As a young man Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” It was an inauspicious start for a man who went on to be one of America’s most innovative leaders.
In 1921, he founded his first animation company in Kansas City. It failed. He had to dissolve his company. He could not pay the rent and it is said that he was in such desperate straits that he had to eat dog food.
When Disney offered MGM studios the opportunity to distribute Mickey Mouse films in 1927, he was told that the idea would not work because a giant mouse on the screen would terrify women and children! Mickey Mouse went on to be a huge success.
In 1933 Disney created the most successful cartoon short of all time, The Three Little Pigs. It ran continuously in many theatres across America. He asked his team what they should do next. The response was more short cartoons featuring pigs – it was a formula that worked. But Disney was more ambitious. He planned something which had never been attempted before – a full length cartoon film. When the film industry learned of Disney’s plans to produce an animated feature-length version of Snow White in Technicolor they scoffed. People were sure that the project would destroy the Disney Studio and called it “Disney’s Folly”. Both Disney’s wife and brother tried to talk Walt out of the project but he persisted. Because of Disney’s demands for high quality the film took four years to make and his company nearly ran out of money. The film became the most successful motion picture of 1938 and earned over $8 million on its initial release, a huge amount in those times. Disney won 8 Oscars for the picture.
Walt Disney continued to innovate and take risks throughout his business career. His film business was remarkably successful but that was not enough. He wanted to found a theme park in Los Angeles, Disneyland. He told one of his aides ‘I want it to look like nothing else in the world.’ It is reported that his project was rejected by 300 bankers before he raised the finance he needed. Why would a banker believe that a film maker could make a success of such a huge, untried and entirely different venture? Disneyland opened in 1955 and was a great success. It was followed by Disney World in Florida which was designed by Walt Disney and opened in 1971 some five years after Disney’s death. It is now the number one vacation resort in the world with over 50 million visitors every year.
Disney was never satisfied with repeating success. He wanted to try new, different and bigger ideas. He ignored the doubters and made huge innovations happen.
Predictions are always difficult and especially so if they are about the future! However Thomson Reuters are bold enough to make 10 innovation predictions for 2025. Some seem eminently sensible but others are a little outrageous – especially teleportation. What do you think?
It is usual to design suggestions schemes, brainstorms and ideation meetings from a competitive point of view. So we might say that we want a large number of ideas and then by a darwinian process we will eliminate the weaker suggestions and choose the best. People might vote on the proposals and the most popular win through. This approach will work if the challenge is clearly stated in terms of desired outcomes and evaluation criteria, and if the process is well facilitated. However there is another approach which can sometimes give more focussed and therefore better results. Start with a small number of broad concepts and ask for ideas which add to the understanding, appeal or feasibility of the concepts. The initial concepts can be situations, challenges, proposals or ideas. People work in a supportive and collaborative mode; typically to build out the concepts and improve on them.
So in your suggestions scheme or ideation process you can start with a situation and ask for input, insights and deeper understandings. You can state some desired outcomes and ask for advice and ideas on how to get there. People from across the organisation can contribute to the ideas or issues that interest them and constructively comment or add to the discussions that they see.
One way to use this technique in a brainstorm meeting is by using the phrase, ‘Building on this….’. You state the challenge and then each person silently develops a radical idea or an ideal solution. These are shared. Then we take the first idea and everyone in turn has to add to it by starting their contribution with the words, ‘ Building on this idea…..’. More and more ideas are added to the initial concept to make it different, more appealing, simpler, more effective or better. Then we move on to the second idea and repeat the process. Every initial idea is developed in this way and then we move into convergent mode and select the best proposals based on our evaluation criteria.
For your next brainstorm meeting why not try this method? You will find that it leads to a more collaborative, constructive and additive atmosphere which often results in successful and creative outcomes.
Here is a great short article by Max Nisen which encapsulates the wisdom of 15 classic business books in one sentence each. Superficial? Certainly but there is a large element of truth in each concise summary – and it does save you a lot of time.
Incidentally you can save time reading most self-help and positive thinking books. My summary is that nearly all of them are based on one powerful truth – change your attitude and you can change your life.
The song Bohemian Rhapsody was written by Freddie Mercury for Queen’s 1975 album A Night at the Opera. It broke all the rules for a popular music single release. At a time when most pop songs were simple and formulaic Mercury’s song was a complex mixture of different styles and tempos. It had six separate sections – a close harmony a capella introduction, a ballad, a guitar solo, an opera parody, a rock anthem and a melodic finale. It contained enigmatic and fatalistic lyrics about killing a man. And it was very long.
