Planning a Brainstorming – Who to invite?

Hello Troops,

Today let’s talk about setting up brainstorming sessions.  There’s lots of chatter back and forth about the usefulness of brainstorming sessions.  I am on the Pro-brainstorming side of the argument.  I find that done correctly, it is a fast way to help people feel included on your project and you get the benefit of obtaining many points of view.  Plus I’m an extrovert so I love the energy and fun and laughing and team building that takes place.

Today I want to walk you through how to pick participants for a brainstorming session.  People as me this question a lot so it seemed like a good blog topic.

This summary describes the types of people that you should think about inviting to an open BLUE SKY anything is possible we’re looking for thousands of ideas type of brainstorming.  You should always take time to think about the participants and what the goal of your session is during the planning stage of your brainstorming activities.  Sometimes you cannot choose who to invite and then you’ll need to consider how best to incorporate and encourage the folks on the “less helpful” list below.

There are 3 kinds of people you want at your workshop

1.) Your team (in some cases you are a team of 1 right now but if you think anyone might be part of the team later in the development make sure to include them now for this activity)

2.) Creative thinkers – You know who these people are, they are the people who are talented in many ways not just smart at their jobs.  They write, they sing, they draw, they do arts and crafts, they build models and prototypes, they work with their hands, love to build things, tell great stories.  Find a few of these people and invite them.

3.) Problem solvers- who are the people you go to when you need a problem solved?  These are the people who will be able to think through and around a problem in many ways until they hit on a solution that works.  They are dependable and smart and open to solving problems in many different ways.  Sometimes these people are also technical experts in a particular area.  Don’t worry if that area is not your exact topic !  You want to invite a few people with a proven successful problem solving reputation.

There are a few kinds of people that are not helpful at these kinds of workshops

1.) Mean, rude, or generally discontent people- you know who these people are ! Even if they are the world’s expert on your topic, they are not the right personality for this kind of workshop.  You can approach them 1 on 1 later for expert advice and help.  Don’t contaminate your group or make the day harder than it has to be by inviting someone that will remove positive energy from the room.   This kind of person makes sarcastic mean comments out of the side of their mouths when they think you cannot hear them or are not looking.  They roll their eyes, sigh, and may even become verbally aggressive if they feel ignored or slighted.

2.) Very concrete logical thinkers who are upset by incomplete or unknown solutions- you probably know someone like this too.  This person is always picking away at an idea, finding what’s not going to work, what’s wrong, why something is impossible.  They need to know HOW it will work RIGHT NOW they are not content with the answer “we’ll figure that part out later”.  A person like this will most likely be miserable at the workshop because you are not going to allow them to find the problems with an idea you are going to accept every idea as being equally good.  This kind of person says BUT a lot when you are telling them your idea.  They are very good at immediately identifying the PROBLEM with an idea.   This kind of person is going to be very important to have on our team for the next phase of our project but we are not ready to call them in to help yet.

3.) People who will not contribute ideas in a group environment -  These people are intensely shy and quiet.  They HATE attention and seem to grow  uncomfortable (they may look nervous or sick)  if you call attention to them and ask them to speak in front of a group.  These types of people can be brilliant and wonderful but the best way to get their ideas is 1 on 1 or to ask them to submit their ideas in writing to you.   The idea of this workshop is to build on the many ideas thrown out by the group.  If this person will not contribute then you are wasting a spot in the room that could go to someone that will be happy and feel great about contributing and playing in a group setting.

So have a great time planning your session.  Starting with the right people in the room is a good first step.  Next time we’ll address if you need a facilitator and how to choose a good one.

Until then,

Soldier On !


What to do when inspiration hits

Hello Troops,

Today let’s talk about what to do when you have an idea.  There are lots of metrics and academic papers detailing how many ideas/projects/products added together equal one success.  Robert Cooper’s book Winning at New Products gives you a 1 in 7 chance of turning an idea into a successful product on the market.  Knowing this, and having been a part of many unsuccessful product development teams in my career, I take these statistics and inspiration very seriously.  Your brain is a miracle.  All day long it’s sifting through information and managing to keep your heart beating and your lungs moving air in and out of your body.  One of the coolest things that it does, is play.  When your brain plays you think of the weirdest things imaginable.  It reminds me of a slot machine where you pull the lever and up pops something your mother said on Thursday, a pork chop and potholes.  None of these things is seemingly connected and why you’d ever even think to connect them is somewhat worrisome.  But connect them your brain does and so for a brief moment you think about those three random things.  Some of the best inventions in the world have come from brain play.  Noticing two or three seeming unconnected things and connecting them in a unique way is the power behind creative invention.

