How do companies solve big, complicated problems? How do they innovate for the future? Should they disrupt their own business? And if so, when? Drawing on their experiences working with a broad array of companies, including Hyatt, Fidelity Investments, and TaylorMade, Jeremy Utley and Perry Klebahn take on these questions in “Ideaflow: The Only Business Metric that Matters.” The book posits that finding solutions relies on the ability to generate ideas.
In this interview, Jeremy Utley, director of executive education at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, talks with Vivaldi about why idea generation is an act of creativity that calls for organizational leadership, the importance of testing ideas in the real world, and why an economic downturn might create the opportunity for proactive disruption. (An idea we explored in a recent video.) Read on:
In the book, you explain that every problem is an idea problem. Before getting to the idea, do companies get hung up on trying to solve things that aren’t problems?
A lot of times there’s a desire to implement a solution without a clear problem. There’s a hammer looking for a nail. They’re really excited about this technology, and they’re trying to implement the technology without a real understanding of the problem to be solved. It was John Dewey, the education reformer who said, “a problem well-put is half solved.”
You give this definition: Ideas / Time = Ideaflow. What are the requirements needed to put ideaflow into action?
Basically, you want to be in a state where generating solutions to problems is natural, and then quickly and scrappily testing those ideas to get real world data. You need a system and a process for testing those ideas quickly — that’s kind of what creates the flow.
If we want to have new ideas, we need to be seeking new inputs, and that affects how we interact with the market, collaborators, supply chain partners, customers and things like that. The other thing that might come up is how we interact as a team. Have we created psychological safety, where we can share bad ideas with one another and be stimulated and sparked into unexpected directions? Or are we only allowed to share good ideas with each other and are we only allowed to say really smart-sounding things?
In the idea generation context, you get how you cultivate inputs and how you cultivate the collaborative dynamic, and then on the experimentation side of the equation, the question is how quickly and scrappily can we act.
How do you assess which ideas you should put into the testing or experimentation phase?
The more you can get out of the business of choosing, the better. Meaning, test as many things as possible. It’s not that you need to be running thousands of experiments. You may not be able to do thousands — could you do five? Could you do a few more than one? Because the odds of success go up exponentially pretty quickly.
How do you get business leaders and executives on board with the importance of creativity?
I don’t think anyone questions the importance of creativity, actually. IBM did a recent survey of 1500 CEOs, the single most important skill they felt for the future business leaders was creativity. Everybody is generally agreed, the question is, what they value in principle, they challenge in practice — you don’t need to make the case for creativity, yet, if leaders don’t have tools to actually cultivate it, they end up killing it. Giving them tools to practically cultivate it is where the real rub and the real opportunity is.
Maybe there’s a disconnect.
Fundamentally it gets down to a question of definitions. Meaning, what is “creativity”? There’s a seventh grade girl in Ohio who has the world’s best definition of creativity — her definition is “doing more than the first thing you think of.” That is a profoundly accurate and elegantly simple definition. It speaks without regard to a vertical, or to a function – you can do more than the first thing you think of in anything – not just in painting or music – but in email subject lines, in giving an annual performance review, or dealing with expense reimbursements. It cuts across domains.
One of the best things a leader can do to help their team be more creative is push them to generate options, alternatives. It’s a profoundly creative act, and it requires leadership support because not only organizational bias is against generating alternatives, but even our own individual cognitive bias is against generating alternatives.
Most teams are doing one thing — they’re trying to find one right answer, they’re solving one problem. A leader who is seeking to cultivate creativity on her teams is a leader who is saying, well, what else are we trying?
You use the phrase “proactive disruption.” How does it differentiate from “iteration”?
Iteration is all about making changes based on what you learn. Proactive disruption is about saying, okay, in almost every field, the thing that’s being done right now isn’t going to always be done. There is going to be a disruption. For every Blockbuster, there will be a Netflix. If you take as a given that disruptive forces are on the rise, technology changes are occurring, reducing the barrier and cost of and basis of competition, then you go okay, are we going to wait for someone else to disrupt us, or are we going to be proactive about disrupting ourselves.
You talk about creativity as a way to weather economic challenges, and this may be related to the proactive disruption idea — in thinking about 2023 and the fears around recession, do you have recommendations about what companies should do now to be thinking in a more creative way?
I’d never thought about connecting those two things, but a recession is a wonderful prompt for proactive disruption. Given that the market is going down, given that the market is changing, companies can consider who is going to start taking share in this environment, what kinds of moves are now possible or required in order to win, and can we make those moves instead of someone else.
When it comes to carving out time or a blank space for ideas to happen, what are your favorite tactics to create that space?
The calendar is an incredibly effective tool that you can wield. For a lot of people, the reason they can’t innovate is because they don’t have time. What’s the solution? Use your calendar as a weapon rather than be a victim of your calendar. Start blocking time proactively to accommodate a different set of activities.
Jeremy Utley is the director of executive education at Stanford’s d.school.
Vivaldi is a leading independent global business and brand transformation firm with strategists and creatives working in offices in the USA, Germany, Latin America, and the UK.