The concept of the ‘lightning rod’ is handy to keep in mind. The problem with the traditional ‘ideas box’ is that people will submit ideas but very few can actually be used. A lightning rod, on the other hand, is staked to the ground to bring sparks to where you want them.
“Organizations should say, ‘Let’s have a dozen suggestion boxes. Suggestion box one is how do we improve the customer experience? Box two is how do we cut our operating costs? Box three is how can we boost staff morale? So the ideas are going into something useful,” says Clarke.
To cite just one example, on 25 May 1961 President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the ambitious goal of sending an American safely to the moon before the end of the decade. He didn’t specify how it should be done, but he planted the seed. The announcement kick-started a period of incredible invention and innovation – people had a clear goal to work towards, and it would take their own creative ingenuity to make it happen.
Funnelling the ideas
A second key tip is to create some form of creativity process, so the wonderful ideas have a direction and pathway to eventually end up as an innovative product, service or ‘thing’.
“The trick is making it simple and straight enough so that ideas can actually get up,” says Clarke. “You can get people fired up about creativity and innovation – that’s very easy. People are waiting for someone to invite them to have this discussion. So it’s about getting on a train, filling it up with coal, and getting people really excited. But if there’s no track for the train, it will just plough into the dirt. No one knows what happens next.”
The alternative is that there are tracks, but they run like the roller coaster at Disneyland: complicated, twisty, double-backing.
Clarke cites a recent client that had an innovation process in place, but it was so long, with many layers and steps, because it had been put together by the legal department and the finance department and the rest, to ensure nothing dangerous or risky happened.
“All they succeeded in guaranteeing is that nothing ever happens,” he comments. “Waiting years for approval is just going to kill everyone’s enthusiasm.”
The innovation process
The innovation process goes through several stages or progressions. Each stage is vital to an idea moving through to an executed reality. Here’s a basic four-step plan:
1 At the first stage, you want open, free and unbounded ideas. Fill the bucket with ideas. Be playful, imaginative, creative. “This thinking will get you started, but it won’t get you to the end,” says Clarke.
2 The second stage is about designing, planning and engineering. This is where you say, ‘Let’s think creatively but within the constraints of the thing we’re trying to fix’. “Putting some KPIs around things might inhibit the creative people, but it will inspire the more practically minded people,” says
3 The third stage is when you start to get more critically minded. “Let’s test it in terms of its politics, its legality, the finances and the rest. A lot of organizations apply this third phase at the beginning. It’s what we call premature evaluation, where we kill the idea before it has a chance to grow,” says Clarke.
4 The fourth is the pragmatic stage. “If you make a decision, what are the next steps, how do we break it down, what’s the budget, what are the KPIs that will track success?”
Each of those stages requires different thinking. You start off naive, then you become more practical, then critical, then pragmatic. You may need different people at different stages. “This means that, if I say to John, ‘You’ve got this great idea; you’re now in charge of making the whole thing work’, it will probably fail – we don’t have the mindset that can do all of those things. I don’t think anyone does. We say to clients: great minds don’t think alike – you need a diverse set of characters, skills and egos to do it all,” Clarke says.
Importantly, innovation needs cynicism as much as it needs optimism. It isn’t just about believing in things and hoping for the best; you need someone to say, ‘Is this really going to work?’
“However, if you get the sequence wrong, if you are negative too early, or optimistic too late, it won’t happen,” Clarke warns.