In my world this is where the magic happens.  These moments where your mind is just playfully jumping from thought to thought can lead to some really great inventions.  However, I read somewhere once but don’t know where now, that the difference between people and inventors is that inventors get out of the shower and try to create their ideas.  Bringing us to today’s topic, recognizing and acting on inspiration.

There are lots of ways to capture your inspirations. You don’t need a special cell phone app or gadget.  You just need a way to do two things.  First, you need to document your thought anyway possible as soon as you can.  Use any method that works for you.  A voice recorder, a pencil, a whiteboard, Post-It(TM) Notes, a napkin at lunch all of these are perfect.  You don’t need to be fancy you need to be diligent about capturing the thought.  It’s never as clear as that first few minutes when your attention is completely captured by the possibility of a great idea.  Next, you need to list one or two things you want to do within the next day to follow up on your idea.  Because that’s where the rubber meets the road folks.  Millions of great ideas go to the idea graveyard everyday because we quickly become overwhelmed with the idea of how to start working on them.  So, what’s an inventor to do?  I’ll tell you what.  In the moment, when you are excited and the idea is sparkly, think of two things that you can do next.  After you write down your idea (remember step one) immediately write down two tasks that you can do to keep the idea moving forward and then do them.  Some of my favorite easy to do tasks are, search Google for this amazing product I’ve just thought of and see if I can find it or something similar and search Google patents for this amazing product and see if I can find anything like it or similar.  If I take the time to do those two tasks my idea starts to get an outline and a shape. Maybe my searches will kill it dead.  Drat !  this already exists.  But maybe this search will lead me to a new and better idea in the same area.  Maybe this search will lead me to believe that I’m on to something great.  All I know is that once I’ve committed 30 minutes or more to an idea I’m much more likely to take the next step and  put forth the effort to create a prototype.

We as individuals have a terrific power to scare ourselves silly with all of the doubts and whatifs that come immediately after we have a great idea.  We become exhausted by all of the imaginary potential work and hurdles before we even get up from the lunch table or out of the shower.  To combat this inertia all you have to do is accept that your idea could be good and start to examine it.  Grow your idea into something that is tangible and then decide if you have the passion to take it forward.  Start now.

Soldier On !


How to be a champion for innovation- Part 2- Talk tasks when you can’t talk facts

Hello Troops,

Today lets talk about how to communicate with others at the beginning of a discovery project.  The beginning of any project or program is difficult because it is the time when your leadership has the most questions and you have the fewest facts.  I don’t know about you but I hate having to say “I don’t know or We’re not sure” over and over and over.  To combat this I’ve taken to proactively sending out meeting minutes and update notes that lay out our task based strategy for the next one to two weeks.  These notes help in two ways.  First they communicate that the team is working and making progress.  The Fuzzy Front End makes a lot of managers nervous because the team is out and about and there is very little evidence that actual work is being done.  So by sending out notes that outline who is where and why and then following those notes up with what they learned, everyone is able to see progress.  Many folks I talk with are nervous about sending out updates before the team has reached a proper conclusion.  I have found that it can be much more satisfying to bring your leadership along the journey with you instead of waiting for a big reveal at the end.

So my philosophy is to tell them our plan for the week in a brief outline with names and dates.  Then,  I look at what I’ve written and I ask myself, if I was reading this and I wasn’t on the team what questions would I have about this plan?  I then go back in and fill in a few descriptions where I think they might help others understand our strategy and direction.  This method has worked well for me over the last five years.  I find that my leadership feels connected and excited about the projects because they are up to date on our activities.  My boss also feels good because she isn’t alone in having to communicate what the team is doing all day.

There’s something else about this type of communication that I really like a lot.  It’s easy to catch quickly if the team is headed off track.  When you are reading or writing the summaries you are forced to take a minute and think about the program and direction it is headed.  Without these weekly updates it could be 3 months or longer before anyone even notices that the project has stalled, twisted or lost direction.  By the same token it is much easier to communicate dead ends and new directions and often a full review is not necessary for these changes because everyone reading the update is familiar with the project and the decisions being made by the team.

