Domesticating the wild ideas in your organization

Last Spring, city officials in Paris wanted to keep urban lawns trimmed in an eco-friendly way. They decided to employ sheep, rather than people, to do the job. Not only did they save money on labor costs, they also saved the lives of hundreds of Oussant sheep, which were in danger of becoming extinct.

Two outcomes for one big idea — it’s this kind of thinking that has real benefit in the business world.

Having a clear understanding of the organization’s strategic objectives helps innovation leaders conceptualize ideas. In order to get employees to think strategically, the key is not to demand business value thinking at the beginning of the idea process. Rather, encouraging absurd and irrelevant ideas irrespective of a dollar value can allow you to find the next big innovation your company wants. Those ideas can be lurking anywhere; city officials in Paris, for example looked for an innovative and ecological idea to save money and decided to use a resource they already had: sheep.

Organizational leaders can begin the idea process by providing a range of the types of ideas expected. For example, are you looking for transitional thinking? Do you want ideas for new line extensions? Explanations and sufficient communication can trigger and jump-start the thought process for those participating in an idea-generating exercise.

There’s a balance to strike. Too many boundaries on the idea process can quickly turn brainstorming sessions into frustrating meetings, says Elisa O’Donnell, global head of consulting at Imaginatik.

Too many rules, she says, can be intimidating. Employees may not be as eager to share their ideas. Participants enjoy the freedom of not having to know the “answer” right away. In O’Donnell’s experience working with Global 1000 organizations, the more comfortable employees are interacting, the better the ideas become.

Executives often run these brainstorming sessions and immediately want to see the output. They have it backwards.

“There is always a tendency for people to want the ‘answer’ immediately,” O’Donnell said. “You set an idea challenge and want to see the gold right away but coming up with ‘the next big thing’ is an extensive process.”

Treating idea generation and brainstorming as processes over time will allow ideas to develop and gain potential, she said. Big ideas are grown, not found.

“Innovation is hard and that’s why it is challenging. It requires a lot of work,” says Bill Truettner, an Imaginatik innovation advisor.

He says ideas need to be taken on a variety of paths before the useful ones are proven out. A system of review and selection helps determine if the ideas are possible solutions to problems. The best ones will ultimately benefit a business need directly, not matter how wild they may seem at the start.

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