Quest for the elusive Innovation Framework

Premise:

I have read countless blog posts, wrote a few myself, watched videos, did innovation courses, read books on innovation, all in the quest to learn what makes innovation happen and if there is a way to institutionalize innovation. While there are people who claim that they can do so, I have come to the decision that it is an elusive quest, one that we may never be able to complete.

Innovation and Parenting:

As is usual, when I was taking a walk post lunch today, I was thinking about innovation and if there is a way to institutionalize it. I then realised that the process of innovation is very similar to parenting.

As parents, we want our children to do well in life and turn out to be good citizens. We try to create the right environment for our children to grow in, take care of them, ensure that they develop the right habits, send them to good schools so they learn well, coach them, get them to sports events, music classes, etc. We do this in the hope that they can find their passions and build their lives around these passions.

As leaders, we do very similar things to foster innovation. We try and create the right environment, help build the right practices, employ the right frameworks, bring in external experts to help our teams. We send our teams to conferences, to workshops and creative retreats, all in the hope that they learn something and can come up with interesting breakthroughs.

However, just like parents we can’t guarantee that every one of our children will turn out to be good citizens and a successful professional, we as leaders can’t guarantee that any of this will result in a successful product.

We have seen siblings grow up in the same home, with the same parents, under the same conditions, yet turn out to be very different from each other. So can two different products being developed by the same team under the same conditions, using the same processes and frameworks can have different results when it comes to success.

There are times when we have children growing in tough conditions go on to become really great men. There are times when we can see that products that were developed in not so great conditions for innovation go on to become extremely successful.

In Conclusion:

Realising this, I believe that just like we as parents can’t fully control the destiny of our children but only control what we can (teach them good habits, give them a good loving, caring environment, teach them well, allow them to make their own mistakes and learn) and hope that they go out in the world and do well; as leaders responsible for innovation should do the same (help our teams build good habits, allow them to make their mistakes & learn from them, give them a good loving, caring environment, let them learn well, etc) and hope that they come up with interesting and successful products.

There is no institutionalizing of innovation. So, instead of spending our time to find this ever elusive framework, it is better for us to behave like parents and allow our teams to innovate, in their very own pace and using a framework, the one that works for them. And see magic happening.

PS: This post is in part inspired by a book that I have read by Prashun Dutta (https://in.sagepub.com/en-in/sas/systems-thinking-for-effective-managers/book259327).

Learning Design Thinking By Design Doing

via GIPHY

I was invited by the organising team of the Society for Technical Communication’s India chapter conference to introduce the concepts of Design thinking to the participants.

We did some brainstorming and decided that instead of giving a lecture for an hour about design thinking and walk off, it would be better if we can find some additional time and get the participants to experience Design thinking methodology by using the process to attempt to solve something that everyone of them are currently facing.

I got about 150 mins at the conference to deliver this experience. After a lot of deliberation and ideation, we decided to use the process and explore if we can make documentation fun.

The idea was to get them an experience which is as close to reality as possible of using the Design thinking methodology, in the time and space that we were allotted.

So, there were no post-it notes, no charts, no empathy maps or customer journey maps, yet, the participants were able to experience and learn about Design thinking. This itself was a challenge to deliver a workshop with about 11 teams of 6 people, with no additional facilitators and in a space that i had so far never used for running a Design thinking workshop.

Despite all these limitations, the teams did really well to not only experience and learn but also come up with some fun and interesting ways to make documentation fun (for themselves and also for those who they create the documentation for).

The teams were not only able to understand the problem better and come up with some ideas but were also able to create and share prototypes for feedback. With more time and iterations, I am confident that the teams would have been able to come up with some very convincing and potentially great ideas to make documentation fun.

Here is the recording of the experience we delivered for the participants.

The second part of the session is here:

If you are new to Design thinking and would like to get to know about the process, these videos can prove to be a good starting place.