When it was proposed to Queen’s record producers EMI that they release the song as a single they flatly rejected the idea. It was 5 minutes 55 seconds in duration and the general rule of the day was that radio stations only played items that lasted no more than three and a half minutes.
So Queen bypassed EMI and went straight to the DJ Kenny Everett. They gave him a copy on condition that he only play sections of it. He did this and the reaction was so strong that he played the whole six minutes several times on his weekend show on Capital Radio. On Monday morning hordes of fans went into music stores to buy the record only to be told that it was not available. EMI was forced to release it and the song that they claimed was unplayable went on to become one of their greatest hits. It was the first song to reach number one twice with the same version – in 1975 on its first release and in 1991 following Mercury’s death. It went gold in the USA with over 1 million copies sold. It had a worldwide resurgence in 1992 when it featured in the film Wayne’s World.
The song showcased another innovation. It had the first truly professional promotional video and it is credited by some with launching the MTV age of pop music videos.
Freddie Mercury first started working on ideas for the song in the late 1960s. He did not write it to please customers or to follow a formula for a hit record. He wrote it as creative piece of self-indulgent musical expression. It was fiendishly difficult to record with the equipment of the day. It was extremely risky in the nature of its composition and lyrics. It was initially rejected as a single by a giant record company because it broke all the rules. Yet in 2002 it was named by the Guinness Book of Records as the top British single of all time.
Creative geniuses do not start by tinkering with what exists today. They do not listen to the demands of customers or bosses or critics. They start with their own revolutionary ideas and pursue them relentlessly.
Angela Maurer, Head of Tesco Labs, spoke on Innovation at Tesco at the recent CIO Summit in London. She said that they start with two sources of input – customer needs and future forces. Customer needs include those of internal departments and stores as well as shoppers. Future forces include technical, societal, fashion and demographic trends. Using insights from these two areas they brainstorm with diverse groups to generate a large number of ideas. The best ideas are selected and moved rapidly into concept development. The concepts are validated with customers. The next stage is prototyping and testing – once again with customer involvement. Tesco’s innovation team aims to go from initial idea to a minimum viable product within six weeks.
Once or twice a year they run hackathons where some 350 people work intensively in teams to develop working prototypes of ideas for business challenges. In the most recent such event 12 teams made it to the final of the competition where they demonstrated their working innovations to senior executives who could then select and resource the most promising concepts.
A third element of the Tesco Corporate Innovation programme is the support of selected external start-up companies. Tesco collaborates actively with a small number of entrepreneurs. Speed dating events are organised at which people from the start-ups spend a short time in turn with several Tesco executives from different departments. There are mutual benefits. The executives learn some key trends in say mobile technology while the entrepreneurs are given valuable advice on any topic they want from experienced managers.
Maurer said that there are four guiding principles for the whole innovation programme:
1. Does this idea address a real customer need?
2. Senior level sponsors are regularly involved.
3. Every project is ‘timeboxed’ – given deadlines.
4. Complete openness in the teams.
Tesco faces some tough competition in the retail marketplace and has lost market share. They see innovation as a key part of their rebound.
Speaking at the Chief Innovation Officers Summit in London, Chris Loughlan, Head of Innovation at the NHS, told a story about a quality improvement technique borrowed from a strange source but now adopted in hospitals. Say you go to a Chinese takeaway restaurant and order two spring rolls, one duck in ginger and an egg fried rice. The Chinese assistant will repeat the order back to you, ‘ You want two spring rolls, one duck in ginger and one egg fried rice.’ The assistant does not take the order to the kitchen until it has been confirmed. In a similar fashion when a doctor says to a nurse, ‘Please give Mr Jones 5 cc of insulin,’ the nurse repeats the order, ‘You want me to give Mr Jones 5 cc of insulin?’ It may seem mechanical but it avoids misunderstandings – and a simple misunderstanding can lead to tragic consequences in a hospital.
When absolute clarity of verbal communication is needed we can learn a lesson from the person at the Chinese takeaway counter.
I recently met the CEO of a dynamic small company in a technology sector. He had some great ideas and was actively working with a large company on an open innovation initiative. He also had a radical proposal which would improve services and reduce costs for his local City Council. However, he was disinclined to submit it. ‘If I suggest this idea, I know what will happen,’ he told me. ‘They will ask exactly how it works. They will then say that is a great idea but that they have to put it out to tender with several companies and go through their standard procurement process in order to select a supplier. We will be invited to bid.’ The CEO thinks that the tendering process is complicated and long-winded. He fears that a larger or cheaper provider will benefit from his radical idea so he does not offer it.
