People often think that being innovative means having a lot of ideas. But where do the ideas come from?
The history of innovation is full of examples of people suddenly coming up with ideas apparently “out of the blue” with Isaac Newton’s apple only one of many examples. But when you look more closely, you always find that the inventors had been puzzling over the problem for a long time.
The idea that popped up was not a random event but was their mind’s solution to the problem that had been worrying them.
Ideas are always preceded by Problems (or their cousins Opportunities). This means that, although it is important for a company to have processes that help and stimulate people to have ideas, it is equally important to clarify the problems that need solving. Understanding customer needs is therefore part of the creative process.
But ideas may be needed on all kinds of other topics such as business processes, manufacturing methods and business models; so managers must identify the problems or opportunities where new ideas are most needed and give the sense of urgency and importance that will encourage people to think seriously about them. And, of course, also encourage people to identify problems or opportunities that may have been missed.
Clarifying problems and opportunities also opens the possibility of finding solutions from other places – from the literature or by crowdsourcing for example. Entirely new ideas may not be required at all.
One often neglected way to tap into past inventions is TRIZ. This is a rich database collected from the patent literature that helps users to find how particular technical problems have been tackled in the past. It can be used to suggest multiple answers not only to simple problems such as ‘how to make a surface smoother’ but also more complex ones such as ‘how to make something longer but not weaker’.
When new ideas really are required managers will look for ways to encourage creativity. There are many techniques for this but they all share the same overall aim which is to help people to break free of their usual patterns of thought and to think about the issue in a different way.
This was well expressed many years ago by Arthur Koestler (‘The Act of Creation’ Hutchinson 1964), who called it ‘bisociative’ thinking: the putting together of two things which were previously well-known but had not been related because they were normally considered in different contexts or in different frames of reference.
Koestler illustrated this with the following diagram.
Here the horizontal plane represents the context of the problem and the vertical one represents an alternative viewpoint on it. It is at the intersection of the two that the creative insight can arise which gives the solution to the problem.
This idea illustrates why so many creativity techniques such as attribute association, analogies from nature, left hand-right hand technique, brainstorming, brainwriting and so on aim to force participants to look at the problem “from a different angle” and indicates why it is often helpful to have a group of people from diverse backgrounds to work on a problem, rather than a single individual.
Ideation and Creativity in the R&D context therefore has three aspects:
1. Understand the challenge or opportunity
This certainly requires an openness to direct inputs from customers and others. But understanding customer needs is not a simple matter, questionnaires and focus groups can be helpful but sometimes ways are needed to understand the hidden needs that are real but not necessarily expressed. Techniques such as Repertory Grid analysis, Empathic design, Ethnographic market research and use of Lead Users are relevant.
2. Clarify problem(s) and check for existing solutions
Once the challenge has been clarified one must understand which – if any – aspects of it present problems and to search for solutions that may already exist, both from the literature and through crowdsourcing. In large companies, solutions may be discovered from other parts of the organisation. TRIZ is a powerful way to tap into past inventions.
3. Find new ideas
One way to get new ideas is simply to ask the staff. Ideas schemes have a long history and can be useful if properly designed. Co-operation with universities and consultancies, and other forms of Open Innovation are appropriate and managers will want to set up processes that help their own staff to be as creative as possible.
Posted by Rick Mitchell