How to Run a Good Brainstorming Session

 

Last week I was invited to run a Design thinking experiential workshop for the STC conference in Bangalore. We had about 70 people in the room. All of them experienced technical content writers.

As I always believe, learning happens best when people have a lot of fun while learning. We then retain a lot of what we learn in that setting.  I am getting beside the point.

I am sure that everyone of us, me included, have at one point or other, been invited to join  in a brainstorm to come up with ideas to solve a given problem. As a design thinking coach, I end up facilitating a lot of such brainstorms as it is one of the core steps in the problem solving approach.

Irrespective of the cohort that I am working with, there are a few questions that typically come up every time I facilitate a brainstorming session. They came up last week in the workshop as well.

I will try and share my insights and answers to these most commonly asked questions  on brainstorming sessions.

Generate as many ideas as possible

The first instruction I give to participants is to come up with as many ideas as possible. I might even suggest an insanely high number of ideas that i would expect them to come up with.  The reason behind this is two fold:

Novelty:

Typically, when we ask someone to come up with ideas, there are some common ideas that everyone will come up with. These are the typical ideas, that almost anyone who is asked to come up and typically lack any novelty or creativity.

In order to reach the creative and novel ideas, we need to push through our comfort level of coming with the easiest & the simplest idea.

Ideas come in waves:

If you notice closely, we get ideas in waves. Once you are able to come up with some creative idea, it is much easier to modify, add/subtract something to/from that idea and come up with a lot more ideas. By asking people to go for quantity, we are trying to get them to experience as many such waves of ideas as possible.

Every wave that you experience beyond the 2nd or 3rd wave, you will see that you are moving beyond the typical solutions into the realm of truly unique, creative & novel ideas.

Crazy ideas

Why do we need crazy ideas? I believe that it is easier to make crazy ideas interesting, actionable and a little more sensible than to make a boring regular idea interesting. Think about it. Even better would be for you to try this.

Take a crazy idea to solve any given problem and try to make it more practical. Then take a boring average idea and try to make it interesting and creative.

You will realise that it is much easier to make a crazy idea practical and still retain a large dose of craziness (creative spirit).

Delay judgements

Why do we need to delay judgements? According to me, brainstorming is a two step process:  Generate Ideas, Select ideas and it is important to keep them as two separate steps in the process to get good results.

The most  important reason, why I always recommend that we need to defer judgements, is because it kills creativity faster than you can say “No”.  The moment someone starts judging ideas as good or bad, our minds start applying filters to our creative thinking (no one likes being rejected or ridiculed in front of others, even if it is only perceived and not real). This means, that nothing truly creative can come out of the brainstorm where ideas are judged right at the idea generation part of the discussion. 

Equal Opportunity & Diversity

How can we ensure that everyone gets a chance to share their ideas? As I have indicated above, ideation is a two step process. The first step is to generate ideas. I always suggest to do this in three distinct steps:

Brain Dump:

The first step is to ask every individual to come up with ideas individually. I ask them to come up with as many ideas as possible as individuals, without discussion or sharing their ideas.

Share It:

The second step is to ask every to share their ideas with the team. Others who have the same or similar ideas can cluster their ideas around the idea first proposed. Everyone shares their ideas one-after the other until all ideas are shared.

Build upon it:

The last step in this process is for people to come up with newer ideas (combining, editing, replacing or subtracting from the ideas that have already been shared by someone in the team. This is again done individually first and shared with the team later. The team can then discuss among itself to explore if they can come up with more creative ideas as a team, building upon the ideas that they already have.

Prioritize:

While there are many ways to prioritise ideas once you have a set of them, I prefer to use a simple framework. If I am doing the brainstorming as part of a design thinking workshop, I prefer to pick ideas which are at the intersection of Desirablity, Feasibility and viability and in that order.

We could also use the red dots framework (each person on the team get 10 red dots and they can decide to use all of them in a single idea or spread them out on various ideas).

