Last week, I made the assertion that creativity is going to be an essential skill for this year’s candidates. �This week I want to give some hints and tips about how to get creative ideas, and next week, I’ll examine how to evaluate those ideas. �It is too late for this year’s candidates, of course, but I live in hope that one year, the winning candidate will tell Dara O’Briain that their success is largely down to having studied the archives of my blogs on previous series, and implemented the advice and lessons learned I identified.

As if…

Prospecting for Good Ideas

Looking for good ideas is like looking for gold. There may be loads of it around, but it is hard to find. �You have to:

  • look in the right place
  • take the right tools
  • use those tools properly

I have written this as advice for the Project Manager.
(Now, why did I capitalise that? Good manners, I suppose.)

Look in the Right Place

Step 1: Clarity
One of the commonest mistakes that Apprentice teams make is to dive into brainstorming feet first, without engaging their brains. �Before you start looking for creative ideas, you have to understand the territory. �Take a few minutes to discuss the brief that Lord Sugar has set you, to ensure that you all have a common understanding of it. �Where there are different interpretations of what he said, be sure to listen carefully because your decision will be crucial. �In Episode 2 of the current series, the women (Sterling), failed to notice that Lord Sugar had asked for household appliances. �Since one of the buyers he lined up only sells household appliances, no matter how good their pitch, they could not have made a sale.

Step 2: Constraints
Once you are clear on the brief, start to look at who the consumer will be (or the range of possible consumers) and, putting that together with the brief, what are the constraints that you are under. �Quite often, Lord Sugar will give the teams hints here, like “you need to produce these in one day” or “you’re going to be selling them from a market stall” or “this task is all about margins”. �Understanding the constraints will help you narrow down the scope of possible ideas and so avoid wasting energy on ideas that are bound to fail. �It is a myth that a wide open brief makes creative thinking easier: the constraints give you valuable guidance.

Step 3: Desires
Now ask your team to put themselves in the prospective customers’ place: what is it that this consumer needs, wants, covets? �What problems do they have that we can help to solve? �Don’t try to find a big idea: instead, try to satisfy a clear need or preference. �Talking about the customer and describing their journey through their day, their kitchen, an outing with their baby, will give you insights into what challenges they face, so you can look for solutions.

Take the Right Tools

The Toolbox is Organized!
Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Dan Thompson via Compfight

There was a time when I fancied writing a creativity manual in the shape of a toolbox. �Maybe I will one day. �For now, I will limit myself to suggesting three tools that candidates can use in addition to the well-beloved brainstorming. �I’ll look at that one in more detail in the third section.

These are very simple approaches, which the teams can pick up and use quickly. �If I were advising a candidate in advance (now there’s a new job title: Apprentice Coach), i’d put de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats high on their agenda.

Tool 1: Story Telling
Stories are one of the best ways to make creative thinking easy and acces our unconscious knowledge. �Ask people to tell each other stories about the situation and then to write down any ideas that occur to the listeners or story tellers. �It does not matter if the listener goes into a reverie and follows their story arc: what matters is that the narratve draws us easily into the creative world.

Tool 2: SCREAMER
Of course, there is nothing new under the sun: just variations on older ideas. �And this is the fundamental nature of Apprentice product innovation. �Your team will be looking for something different enough to create interest, but familiar enough to be easy to make or prototype and to explain to buyers. �SCREAMER is one approach to a standard product engineering solution-finding approach, more generically known as systematic variation.

As applied to finding a new or better solution, start with something that works, then systematically vary different aspects of it, until you find a new product that is better or simply different but good. �In SCREAMER, the eight systematic changes you can make are:

Substitute (one thing or one component for an alternative)
Combine (two or more components or products into one thing)
Reverse ( – do something the opposite way)
Enlarge (make some aspect of your product bigger)
Alter (make some aspect different)
Multiply (do more of what you did before)
Eliminate (cut something out – simplify)
Reduce (make some aspect of your product smaller)

Tool 3: Associations
Many of our greatest insights come as random associations with unexpected experiences, images, or comments. �Why not create the opportunity for these associations by exposing your team to random stimuli, like words, images, song titles, movies, animals, … �Ask team-members to find links between the random stimuli and the problem to be solved. �Some will reveal good insights from which to build practical ideas. �(Others will be bizarre in the extreme and make good telly for the rest of us!)

Use the Tools Properly

I get it that the teams so often default to brainstorming: it is quick, easy, effective and everyone knows it. �What I don’t get is the awful behaviours we often see – particularly from project managers who, once they have control of a flip chart, take on the persona of a 1950s dictator. �Good creative thinking – especially under pressure – will only thrive if you create the right conditions.

Condition 1: Respect
Your role as project manager is to act as “facilitator”. �Think what this word means: to make it easy�for your colleagues to create ideas. �Be respectful of every idea (you’ll get a chance to evaluate them later – see next week) and of each person. �Listen hard and encourage everone else to. �Give everyone a chance to contribute equally. �Another responsibility is to draw in the ideas of the quieter, less pushy team members. �I know it seems like they are all uber-confident, but some are more equal than others in this respect as in others. �Rarely will they also, coincidentally, be the ones with the best ideas.

Condition 2: Collaboration
Great ideas come when a team works together and one member supplies the seed of an idea, another develops it, another shifts it in a new direction, the next suggests an enhancement and the fifth puts some polish on it. �Maybe someone suggests a risk that is embedded in the concept and another proposes a solution. �Someone hears an idea and it triggers a new thought. �This kind of collaboration can bash a small crude set of raw ideas into a bigger bunch of polished and viable ideas. �Your job is to encourage this kind of team-thinking.

Condition 3: Abundance
We often hear Lord Sugar say something like this: “Karren tells me that was the only idea you had.” �If you only have one idea, and it’s a bad one, you have no way out. �The best way to guarantee that you have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. �Then, when you discard the bad ideas, the ones that are left are worthy of evaluation. �Bad ideas are an essential part of the process and can often trigger a good idea, when we see what makes it bad, and how to fix it.

Evaluating the Ideas

In the next blog of this three part series, we’ll take a look at how Apprentice teams can increase their chances of success by evaluating the ideas they have more rigorously.

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