About six months ago, a friend of mine (let’s call him Adrian) began to track blog posts at this website, not only mine but also those by other members of the FFBS blog team.
He contacted me recently to provide an update on his latest adventures in the vineyards of free enterprise.
He also explained how he has been using FFBS blog posts.
Adrian and his management team meet once a week for about 30 minutes. Prior to each meeting, he provides an agenda of at least three but never more than five items. He also includes a link to one of the FFBS blog posts that seems most relevant to the given agenda.
The first five minutes of each weekly meeting are devoted to responses from the management team. Adrian goes around the table and asks each in turn to complete this sentence:
“The most important business lesson I learned is….”
Of course, there can be some repetition. Adrian then asks, “Why?”
He claims that these first five minutes “jump start” a lively group discussion that usually (not always) has a sharp focus on reaching agreement about what to do.
Maintain contact with your VIPs (e.g. past, current, and prospective clients) by sending an email (subject “FYI”) with this message:
“Here’s some information I thought you may find interesting.
[insert link to FFBS blog post]
Best regards, [insert whichever name you prefer]“
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Worth a try?
Here is an excerpt from an article co-authored by Kevin P. Coyne and Shawn T. Coyne, featured by The McKinsey Quarterly website (March 2011). The magazine is published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out other material, and obtain subscription information, please click here.
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Most attempts at brainstorming are doomed. To generate better ideas—and boost the odds that your organization will act on them—start by asking better questions.
Companies run on good ideas. From R&D groups seeking pipelines of innovative new products to ops teams probing for time-saving process improvements to CEOs searching for that next growth opportunity—all senior managers want to generate better and more creative ideas consistently in the teams they form, participate in, and manage.
Yet all senior managers, at some point, experience the pain of pursuing new ideas by way of traditional brainstorming sessions—still the most common method of using groups to generate ideas at companies around the world. The scene is familiar: a group of people, often chosen largely for political reasons, begins by listening passively as a moderator (often an outsider who knows little about your business) urges you to “Get creative!” and “Think outside the box!” and cheerfully reminds you that “There are no bad ideas!”
The result? Some attendees remain stone-faced throughout the day, others contribute sporadically, and a few loudly dominate the session with their pet ideas. Ideas pop up randomly—some intriguing, many preposterous—but because the session has no structure, little momentum builds around any of them. At session’s end, the group trundles off with a hazy idea of what, if anything, will happen next. “Now we can get back to real work,” some whisper.
It doesn’t have to be like this. We’ve led or observed 200 projects over the past decade at more than 150 companies in industries ranging from retailing and education to banking and communications. That experience has helped us develop a practical approach that captures the energy typically wasted in a traditional brainstorming session and steers it in a more productive direction. The trick is to leverage the way people actually think and work in creative problem-solving situations.
We call our approach “brainsteering,” and while it requires more preparation than traditional brainstorming, the results are worthwhile: better ideas in business situations as diverse as inventing new products and services, attracting new customers, designing more efficient business processes, or reducing costs, among others. The next time you assign one of your people to lead an idea generation effort—or decide to lead one yourself—you can significantly improve the odds of success by following the seven steps below.
[Note: Here are three of the seven steps. To read the complete article, please click here.]
1. Know your organization’s decision-making criteria
One reason good ideas hatched in corporate brainstorming sessions often go nowhere is that they are beyond the scope of what the organization would ever be willing to consider. “Think outside the box!” is an unhelpful exhortation if external circumstances or company policies create boxes that the organization truly must live within.
Managers hoping to spark creative thinking in their teams should therefore start by understanding (and in some cases shaping) the real criteria the company will use to make decisions about the resulting ideas. Are there any absolute restrictions or limitations, for example? A bank we know wasted a full day’s worth of brainstorming because the session’s best ideas all required changing IT systems. Yet senior management—unbeknownst to the workshop planners—had recently “locked down” the IT agenda for the next 18 months.
Likewise, what constitutes an acceptable idea? At a different, smarter bank, workshop planners collaborated with senior managers on a highly specific (and therefore highly valuable) definition tailored to meet immediate needs. Good ideas would require no more than $5,000 per branch in investment and would generate incremental profits quickly. Further, while three categories of ideas—new products, new sales approaches, and pricing changes—were welcome, senior management would balk at ideas that required new regulatory approvals. The result was a far more productive session delivering exactly what the company wanted: a fistful of ideas, in all three target categories, that were practical, affordable, and profitable within one fiscal year.
2. Ask the right questions
Decades of academic research shows that traditional, loosely structured brainstorming techniques (“Go for quantity—the greater the number of ideas, the greater the likelihood of winners!”) are inferior to approaches that provide more structure.1 The best way we’ve found to provide it is to use questions as the platform for idea generation.