If brainstorm was a standalone one, which someone called for to solve a specific problem that they are trying to solve, i leave it up to this person to decide which of the ideas he/she would like to explore further.

In conclusion:

Brainstorming is an important activity that has the potential to help stimulate our creativity and solve some of the most pressing challenges. However, if not taken seriously and done rigorously, it is also a great waste of time as nothing of value ever comes out of it. Now, the question we need to ask ourselves is which side of the coin do we want to see.

7 Practices of Highly Inspired People

I have been writing every for this blog for the past 20 days and every time I open up my laptop to write, I don’t necessarily have an idea that I want to write about. I need some kind of an inspiration, some seed of a thought which can then go on to become a blog post. This is what writers call inspiration. As entrepreneurs, we our productivity and effectiveness is at its highest when we are inspired. So it is with our team mates.

All creative ideas have an inspiration as their seed. Someone somewhere was inspired by someone/something that led him/her to come up and express their creativity. As entrepreneurs, we know the importance of creativity in our pursuit. We are constantly facing challenging situations that need to be solved. The more creative and practical our solutions, the more success we can see in our enterprise. This is as much true for us as leaders as much it is for our teams.

All kinds of artists and entrepreneurs are always looking for inspiration or as they call it – their muse. There are times when something comes together in our minds rather suddenly and strangely.

The question then to ask ourselves is the following:

Is it possible for us to find inspiration & thereafter stay inspired? Can we do it on-demand?

Can we create an environment where not just us, but everyone in the environment can access inspiration on-demand?

I believe that the answer to all these questions is a resounding “Yes”. I can tell this with some authority as I have been able to find inspiration to create something every single day for the past 30 days as a result of some practices that I have put in place in my live. I can tell this with authority as I know of a lot of artists and entrepreneurs have done this in their lives from which I have learnt a lot. I can tell this with authority as there is a lot of scientific research that has show that this is possible. 

Before we start talking about practices to find inspiration on-demand, lets first try to understand what inspiration actually is. Every time we come across a new set of information or a fresh idea, the way our brains process them is that it creates a new neural pathway that corresponds to this idea. Now, almost all neural pathway is connected to all other pathways. The question is for us to find some of these interesting connection.

We say we are inspired by something, when unwittingly our brain has found a new neural pathway from one known pathway to another known pathway. So, almost all new inspiration is about finding new neural pathways from one existing idea to another. This can happen by connecting one idea with another, combining different ideas, subtracting something from one idea or even a combination of all of these tricks. The most fundamental thing here is that we need to be exposed to a lot of different ideas.

Once when someone asked me about how to get new ideas, I had responded that in order to get new ideas, you need a lot of old ideas. Every idea that we come across is filed away in our brain and is similar to an alphabet in our language. We are able to combine these alphabets to come up with words (first simple, then complex) and build our vocabulary. We can then use these words to come up with sentences and then combine these sentences to come up with paragraphs, stories, poetry and so and so forth. So, the more ideas that we are exposed to, the more chances we have of coming up with an inspired idea.

Being inspired is a state of mind.

Creating conditions for inspiration is about finding and accessing the states of mind that works best for us. Knowing this, here are some practices that I have put in place in my life to find inspiration on-demand.

Practice 1: The Practice Intentionality:

The first practice is all about noticing thing all around us. There are ideas all around us. The way someone is dressed, the advertisement that we saw on TV, the way something is on display in a shop, the way a speaker presented his idea, the story your child told you about her school, the way a dancer moved on stage, the way a musician composed his song, etc.. The list goes on and on. There are ideas all around us. What we need to do is be intentional about noticing these ideas.

Practice 2: The Practice of Diversity:

As i have already indicated, in order to be inspired, we need to allow our brains to connect disparate information together, which means that we need to expose ourselves to diverse and disparate information from different sources. If we only read the same stuff everyday, watch the same shows on TV, take the same route to office everyday, see the same friends, work in the same industry, we are ensuring that we will not have the diverse inputs needed for us to be and stay inspired.

