A shared space to which colleagues are encouraged to post divergent ideas and innovative solutions. Publicly visible, and ranked transparently, these ideas can be the catalyst for disruptive improvements.
Divergent thinking (e.g. ideas that challenge orthodoxies or simply don’t cluster around the organizational mean) can be a valuable asset for organizations, since it is widely recognized as a fundamental ingredient of at least two essential corporate activities: innovation and problem solving.
At the same time, divergent thinking is very seldom encouraged and very often hampered.
How many times has your organization had the temptation of encouraging bold, disruptive ideas? How many time has it resisted this temptation?
Probably both questions have the same answer, which is “many”.
In the first place, because divergent thinking very often threatens the stillness of the status quo. Being complex systems, organizations seek for stability and predictability.
Secondly, because contrarian ideas have a high risk profile: they are eccentric, sometimes difficult to understand, and they might even stir up trouble (waste of time and money, dissatisfaction, conflicts, even subversion).
To leverage the full potential of divergent thinking and simultaneously reduce some of the risks related to it, organizations could use a very simple tool, though apparently an oxymoron: “The Box of Outside-The-Box-Thinking”.
The Box can be envisaged as a wikispace, which allows people to post and share their ideas, and to connect, combine and collaborate. Thanks to technological progress and the viral diffusion of social media, collaborative platforms are now affordable - even for smaller organizations - and easy to use - even for people not so familiar with technology. If your company already has a well used share-point, intranet, forum or any kind of collaborative platform, then that should be used.
The Box must have a Mentor that oversees the activity, provides directions for use, answers specific questions, solves practical problems related to the tool or the process, sets milestones if needed, etc. The Mentor should either be a senior manager, or have access to one. Without an authoritative sponsor, in fact, ideas will struggle to be implemented.
All members of the organization should be encouraged to post their divergent ideas in the Box, provided they use a common template to describe the idea and follow a few, clear rules: first of all, they should adopt the “building up approach”, e.g. not just complain about something, but propose solutions.
There can be different categories of divergent ideas. Here are just some examples:
- innovative business ideas: since we are so successful in producing bio-fertilizers, why don’t we study the possibility of entering the bio-plastics business?
- organizational changes: in our pharmaceutical company, it simply makes no sense to have the Market Access department totally separated from the Public Affairs department
- working methods and interaction between people: top managers should talk to people, not just send emails; the software we use for project management is too complicated and time-consuming, we should move to a web-based, more agile tool
- murmurs of dissent: our mission statement should be refreshed, it was written ten years ago and never updated.
Tags can help to categorize posts.
All members of the organization should have free access to the Box, and can comment and rate divergent ideas. Comments should be consistent with the “building up approach” typical of design thinking, which basically means building ideas up instead of tearing them apart. As far as the rating system is concerned, it should be transparent and time efficient, and automatically rank divergent ideas in the Box according to their level of appreciation within the organization.
To reduce the risk of excessive conformism in the rating process - especially in the case of smaller companies - twice a year the short list of the top "X" divergent ideas rated by company members should be shared with a small group of external stakeholders: customers, suppliers, independent board members, consultants, etc.
External stakeholders’ role can span from rating and commenting divergent ideas themselves using the Box platform, to a Workshop during which they challenge divergent ideas, select the most promising, and envisage pathways to practical implementation (feasibility study, business plan, etc.).
The Box should constantly be fed with novel, divergent ideas.
Some forms of rewards can be connected to the process (badges, stickers, special mentions, money), to publicly acknowledge the value of divergent thinking.
This step is optional, and it is probably more important for the organization than for the individual that has proposed the idea. For him or her, in fact, the best reward is recognition and appreciation, and the incomparable satisfaction that only trailblazers experience.
“The world is a better place to live in because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing”
Walter Lippmann's ode to Amelia Earhart, 1937
Encouraging people to openly express contrarian thinking in a transparent and shared process has several practical impacts:
- unleash the full potential of innovation and creativity that is already part of the organization, but is somehow hidden and hindered by conformance
- establish an open, transparent and creative environment, that can attract talented people and unlock the benefits of competing novel ideas
- allow all organizational members (and even stakeholders) to contribute to setting strategic direction and organizational change
- allow points of dissent to come to the surface, which is the baby step for tackling them
- lower the prevalence of the “syndrome of the unappreciated genius”, that in the long run might lead to losing clever people.
The Box itself can add-on further practical impacts:
- Template: using the same template allows semantic alignment, e.g. it reduces the risk of misunderstandings, which is particularly high in the case of divergent ideas
- Positive approach: the Box should be a repository of ideas, not of unfruitful complaints; expressions of discontent alone do not work, unless they are accompanied by a solution
- Rating system: the evaluation process democratizes the organization, since it is totally transparent and open to everyone: the ranking of the ideas should be done publicly, and the score be visible from the very beginning
- External Stakeholders Double-Check. Stakeholders are usually familiar with the organization, but, at the same time, they don’t experience its day-by-day life. This gives them the ability to look at divergent ideas from outside, but not from too far.
Select the Mentor and empower him to enroll a small working group aimed to:
- create the collaboration platform or make the existing one “Box-compatible”
- set engagement rules and directions for use
- design the template for posting divergent ideas on the platform, e.g. into the Box. The design of the template can leave more or less room to people’s creativity, depending on several factors: for instance, the soundness of company values and identity, eventual cultural hurdles in case of multinational companies, organizational climate, etc.
Once the infrastructure is ready, the Box project can be launched, explaining why it was decided to do it, what are the expectations and how it works.
If you decide to put in place some forms of rewards (badges, stickers, special mentions, money), they should be communicated and assigned in a transparent way.
- to be bold and post ideas into the Box
- to be outspoken and rate and comment other people’s ideas
- to be curious and look into the Box as much as they can.
James Marwood, my fellow hacker.
The MIX Hackathon Pilot team and our benevolent dictator Chris Grams.
The MIX community.
Everybody who does not stand for the status quo in management.