriers early is extremely important. For me, the conversation went something like this...
Brian: “Alright guys, now that we’ve gone through this exercise, let’s take a minute to understand the pitfalls of too many barriers as we explore new opportunities. The thing is, barriers have a tendency to keep us working towards what we’re familiar with. If the outcome of our innovation process is a bunch of small steps in a direction we were already heading, then we failed to tap into the vein of innovation. What we really want to do is discover things that we've never before considered."
Team: “Ok, we see your point, but we’ve been around enough to know what can and can’t work. We already have good ideas for a bunch of new projects. It seems a little silly to put so much time into something that we know won’t go anywhere. Let’s start with what we already know and build from there.”
Brian: “I get it, we prefer ideas that have low risk especially when there’s confidence we can succeed. You’ve had some awesome results approaching things this way. The objective isn't to eliminate these types of projects, we’re just broadening our options in hopes of finding something spectacular that we haven’t considered yet.”
Team: “That makes pretty good sense. As it is now, we tend to take small steps forward instead major leaps. If this process helps with that, I say we give it a try. We’ve already brainstormed some possible solution paths....do you want to hear them?”
Brian: “That’s great guys, however a word of caution... We’re just beginning the innovation process, and if we come into it with too many preconceived notions about what our solutions could be, including having “Top ideas”, it’s really easy to favor those ideas. This can even force the process to unnaturally validate the ideas we’re starting with. This is dangerous because it makes it hard to discover the new things we’re searching for.”
Team: “Alright, so at the beginning we really want to forget all the barriers, and avoid coming in with too many solutions.”
Team: "Wow Brian, great points, you're a really smart and good looking guy"
.....Well, maybe that last part is fabricated, but you get the idea.
Unleash the Rock stars…
Step 4: Now that you’ve had a conversation about removing barriers and getting into a good mindset, the next step is to experiment with the team’s new mentality. Do this by first picking an existing problem in your industry then asking the team consider all new ways to solve it without worrying about any limitations or barriers. Break off into new teams of 3-5 people and spend 20 minutes in these groups with white boards. At the end, let each team explain what they came up with. This is a fun experiment because the outputs can get a little silly….but that’s ok because it’s all about creating a new freedom. You may even notice that the ideas from each team are not similar at all. This is a great point to emphasize because it shows how groups with open minds can tap into a breadth of imagination. At the end of this exercise, you won't have a rock solid solution, but the mentality shift will have begun which is a necessary step to begin an innovation journey with a practical team, especially one that's just being introduced to the process of innovating.
I found that by going through this exercise, you can have a team turn a full 180 on how they approach innovation, and all this for no more than an hour of time, some white boards and a good conversation. With the new mindset, the team may even begin to self-regulate by being more cautious around fast and familiar solutions. This puts everyone on the path to creativity.
The challenge following this exercise will be getting this mindset to stick over time. We've shown how to achieve a quick mentality shift, but a regression can occur unless there are opportunities to regularly flex the innovation muscles. The best thing to do is to set a plan that keeps the team very involved with regular activities and discussions that add value to the objective. Regularly remind them what we’re trying to achieve. If it’s a goal that everyone is excited about, they'll want to stay on board.
Now, with this new “Allowance” to proceed without limitations, you’re free to begin the Innovation process with an exceptionally intelligent, capable group of rock stars.