Making the generation of great ideas an everyday habit. It’s not as difficult as you might imagine with these tips

Apparently science says our best ideas come when we’re in the shower. It’s believed in some quarters that dopamine is released in our brains, triggered by the warm water on our skin. You could think of dopamine as intellectual lubricant. It is a chemical created by our pleasure sensors and has been likened to a gateway to the mind. The fact that when you are in the shower makes it pretty hard to get distracted by your smartphone also adds to this theory’s merit. Let’s face it, there aren’t many times in life these days where you get the kind of peace and quiet you need to truly reflect and ponder.

The thing is though “our” best ideas are not necessarily “the” best ideas. Acclaimed author and TED Talk extraordinaire Steven Johnson says, “chance favours the connected mind”. In other words, two heads are better than one. So, how do we combine these two realisations? And before you laugh and write me off as a nutcase advocating a shower in the boardroom, give me a little more rope.

When I think of organisations that have proven themselves great environments for innovation, three come to mind in rapid succession: 3M, Google and Xerox.

As the creators of the Post It note, 3M has successes stretching from this point right back to the 1920s with its introduction of the world’s first waterproof sandpaper which was revolutionary for car manufacturing. This history of ideas last year manifested in 3M’s Renewable Energy Division which was responsible for the world’s largest aperture trough using 3M™ Solar Mirror Film 1100 for concentrated solar power. What an evolution! What a legacy!

Google of course has in the last fifteen years become a leader in internet search, amongst other things. Still, its future gazing stretches to projects as radical as asteroid mining, an indication of where it might be if it lasts as long as 3M.

And finally Xerox who you probably know for its introduction of the copier, has in fact been one of the greatest developers of patents ever and, via Xerox PARC (its R&D division), was instrumental in the development of the Graphical User Interface (GUI) and Mouse that you know of today from Apple.

All are fascinating tales in their own right, but there are several things that these three have in common:

– They give staff the time to invest in thinking, without specific outcomes being defined up front. Productisation is secondary!
– Cross-functional teams are part of every-day life. In some companies, you’ll never know of, let alone speak to, people from other departments, but not with these three!
– Risk taking is not just encouraged, but rewarded. Nice ideas are ok, but if you really want to be disruptive, you have to feel confident you can bet big!

Comms Pros have a core role to play in all this!

Brain storming: Lots of organisations run brain storms, but few run them well. You can’t just stick a bunch of people in a room and hope that genius will ensue. As a Comms Pro, you should be facilitating these sessions. Facilitating doesn’t necessarily mean running, but it does mean equipping. Running should be spread around team members and departments to get a spectrum of perspectives and approaches. The common element is you and your understanding of best practice. There’s not one way to run a brain storm, but there are keys to a successful brain storm, and the first one ties back to the shower – how you unleash this dopamine. The environment is all important. Warm water plays on the sense of touch, but the other four senses – visual, smell, hearing and taste also factor in. Why not develop a catalogue of facilities that cater for them? You can’t run a brain storm in the shower, but that doesn’t mean you have to default to the boardroom.

Identify patterns: Big ideas rarely just come upon you. Big ideas are formed from lots of little ideas, so it’s important to identify patterns in order to formulate a game changer. Part of this is understanding that ‘process’ helps. If you are to collectively share lots of little ideas, you need to firstly define and agree the objective. It’s also important to categorise, refine and analyse at points in time. This doesn’t all happen in the one session. Organisational agility is important, but remember the disaggregation of ideas and productisation of 3M, Google and Xerox – it’s about creating an ‘ideas incubator’. Time is not your enemy if you think about it in the right context. Deadlines are helpful, but in this process they are more of a signpost than a finish line.

Personalities, not politics: Cross functional interplay is crucial, but it isn’t a matter of picking off people indiscriminately. The role of the Comms Pro is to weigh up the personalities of the cross functional teams to find balance. Networks for the sake of networks do nothing for the creation of better ideas. If it becomes a matter of putting the “important people” in the room, you’re likely to get just one of two outcomes, backslapping or back-sliding. When you do have different levels of authority in the room, the Comms Pro also helps to ensure ideas flow, regardless of title. You want healthy debate up, down and sideways, without fear of retribution. It goes back to encouraging risk taking – even if it’s as simple as speaking up when it conflicts with someone more senior.

Open source: Now, the example of Xerox and Apple is a funny one. In one way, if Xerox never lifted the Kimono, who knows what our computer experience would be today. Some say that Xerox shot itself in the foot, but it wasn’t until it’d shared its ideas with Apple that it was even aware of their potential. One can speculate Xerox may have eventually figured out the significance of its developments, but the point is, open source works. Ideas building on ideas is really important. Perhaps Xerox and Apple were a little too close to share in the manner they did, but cross industry ideas sharing doesn’t happen enough. Where there is less a chance for competitive disadvantage, the Comms Pro is in a great position to organise ‘ideas partnerships’. I’ve worked for quite a few companies in different industries and I also have lots of friends who work in different spaces. It always baffles me why the formalisation of this anecdotal ideas sharing doesn’t happen more often. People tend to get pigeon holed in their careers as only working in a specific industry. It results in them only moving around within that space to competitors. This only stagnates the flow of learning. The outcome we really want is a champagne pyramid, where ideas flow, poring seamlessly down into cascaded glasses – where one feeds the other and on it goes!

– My name is Aaron Crowther. Follow me on Twitter @ascommstweeter

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