Snapshot : Ideas are contagious. But most ideas in business never make it. Find out where to start with creative problem solving. Learn why framing your problem positively changes the dynamic of the solution. Find out why, asking why to diagnose your problem can help you get to the root cause. And learn some of the obvious traps in business that are set to kill off ideas.
Since we moved over into consulting, we now spend most of our time thinking about how to solve problems for our customers. And this creative problem solving means the ability to generate ideas.
Ideas. Don’t you just love that word? Ideas are exciting. They create goosebumps. Ideas are contagious, when you have a great idea, you want to tell people about it. There’s an energy and buzz around a great idea that makes ideas feel like why you come into work.
But how do you generate ideas? We’ve been lucky enough to learn from lots of very skilled people in creative problem solving over the years, and we feel it’s good karma to pass on some of the learnings we’ve seen that have generated the best ideas. If these help you come up with a great idea, then please do share.
How do you define the problem
If ideas is a great word, then problems, maybe not such a great word. But it is usually when you articulate a problem that creates the great idea. It’s the first step of the creative problem solving process. And if you get it wrong, everything afterwards becomes so much more difficult. So if you have a problem in your marketing, creative or e-commerce area, you really need that problem as a ‘glass half full’ that can lead on to a great idea rather than a ‘glass half empty’ that is going to cause you stress and worry.
One of the best ways we’ve seen is to frame your problem with either “I wish …” or “How to …”. So not, our “sales are falling”, but “I wish I could improve our sales”. Not “We have a terrible image with customers” but “How to make our image better with customers”. Not “We are bad at creating new products”, but “I wish we could create better new products”.
Compare how each of those articulations feels? In your body language. In your desire to take part in solving the problem. A pessimistic, low energy, stressful view of the problem doesn’t inspire you or your team to find a solution. An optimistic, high energy, enthusiastic view of the problem gets you off to a much more positive start. You don’t have to be ‘happy clappy’ about it, but set your problem up as an opportunity to get to a great idea.
Diagnose your real problem with “Why”?
Alfred Einstein famously said that if he had only an hour to solve a problem, he’d spent the first 55 minutes defining what the problem is. There is often a temptation to rush into solutions without really understanding what the root of the problem is, and you can end up with solutions answering the wrong problem.
A common technique used is the “5 why’s”. So we are told, it derives from the world of children who are naturally curious about everything and who will keep asking questions until they get an answer that satisfies them. As adults, we tend to lose this insatiable curiosity and accept the first answer that sounds OK. But often, if you take a basic problem and keep asking “why” – at least 5 times – you can actually discover the problem is not what you thought it was. Often, the firs time you articulate the problem, you articulate the symptom of the problem, But by repeatedly asking why, you can drill down to identify the root cause.
Let’s use a simple non-business example to show how this works.
Problem – my car won’t start.
1st why – the battery is dead
2nd why – the alternator is not working
3rd why – the alternator belt is not working
4th why – the alternator belt was well beyond it’s service life and had not been replaced
5th why – I haven’t been taking my car in for its scheduled maintenance service checks
So, the root cause of the problem is actual laziness or forgetfulness to maintain your car and could be solved by setting an alert in your diary. But you’d never have got to that solution just from the first articulation of the problem.
Let’s try that again, but this time with a typical business type question
Problem – sales in my shop are declining
1st why – I’m getting less visitors coming through the door
2nd why – Customers aren’t happy with our customer service
3rd why – They complain our staff aren’t helpful or friendly
4th why – We hire our staff for their technical knowledge not their customer service skills
5th why – That’s how we’ve always done it
So, in this case the root cause is in your HR practices. Prioritising the hiring of new staff with customer service skills, and training existing staff with better customer service skills is a solution that’s only reached because you went through the diagnosis problem to understand wha the actual issue was. This sort of technique works well in the world of customer experience whether that is a physical store or your own website or online store.
A couple of things if you decide to use this technique. It’s not always 5 levels. Sometimes it’s a little less, sometimes a little more. And it’s worth doing the exercise a few times with different people. Because, different people bring different perspectives, and you may actually have more than one root cause to tackle.
Avoid killing ideas too early.
One of our favourite innovation agencies we work with in the past shared with us a great summary that they called ‘How to kill an idea’. They worked with many large organisations, and found that when trying to get ideas through a business, they keep hearing the same barriers, objections and criticisms of new ideas. So, that most ideas, particularly in bigger businesses never make it to fruition.
If you’ve ever worked in a business that has a ‘stage-gate’ innovation process, you’ll see that process is set up to screen out and whittle down ideas. Like a marketing version of the Highlander or Survivor, only the “best” ideas make it through. But by the time an idea has made it through five levels of innovation screening, and been business cased and validated by lawyers, accountants, supply chain, sales, the MD”s wife and whoever else gets to throw in their ten cent worth, it’s often an overworked, and uninspired pale version of where it started out.
So look out for these types of behaviours in your business that kills ideas
How to kill an idea
- Ignore the idea – silence intimidates all but the most enthusiastic
- Laugh it off – yeah, that’s a good one, mate, what have you been smoking?
- We already tried that – this works particularly well in killing off the enthusiasm of any new people in your business
- Drown it in cold water – we don’t have the staff. The intangible risks are too great, that’s great in theory but in real life
- Stalling tactics – we’re not ready for it yet. Give it a couple of months until something else happens. Let’s wait until the new organisation settles in. All momentum killers. All destined to make sure that idea never happens.
- Appoint a committee – this sounds like it would be helpful, but a committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and quiet strangled.
- Ask the originator to be more specific – Sounds helpful, Never is. Never.
Creative problem solving. Start nurturing your ideas.
There are many ways to navigate your idea through the business and into the outside world. Creative problem solving is challenging but highly stimulating. We plan to add more content in this area in future blogs and articles. Ideas are what make solving problems in marketing, creative and e-commerce such a fun and interesting place to work,
But if you can articulate your problem in a positive way, spend some time diagnosing the root cause of the problem, and then protect the idea from the obvious traps that lie ahead in most business, then that’s a good idea to grow your business.