So communicate the tasks even if they are small and seem obvious.  When you look back on those notes later, as the team moves into the more concrete portions of the project you’ll have a great diary of how you discovered your direction and who was along for the ride.

Soldier On !


How to be a champion for innovation Part 1- Help communicate progress

Hello Troops,

I’m back from New Orleans and I brought home with me a few good tidbits on technology mapping and developing new products for emerging markets.  It was a good conference and as usual, the main benefit of attending was the networking.  I was one of the last presenters and I was pleasantly surprised to find myself speaking to a pretty full room.  As I mentioned in my previous post, my talk was on the topic of communication.  I presented three ways that leaders can support their teams as they move through the fuzzy front end (FFE) of product development.  The 30 min talk was sectioned into three parts.   First, help teams communicate progress in a way that is meaningful to people outside of the team.  Second, ask the right questions using words that motivate and encourage the team.  Third, be the voice for innovation in parts of the business that are not directly connected to the team and their activities.  It would be interesting to know if folks that listened to the talk were able to take away these key points.  I was nervous and I found that even though I practiced the talk prior to presenting I still rambled a bit.  I always look back on my presentations and think, would I have wanted to sit there and listen for 30 min ?  In this case I’d give myself a solid B.  I think I could have been more to the point in places and if I had another crack at it I think I could have been a little more prescriptive and a little less preachy.  But on a whole I was pleased with the way the presentation flowed.  One of the best parts of this particular conference was that the audience was made up of executives and innovation managers.  I was lucky enough to be able to talk directly to the people who could most benefit from hearing the message.

As promised, I’ll share here a bit of the takeaways from my presentation.  Today we’ll talk about communicating progress.  Communicating progress to people outside of the team can be a huge challenge. Team leaders and champions need to build and maintain momentum for their teams keeping in mind that it’s a marathon not a sprint. Communication should be planned carefully so that the team has support along the entire project route.  One of the easiest ways to achieve consistent support is to give regular updates to the people who are depending on the project’s success.  Don’t wait for the gate review to share !  During these updates the team needs to focus on sharing how they are making progress.  My suggestion to teams early in the development cycle is this, communicate your action plan, communicate your accomplished tasks and how these tasks have moved the team forward and then communicate your next action plan.  You talk TASKS so that they can have FACTS to share with their bosses.  The more tasks you accomplish the more facts you’ll have to share and the more facts you have the closer you’ll be to a direction and scope for your project.  Laying out your plan for leadership does three things.  First, it gives them a framework for talking to others about the project.  They can communicate FACTS, “the team is currently out in the field gathering voice of customer data and then they will be summarizing that data using a KJ anlaysis” .  Second, it gives them a road map to follow.  They can not only talk about where you’ve been but they can also talk about where you are going next.  Third, and probably most important, it gives them a sense of flow for the project, that essential feeling that you need them to have, the feeling that the team is moving and making progress.  Talking about what you are doing and why can be just as important, if not more important, than the results especially in the beginning of a project.

If your team is struggling to communicate progress (getting lots of phone calls from your boss asking you questions about the program?) you may need to step in. Ask them to lay out their plan and list out the tasks to be done and what will be done with the data from those tasks.  Then help them create a communication plan based on explaining the tasks to be done and sharing the results. Let the team leader send out the communications to build confidence in their leadership with the stakeholders.

A side benefit to this type of communication and leadership is that you always know what’s going on with your team, eliminating those embarrassing situations when someone asks you how it’s going and you have nothing to report.  It also gives you the ability to help steer the team without looking too heavy handed.  Rather than dictating a direction, you can simply suggest adding a task to the list.

Communicate early Communicate often Communicate results.

Looking for a great Discovery/Idea/Concept Phase road map?  I recommend Gijs van Wulfen’s FORTH method.  He’s got 2 books on the subject and a great strategy for getting teams through discovery phase.  What I like most about using FORTH is that it sets up your discovery tasks and lays out a time frame for reporting back in your results.  It’s an especially good process for teams with brand new project leaders.

Soldier On !


How I present at conferences even though I work on top secret stuff.