Large companies do not operate this way. Alongside their standard procurement methods they have active open innovation policies which encourage small companies to submit relevant proposals. If accepted they will work closely and exclusively with the small company in order to bring a new product to market. Their aim is collaborate to create a win/win. But government agencies are still stuck in the old procurement paradigm where you try to squeeze the best deal out of a supplier through competitive tendering. European Union legislation stipulates that all contracts with a value above £100,000 must be published through the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU) so any supplier across Europe can bid. This process is understandable. We want the best value for taxpayers’ money. And we want to avoid the corruption that can happen when officials grant contracts to preferred suppliers in return for favours. Open competitive tendering is a good method for acquiring standard products and services. But it does not encourage innovation and the submission of creative new proposals.
The public sector desperately needs innovation in order to meet rising demands for better services. It cannot meet this demand by simply spending more money. It needs to find smarter ways to do things.
Local and central government bodies should copy some of the large company trendsetters in open innovation. They should specify the results that they want rather than how exactly procured services should work. They should have a separate budget for truly innovative ideas. They need a specific officer charged with driving open innovation. They need to find ways to encourage innovative small companies to bring them ideas and to collaborate on their development. This can include an exclusive agreement for a limited period.
Open innovation is providing a wealth of innovations. It blossomed in the fast moving consumer goods sector with the likes of Proctor and Gamble and Unilever. Now it has spread to many other commercial fields. It is time that it was adopted with enthusiasm by the public sector.
One of the most common obstacles to effective decision making by teams is groupthink. The term is used to describe the observation that many groups make poor decisions because they try to reach a consensus and minimize conflict. In doing so they suppress dissenting viewpoints, eschew controversial issues and isolate themselves from outside influences. The result is that they do not seriously consider alternatives to the group’s view.
The phenomenon of groupthink was researched in the 1970s by Irving Janis, a research psychologist at Yale University. He identified various causes including the desire for cohesiveness, lack of impartial leadership, homogeneity of the group members and stressful external threats.
In his seminal book on the topic, Group Think (1982), Janis recommends eight ways to prevent groupthink:
- Leaders should assign each member the role of “critical evaluator”. This allows each member to freely air objections and doubts.
- Leaders should not express an opinion when assigning a task to a group.
- Leaders should absent themselves from many of the group meetings to avoid excessively influencing the outcome.
- The organization should set up several independent groups, working on the same problem.
- All effective alternatives should be examined.
- Each member should discuss the group’s ideas with trusted people outside of the group.
- The group should invite outside experts into meetings. Group members should be allowed to discuss with and question the outside experts.
- At least one group member should be assigned the role of Devil’s advocate. This should be a different person for each meeting.
A much discussed example of group think is the Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961. The Kennedy administration team uncritically accepted the CIA plan to invade Cuba. They ignored dissenting voices and outside opinion and underestimated the obstacles. President Kennedy learnt from this disaster. During the critical Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 he used ‘vigilant appraisal‘ to deliberately avoid groupthink. He invited outside experts to share their viewpoints. He encouraged group members to voice opinions, ask questions and challenge assumptions. The President deliberately absented himself from some meetings to prevent his opinions dominating.
There have been countless examples of groupthink in executive teams leading to business disasters. Swissair, Kodak and Enron are salutary lessons. Business leaders can avoid similar catastrophes by learning from Janis and Kennedy in order to fight to the scourge of groupthink.
Researchers discovered that the height of the ceiling in a meeting room can affect the outcome of the meeting. Apparently a high ceiling encourages people to think more creatively while a low ceiling discourages imagination and influences people to think in a constrained way. So if you want an effective brainstorm choose somewhere with plenty of headroom.
The concept extends beyond the physical. In addition to material headroom we need lofty ideals too. Many people will approach a meeting as a low value exercise unless we inspire them to become engaged and try harder. The meeting leader should start by stressing the relevance of the topic and by explaining the consequences for the business of success or failure in the meeting. ‘It is really important that we generate some great ideas for how to market our product because we need to implement something to boost demand. If we don’t the product will flop and that will be bad for the company and the department. If we get this right we will be the heroes.’
So think high – high ideals, high goals and high ceilings!