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idea generation

In the current COVID-19 pandemic times, organizations now more than ever need all the ideas they can get from their employees and stakeholders to survive and sustain their businesses and get ready for the growth when the global situation turns around. Each organization has its traditional ways to encourage employees to present their ideas. But most miss the critical point of;

creating great ideas that can translate into high-value innovations for the organization is a social process and not a solo endeavor.

Companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are known to consider themselves nothing but giant startups that rely on the intense “battle of ideas” Everything is about team working together to achieve something bigger than them. Even coaching for these organizations is a team sport, as captured in the book “Trillion Dollar Coach” based on the team coaching method of legendary Bill Campbell. Steve Jobs once stated that Apple is nothing more than a bunch of teams working on ideas, and his job all day is to participate in these idea sessions as a contributor and let the best ideas survive regardless of titles.

To make this model work, a company needs to attract the “A” players and experts in their domain who are driven by a bold shared vision. These A-players thrive in the battle of ideas without getting emotionally scarred when their ideas get shot down. They are restless about making the shared vision of the team come alive rather than protecting just their own ideas.

What is the Role of Leadership?

The job of leadership is to create a vision that is bold, purposeful, and meaningful in terms of impact and value creation. The role of the next level of executives is to take that vision and break it down into product visions and service visions through which customer value gets created. With company vision as the platform and product/service visions as the inter-connected Legos, an organization can then form teams that can take on these Legos as challenges and opportunities for innovation.

In summary, big ideas attract “A” players who want to do big things. They want to work with other “A” players who are specialists in different areas that are essential for realizing the vision (product or service). The vision is big enough that is only achievable by the team effort (in other words, single “A” cannot do it based on the sheer complexity and diversity of skills required to achieve it). Each team member should also see a connection between their personal career aspiration in-terms of competencies and skills development (their vision) and the shared team product-vision.

The critical point to note is that without these ingredients, the constructive battle of ideas has very little fighting chance of leading to disruptive innovations. With these things in place, there is very little chance of not eventually arriving at break-through innovations since the team-energy and confidence becomes unstoppable. History is full of examples such as Skunkworks (Lockheed’s team model that led to various aerospace inventions), or even at much more mega-scale, the Manhattan Project that created the first atomic bomb, etc. etc.

With this as a backdrop, we can lay some ground rules for the battle of ideas among the team of specialists to begin. The teams should be composed of members who are specialists in their specific domains that will be critical for realizing the shared vision. For example, in the smart product category, a typical team structure includes experts from Cloud Platform, Mobile, AI/ML, Design, Embedded, and Business.

Take a Look at this Model!

Let us consider these six core team member capabilities/specialties that that are required for building a “smart product” using modern digital technologies. Since this is a team of expert specialists, one can assume that they are experts in representing their domain and so by the very nature are blinded in areas they are not experts in – in other words each sees about 1/6 of the whole picture of the smart product (six team members). Since innovation requires commercial success in the market place, it becomes crucial that the team is also in touch with industry experts, technology advisors, socio-cultural experts, and marketing/channel experts closer to the customer.

When you combine six internal team members with four external stakeholders, we come to about ten team members, each representing 10% of the whole – in other words having a tunnel vision, each member sees 10% of the whole picture. In reality, there are probably other internal and external stakeholders that will be critical for the team success with the product innovation, so eventually, the width of angle of vision may be closer to 5% within which individual team members ideas originate (in other words they don’t see the other 95% critical for the team success).

So, no matter how smart they are in their particular domain expertise, they are still experts in the 5% of the whole vision. This is famously called the whole-part problem that is one of the classic issues of innovation – first pointed out by Andrew Van de Van in his famous article “central problems in the management of innovation.”

With this humbling realization, the team can begin the battle of ideas with some ground rules such as:

