Recently, I was at a council meeting where they invited members of the community in for a brainstorming session. I liked the sound of it and there was free food, so I decided I had to go along. There were around 30 people there, with a mix of people from Council, business owners, local professionals, and other community members.
The task for everyone was to come up with innovative ideas for creating a modern connected city. Sounds simple, right? As with many other brainstorming sessions, the tables were covered with butchers’ paper and we had permanent markers to jot down notes. A presentation was given by Council as to what they were already innovating with in terms of local services. Whilst this was quite interesting, unfortunately, it seemed to skew the way everyone was thinking about innovation and so instead of people truly throwing out radical and innovative ideas, it merely appeared that they were replicating ideas, or just adding to the ones that Council had already said they were doing.
Whilst there’s usually an advantage to frontloading situations and getting people into the right mind-set, unfortunately in this case, it didn't seem to work and many of the ideas that were being thrown up, were not innovative. They were just pointless and some quite ludicrous.
I found myself sitting there feeling quite disempowered, as I frustratingly had no innovative ideas of my own. So why was that? Why was nothing coming to me? I've created and developed a number of innovative products, from the ‘Reducer Flush,’ that limited the amount of water that’s used each time you flush your toilet, as well as software for the livestock industry that provides up-to-the-minute pricing data for farmers, to medical and incident management software for teachers when they're out on excursions. If anyone at that table should have been coming up with ideas, I felt it should have been me…Or should it?
Despite my frustration, and feeling totally and utterly out of my depth, all I needed to do was realise that for me, sitting around a table and brainstorming with other people was never ever going to work. Why’s that you ask? If all it took to be innovative was to sit around a table and talk, then the world would be running short of problems to solve. The number of times I sat around a table at work in this manner, should mean that we have the most amazingly productive and cohesive workplace on earth. Unfortunately, it's not in time spent sitting around the table as that usually results in plenty of stupid ideas and a total lack of productivity.
Innovation is therefore a really tricky thing to understand. I recently read a number of books on early stage start-ups in the US. Many of these start-ups don't actually do anything. All they seem to have done is put a ‘high-performing’ team of people together and try to get them innovate, then at the same time try to delude VCs into giving them money to perpetuate their fantasy long enough in the hope of striking something useful. Think of it being like the gold rush days, where everyone was trying to get a piece of the action and instead of digging for gold in hills that actually might have gold in them, you just dig anywhere you can find a piece of dirt. Taking this approach just means you will get very good at moving mounds of dirt.
So how do we actually innovate? For me, every time I've had a good idea, it's been whilst skiing, paddling or running. It's not until I'm in a creative space that works for me, that I can be creative. Despite many people telling you if you put enough creative people together they will create something amazing, this is not always the case. The opposite can be true as well if you put a lot of creative people together, there is every chance they just go to fight. Can you imagine Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh in the same room? Would they work together to create the world's greatest masterpiece that would eclipse all of their individual works? Or would they simply argue and end up throwing paint at each other?
There is so much money in innovation and technology has been a great enabler. Consequently, people are desperate to somehow be part of it and try to invent ways for people to innovate. However, this often fails to recognise how individual and obscure the art of innovation is. Many innovations fail because they're not developed to solve a real-world problem. The truly successful innovations however, when looked at retrospectively seem so obvious. They usually are, because they fix a problem that previously caused great pain or annoyance.
So how do you come up with a simple and obvious solution that people will talk about retrospectively and say how ingenious it is? Firstly, what's your greatest frustration? Secondly, how can you improve or change something to reduce this frustration or fix the problem? Thirdly, when you come up with all sorts of ideas to solve your big frustration, test out the theory to see if it’s also other people’s frustration and check whether your solution would work. Fourthly, take action and do something about it.
With any innovation, it's often the last step that is forgotten. Many people have great ideas every day. However, very few of them have the time, energy and persistence to take the action necessary to turn these innovative ideas into workable solutions that make a difference to people's lives.
Next time you’re at work and you're forced to sit at a table and solve all the world's problems at once, think about where your most creative space is and instead of sitting around the table go to that creative place so you can innovate in a natural and effective way. If you approach innovation in this way, you won't be left at the table feeling disempowered. You can come back to the table with something truly amazing.