Hello Troops,

Today I blog from New Orleans, The Big Easy, where I’m going to attend and present at a conference.  Well I think it’s a conference.  I’m not actually sure what to call it I guess.  The event is called 8th Annual Innovation in New Product Development and Marketing:
A Frost & Sullivan Executive MindXchange.  
I know right? It’s a funny name for a pretty serious conference on how to accelerate product development.  I’ll be speaking about how to communicate project progress when you are in the very beginning stages of discovery/idea/concept development.  It’s actually a big problem for many teams working in the “Fuzzy Front End” of the product development cycle.  How do you communicate progress when you have very few facts to communicate?  It is the very exploratory nature of the discovery process that makes it so difficult to communicate to stakeholders.  They want facts and answers and timelines and costs.  You have… none of these things.  All you have is a room full of directions to explore and people to talk to and materials and technologies that look interesting. So what’s a discovery team lead to do?  Well that’s what my talk will be about :)  Probably not fair to let the cat out of the bag until after all of the fine conference paying attendees have heard it first, don’t you think?

So, until I can share all of my communication secrets with you, let’s talk conference attendance and how I approach these events.  I’ve been going to conferences for over, ouch, 17 years.  My first conferences were academic and scientific conferences like ACS, PittCon, FACSS and the ICP Winter Conference.  I attended these conferences as a graduate student to share my research and learn about other academic research going on in my chosen field, analytical chemistry.  The purpose of these conferences was to give me experience presenting my research and answering questions.  I threw up before every single one.  I was a complete wreck, but I learned how to give a pretty decent talk.  My boss Dr. James Holcome (now retired from the University of Texas) was an excellent mentor and taught me a lot about being comfortable in front of a group of scientific peers.  He also taught me that it is ok to let your real personality show while you are presenting.  Be yourself, this is my first piece of advice to anyone getting ready to give a talk.  Once I graduated and started working I attended very few external conferences, mostly because in industry it’s generally difficult to share your research due to intellectual property and trade secret concerns.  Instead, I began to present inside my corporation.

My company has a pretty neat policy when it comes to technology sharing between scientists, share everything.  The complete support for trading technologies and ideas between business groups means that each year there are over 400 technical presentations and events. Plenty of choices for a scientist who’d like to get up and keep her presentation skills sharp.  My second piece of advice for product developers and team leaders is to present at least once a year for people inside your company.  It not only helps to keep you up to date on presentation tools and styles but it also helps you build personal brand inside your company.  It forces you to be out there, in front, telling folks what you’ve been doing and how your projects are going. Having said that, it’s true that in the last few years I’ve once again started to attend external conferences.

What’s the reason for the sudden change?  I finally figured out how I can have my cake and eat it too, or more specifically, how I can talk externally but not jeopardize the confidential nature of my projects. The trick is, I’m not going to scientific conferences. Instead, I’ve been attending industry conferences on topics that are related to product development and innovation.  These conferences allow me to present in front of an external audience without jeopardizing confidential projects or processes internal to my company.  I can give a useful and meaningful talk and never once mention what I personally am working on inside my company.  Hence, my trip to the Big Easy.  Here I can share advice from years of program management experience but never specify the exact nature of any of the programs.  My third piece of advice for product developers is to try this out for yourself.  I recommend finding a conference where folks are sharing on a topic that is general enough to allow you to “teach” them something without having to go into specifics about your project.  There are tons of these conferences and they are heart stoppingly expensive.  But that’s the other trick I’ve learned.  If you present at the conference, they will waive your attendance fee. All you have to do is get yourself there and you can soak in all of the information being presented for the price of working up a 45 minute talk of your own, win win.

Wish me luck as I prepare to wow this group with my words of wisdom on communication during the discovery phase.  I still get nervous before every talk but thankfully I no longer puke.

Soldier On !



All Quiet on the Innovation Front

“We came to realise – first with astonishment, then bitterness, and finally with indifference – that intellect apparently wasn’t the most important thing…not ideas, but the system; not freedom, but drill. We had joined up with enthusiasm and with good will; but they did everything to knock that out of us.”
― Erich Maria RemarqueAll Quiet on the Western Front

This quote spoke directly to me today.  Sometimes the process of innovation is a battle.  We are both leaders and soldiers taking orders.  Our enthusiasm and good will are key to the system’s success.  To operate at peak performance we need the freedom to express and implement our ideas.