So, we need to read different kinds of stuff, watch different kinds of shows, visit new places, take different routes to office, work in different industries or at least meet with people who are not very similar to us and our appraoch to life. We need to mix things up intentionally.

I know people who pick up magazines specifically not targetted for them, attend conferences which have nothing to do with their industry or the kind of work they do. I myself have a reading list that is varied and consists of material and topics that is no way connected to the work that i do. Yet, my brain always finds a connection between what I do and what i read. That is the job of my brain that it does really well.

Practice 3: The Practice of Reflection:

Once we notice things around us, we then need to find a way to capture and reflect on these ideas. We could capture them by clicking a picture, taking a video, making a note (audio or text), connecting this idea with something that we already deeply care about. I use all of these methods to capture ideas – click pictures/videos, make notes (text or audio), save something on my Evernote (stuff that I find interesting online), etc.

The key here is that we need to go back to these ideas on a regular basis so that we are able to create neural pathways to these ideas and can retrieve them on-demand when needed.

Practice 4: The Practice of Brahmanian Thinking:

In Hindu mythology, there are three gods who are the “Trinity”. One of them, Brahma, the creator, is supposed to have 4 heads, one in each direction. I consider that as an analogy for us to learn to see and think from different perspectives before creating anything new. This holds true for all creative ideas.

The practice of looking at the same thing from different angles and perspectives offers us a great deal of more information that can then trigger new ideas. It is important for us to build this habit intentionally. This is the key practice if we are to be able to make unusual connection. If we see the same thing that everyone else sees, we will come to the same conclusion that everyone else is coming to and thereby we will come up the same kinds of ideas that everyone else is coming up with.

Practice 5: The Practice of Reframing:

Another way to ensure that we are able to speed up the ability to connect disparate ideas and inputs to form new, creative and inspired stuff is by practicing the art of reframing. Our brain functions in a way that it frames everything that it encounters in one way or another. Add to this that the way our brain functions is that if we pose a question, it is conditioned to work towards finding an answer.

So, If we can find a way to frame the question or the problem differently than what was originally posed, we are able to solve it differently as well. There are different ways to reframe any challenge or issues or problems.

We can reframe by changing the context in which the problem is being faced, by changing the person whose point of view is being used to solve the problem and similar.

Practice 6: The Practice of  Constraints:

One of the ways that we can force ourselves to come up with interesting and unique ideas or feel inspired is when we introduce new constraints. This again is how our brains function. If i were to ask you to list 25 items that are white in colour in your home, you might take longer to answer if I just asked you to list 25 items that are white in colour in your kitchen. This is just how our brains work.

So, if we are looking for an inspiration for something, we will do better if we introduce new constraints in our thinking. This could come in many forms – we need ideas that use sound/music, will use comedy, will make use of children, needs to cost us under a certain cost or needs to use a specific color even. The idea is to move between different constraints to see if any of them inspire us to come up with something really unique and inspired.

Practice 7: The Practice of Practice:

The last but the most important practice to getting and staying inspired is to practice being inspired. We need to constantly work our muscles of creativity and inspiration. As most inspired creators will tell you, they need to build in rituals and habits of getting and staying inspired. This is also like a muscle. The more we practice, the stronger it gets.

In short, we need to practice getting inspired on a daily basis. We can’t do the work every single day by practicing all these practices and expect to get inspired on-demand. This is the work-ethic that is needed to get and stay inspired.

When inspiration does not come to me, I go halfway to meet it  -Freud

In Conclusion:

There are a lot of things that we can do to get and stay inspired on-demand. There is also a lot that we can do to create an environment that allows us to create a culture where our teams can get and stay inspired on-demand.
I will delve deeper into how to create a culture where teams can get and stay inspired in a separate post shortly.
Btw, this post was also inspired by a post by  on here.