Innovative Model

Achieving Illumination

If innovation sounds nebulous, it is. As author Mark Henry Sebell says, "Innovation has no road map, so you can't set up a lot of systems and procedures. You can have guidelines, but they have to be loose ones."

For instance, few companies abide by the rule that all ideas should be considered. Sebell found it such a problem that he wrote a book, Ban the Humorous Bazooka--and Avoid the Roadblocks and Speed Bumps Along the Innovation Highway (Dearborn Trade). The "humorous bazooka" refers to a derogatory comment that shoots down an idea. "Consensus brainstorming is a killer," Sebell says. "It feeds on the lowest common denominator."

Does this mean you shouldn't brainstorm with your employees? No, but brainstorm with creativity--and compassion for what initially seems like a strange idea. In addition to ideating for clients, Reiman also has ideations to devise internal strategies for his own company. In these ideations, there isn't any humorous bazooka. Reiman always does whatever he can "to encourage the free flow of ideas," says Bradd Borne, an Emory University professor of anthropology and one of Reiman's illuminaries. "Unlike some CEOs, he's completely unthreatened by really smart people."

Reiman invites a diverse crowd into his ideations--say, an astrologist, a physicist and a psychologist to discuss life insurance. "If he's working with an auto manufacturer, he'll bring in an anthropologist or a sociologist--people who think beyond the borders of what you would expect, and you can really get into some fertile territory," says Nucifora.

Think Small
  • Small businesses produce 55% of all innovations.
  • Small businesses create twice as many product innovations as large corporations and get more patents per sales dollar than large firms.

SOURCE: Small Business Survival Committee

Anybody could theoretically run an ideation. Even if you can't pay an anthropologist for his or her time the way BrightHouse does, you could spring for lunch. If the professor isn't interested, maybe a graduate student will be. Anyone, including your sculptor brother-in-law, or your retired engineer neighbor, could be a valuable addition to an ideation. And mix your group with the lowest employees on the company ladder and the highest in your management team.

You don't want too few people in a session, says Nucifora, but more isn't merrier either. Twelve is optimum, though Nucifora has facilitated successful ideations with as few as seven people and as many as 16. The mix is most important. "The room then builds on itself," he says.

While the guidelines are loose, structure is still important. Working in four-hour blocks is key, says Simons, "because in that first hour, everybody's getting to know each other. In the second, people start talking about things that are important, and the fertile ideas come in the third hour. Then there's an incredible burst of ideas if the first three hours have gone the way it should. After that, people are done. You can't squeeze any more out of them."

Inspiration From Within
Your employees are bursting with ideas. Read on to learn how to encourage them to share.

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the September 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Innovative Model.

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