As I type, there is a man sitting in the same café, across the room. He’s chosen a window seat, and has brought a rubics cube along with him, which he fidgets with in between sips of what looks like a sophisticated form of coffee. My imagination tells me it’s not your average double espresso. Not important. What I notice, is that he fidgets some more. Looks out the window. Takes in the lush greenery and tropical foliage. Reaches for a napkin, and begins to scribble. The light jazz in the periphery is calming. The clientele at this particular café are an upscale blend of very laid back, expats from various corners of the world. He’s wearing plaid, and straightens his specs now and then, which slide their way down his nose while he fidgets. He’s a 30-something fusion of hipster and nerd. The ‘type’ I would expect to see in an innovation hub. And in one swift move, he wraps up his relaxation time and jolts, as if the ink on his napkin might magically disappear in seconds if he doesn’t action whatever he just decided to set out to do.
While I might never know who he was and what was on his napkin, I might never know a number of people, or what was on their minds, unless the idea has made it from conception to fruition. What the man with the rubics cube reminded me of, though, are some key lessons that larger corporates need to grasp about the innovation process itself. Here goes.
Innovation is extremely personal. Thou shall protect the sacredness of idea conception.
The very nature of an idea, is that it is generated in a single mind. It can be grown in a group setting, but essentially, where it is born needs to be kept as uncluttered as you’d expect a hospital labour room to be. One visitor at a time. Two max, until the baby is born. Many companies use group brainstorming as a means of developing products, projects, or services. While this is great for team collaboration, more often than not, it lends itself to premature birth and death of what might have been a really strong idea. In a typical scenario, the individual at the table has not fully been given a chance to reflect on that which is being developed before they arrive at the meeting.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the brainstorming process. I teach it. I promote mind mapping to the degree whereby I’ve adopted mind maps as my preferred choice of wallpaper at various times during my academic and professional life. (Though Pierre Frey would be terrified by my bespoke wall coverings, I’m certain). What I’m getting at here, is that there is a way to set the precedent for idea generation well before individuals gather at the table to brainstorm. And that’s by almost setting no precedent at all- deliberately. It’s by making sure that the individual mind is equipped for being receptive to something unique when it actually comes up unforced. The best way for an individual to see things differently, though, is to see different things. Have a different experience. Be in a different place. Exposure to different industries for example, has contributed to innovation in the context of industry convergence in many areas which now combine technology with transportation, hospitality, business services, and utilities to name but a few. Plant the seed, and let it at least sprout something before you bring it to the boardroom for a brainstorm.
Thou shall not shoot!
Most great ideas die prematurely. Many of them die not because they’re not viable, but often because of the way they’re communicated, or because there is a difference in opinion. There’s no space for ego in innovation. It’s important that you mentally train those who are directly involved with innovation to shed the biases, and look at each idea as though they were tasked with making it viable. It has been an interesting task working with teams who just simply need to shift paradigm from seeing things as problems to seeing the same things and re-proposing them as solutions. What results from the latter is a more constructive conversation.
Thou shall provide deliberate access to Social Capital
Social capital (loosely known in the MENA region as ‘Wasta’) is not something everyone has access to, and we all know that the success of anything is increasingly reliant on ‘who you know’. Innovation hubs woke up to this fact early on and made it part of their business model, such that part of their value proposition is to serve as a ‘connector’ between hubsters, and investors, policy makers, and other key individuals who can turn their budding projects into blockbusters. If you want to enable change, be the connector. Use your influencers, and your influencer’s influencers to give rise to an idea, project or prototype, even if you don’t see an immediate fit. The dialogue might lead to other connections, points of view, or contributions which might give rise to the growth of a concept or solution.
Creative Spaces: Though shall make them multisensory
Try new mediums, and adopt what works. Change the flow. The creative process does not require structure. In fact, creatives are generally averse to structure, because that’s just the way the abstract parts of their mind operate. Make your creative spaces look, smell, feel, and sound different. Use something other than pens and paper to document even just for one session. Whether you’re brewing a new kind of coffee and use a few brightly colored flower arrangements with some background music, or whether you opt for something extravagantly unconventional like star-gazer ceilings and bright padded floors with trampoline zones, the concept is the same. Multi-sensory stimulation allows access to parts of the brain which otherwise may be less active. Oh and another thing: Desks/Tables and chairs… are so yesterday, and so overrated. (And I’m happy to provide personalised suggestions on what to replace them with!)
Thou shall reduce the red tape
By and large, the main reason why innovation happens slower in larger firms than in smaller start-ups, is that there are less layers to go through for approvals and implementation. Think about the number of large pharmaceuticals who have gone on acquisition sprees for smaller biotech firms. Red tape, layers of hierarchy, and a long-winded innovations ‘platforms’ or programmes within larger firms are the basis of why start-ups innovate disruptively while larger firms innovate incrementally. Because they can. The creative process doesn’t wait for the administrative process. If you want to enable the disruptive process, reduce the turnaround time involved to get approvals, or test ideas. Make sure your process is conducive to putting ideas to use before they go stale.