  • There are no organizational hierarchies when it comes to good ideas.
  • Good ideas can come from anywhere (internal or external).
  • Each member is limited by their tunnel vision (5% in our example) in the ability to see the whole.
  • Each team member’s job to fully understanding the shared team-vision that is driving the smart product or service innovation.
  • Ideas should be presented in the holistic context, so they make sense to others (using stories or visuals as boundary-objects). Idea presenter’s job to make ideas relevant in achieving the shared vision.
  • To increase the chance of your ideas surviving the battle of ideas, co-ideate with some key team members to widen the angle of your tunnel vision. Make your 5% to at least 20%, or more so you have a bigger bull-eye into the shared vision.
  • You will be surprised that many people in the world are thinking about the ideas you have in your head. Use google to search of other experts, products, companies working on similar ideas so that you can borrow some of their learning and incorporate them into your idea before you engage your team to spend their time giving you feedback. Do your homework. It often shows in the quality of your idea and influences how seriously others will take your idea.
  • Other team members should give serious consideration to ideas that are presented with holistic effort (ideas connected to the whole – product vision or company vision, etc.). If a team member wants their ideas taken seriously, then they need to put serious effort into framing their ideas in the context of the vision. Your plans will be taken seriously if other team members believe you understand their shared concept.
  • Ideas should be evaluated against how they enhance the product vision in terms of value potential, competitiveness, or some specific dimension that is important for the product or service. They could also be some elegant way that a complexity that is in the form of realizing the vision gets removed.
  • An attempt should also be made to poke holes in the idea to make sure it is robust enough to stand after being shot down. A good idea should be defendable and not easily crack apart.
  • People tearing apart the idea should make it their responsibility to come up with a better idea so that bad ideas can be improved or replaced with a better idea.
  • Team members should feel better about the battle of idea sessions since they have been able to destroy a bad idea and replace them with better ideas that will enhance the chances of team success in realizing the product vision. This requires an abundant mentality and creative confidence that the team can keep producing better and better ideas.
  • Every attempt should be made to attack the ideas only and not the person. Also, trust that other team members want to see the vision get realized as much as you do. The culture of radical openness will allow the team to make each other better and the whole team more productive. Holding back feedback if the idea sucks is never a good thing.
  • Elimination of a bad idea is just the basic first step to start collecting a bunch of good ideas, which itself is just the beginning of the journey of creating great ideas. This mindset is called “agonizing” on ideas and essentially means that the team knows that they have good ideas but also knows that there are still great ideas out there but that they have to act soon to move forward with product development, knowing fully well that the choices they make will reflect on their professional identity for the rest of the life of the product. 
  • Every attempt should be made to make the idea better through feedback. Feedback should be direct, to the point, and always link back to the shared product/service vision. This traceability of ideas to vision is a critical part of the feedback.
  • Evaluation of the quality of ideas is also linked to how the idea full-fills some aspect of the product/service vision.
  • To keep the team focused on the vision is not easy, and there are various ways organizations can create smaller check-list and documents that allow everyone to stay focus on the shared team goals and objectives. Materials such as Design Brief, Product Brief, Pitch Deck, etc. etc. anything that will align the team towards a shared vision. 
  • Ideas linked to the creation and changes to the product/service vision itself should be handled separately since they usually follow a much more extensive process often referred to as “Innovation of Meaning” – a term coined by Roberto Verganti in his award-winning book Design-Driven Innovation. Visions are usually a collection of ideas and presented in terms of a proposal of new meaning that is possible and worth exploring due to their disruptive value creation potential.
  • Random fragments and nuggets are not visions, no matter how great an idea they might be, since there is no way to holistically evaluate them against a possible new future that might be possible. A good “Innovation of meaning” proposal has the power to attract outside experts who also want to be part of the vision and see that vision come alive, thus further amplifying the internal team confidence and ability to execute.
  • When presenting ideas, the presenter should respect the team time and present their idea in as little air-time as possible (ideally less than 5 minutes). This often means going straight to the idea rather than giving a lengthy background of how they got to the idea. Practice presenting your idea in front of your camera so that it comes out solid in your delivery. It is your job to convince others. Here are my ideas, and this is how it enhances the shared team vision.
  • There is, of course, room for random, wild, and crazy ideas in the discussion, and that should be handled through specific wild-idea team sessions where facilitated idea adventures and detours can be executed with the sheer purpose of building team camaraderie and losing the mental barriers that hold back idea-sharing. However, this cannot replace the purposeful and meaningful team struggle of realizing the bold vision through systematical entanglement of complexity that is buried in each of the specialized competencies and technologies that brought the team of specialists together in the first place.  

This whole idea culture is not easy, and currently, Xavor is implementing this step by step through about a dozen smart products being developed. Leveraging ideas of employees and channeling them into designing innovative products and design services that create superior customer value is probably the essential process that organizations can invest in during current times. This may be the only viable survival strategy for many organizations.

Humayun Rashid

Humayun Rashid

Dr. Hugh is a practitioner-scholar with over 25 years of experience working and consulting with global organizations in the US, Europe and Asia. Over the last few years he has taught Design Thinking & Innovation, Cross-Culture Management, International Marketing and Enterprise IT Architecture at various universities.