In practice, this means building your workshop around a series of “right questions” that your team will explore in small groups during a series of idea generation sessions (more about these later). The trick is to identify questions with two characteristics. First, they should force your participants to take a new and unfamiliar perspective. Why? Because whenever you look for new ways to attack an old problem—whether it’s lowering your company’s operating costs or buying your spouse a birthday gift—you naturally gravitate toward thinking patterns and ideas that worked in the past. Research shows that, over time, you’ll come up with fewer good ideas, despite increased effort. Changing your participants’ perspective will shake up their thinking. (For more on how to do this, see our upcoming article
“Sparking creativity in teams: An executive’s guide,” to be published in April on mckinseyquarterly.com.) The second characteristic of a right question is that it limits the conceptual space your team will explore, without being so restrictive that it forces particular answers or outcomes.
It’s easier to show such questions in practice than to describe them in theory. A consumer electronics company looking to develop new products might start with questions such as “What’s the biggest avoidable hassle our customers endure?” and “Who uses our product in ways we never expected?” By contrast, a health insurance provider looking to cut costs might ask, “What complexity do we plan for daily that, if eliminated, would change the way we operate?” and “In which areas is the efficiency of a given department ‘trapped’ by outdated restrictions placed on it by company policies?”2
In our experience, it’s best to come up with 15 to 20 such questions for a typical workshop attended by about 20 people. Choose the questions carefully, as they will form the heart of your workshop—your participants will be discussing them intensively in small subgroups during a series of sessions.
3. Choose the right people
The rule here is simple: pick people who can answer the questions you’re asking. As obvious as this sounds, it’s not what happens in many traditional brainstorming sessions, where participants are often chosen with less regard for their specific knowledge than for their prominence on the org chart.
Instead, choose participants with firsthand, “in the trenches” knowledge, as a catalog retailer client of ours did for a brainsteering workshop on improving bad-debt collections. (The company had extended credit directly to some customers). During the workshop, when participants were discussing the question “What’s changed in our operating environment since we last redesigned our processes?” a frontline collections manager remarked, “Well, death has become the new bankruptcy.”
A few people laughed knowingly, but the senior managers in the room were perplexed. On further discussion, the story became clear. In years past, some customers who fell behind on their payments would falsely claim bankruptcy when speaking with a collections rep, figuring that the company wouldn’t pursue the matter because of the legal headaches involved. More recently, a better gambit had emerged: unscrupulous borrowers instructed household members to tell the agent they had died—a tactic that halted collections efforts quickly, since reps were uncomfortable pressing the issue.
While this certainly wasn’t the largest problem the collectors faced, the line manager’s presence in the workshop had uncovered an opportunity. A different line manager in the workshop proposed what became the solution: instructing the reps to sensitively, but firmly, question the recipient of the call for more specific information if the rep suspected a ruse. Dishonest borrowers would invariably hang up if asked to identify themselves or to provide other basic information, and the collections efforts could continue.
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Traditional brainstorming is fast, furious, and ultimately shallow. By scrapping these traditional techniques for a more focused, question-based approach, senior managers can consistently coax better ideas from their teams.
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Kevin Coyne and Shawn Coyne, both alumni of McKinsey’s Atlanta office, are cofounders and managing directors of the Coyne Partnership, a boutique strategy consulting firm. This article is adapted from their book, Brainsteering: A Better Approach to Breakthrough Ideas (HarperCollins, March 2011).
1 For two particularly useful academic studies on the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of traditional brainstorming, see Paul A. Mongeau, The Brainstorming Myth, Annual Meeting of the Western States Communication Association, Albuquerque, New Mexico, February 15, 1993; and Frederic M. Jablin and David R. Seibold, “Implications for problem solving groups of empirical research on ‘brainstorming’: A critical review of the literature,” Southern Speech Communication Journal, 1978, Volume 43, Number 4, pp. 327–56.
2 For a full discussion about identifying and using a portfolio of such right questions in the generation of personal and institutional ideas, see Brainsteering, the book from which this article is adapted, as well as Patricia Gorman Clifford, Kevin P. Coyne, and Renée Dye, “Breakthrough thinking from inside the box,” Harvard Business Review, December 2007, Volume 85, Number 12, pp. 70–78.
A comprehensive, cohesive, and cost-effective methodology to achieve breakthrough results
In Leading Change, James O’Toole suggests that much (most?) of the resistance to change initiatives is the result of what he so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Roger Connors and Tom Smith fully agree. In a previous collaboration, The Oz Principle, they explain how to get desired results through individual and organizational accountability. They introduce Steps to Accountability, a sequence of actions: See It (i.e. recognize what must be done), Own It (i.e. make an investment in as well as a commitment to getting it done), Solve It (i.e. recognize and eliminate barriers with whatever resources may be needed), and Do It (i.e. producing the right results in the right way, as promised). Connors and Smith also suggest that people tend to live and work (most of the time) either above or below “The Line” that divides accountable behavior from behavior that is not.
As they note, “We use the term ‘result,’ rather than ‘goal’ because result implies that either you will achieve something or that you have already achieved it. In contrast, ‘goal’ suggests that you would like to have something happen, but might not accomplish it. A goal tends to be hopeful and directional, but not absolute.” In this context, I reminded of what Thomas Edison observed long ago: “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Apparently the Yoda agrees: “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Connors and Smith devote Part One (Chapters 1-5) to explaining how to create a Culture of Accountability, define the results to be achieved, take effective action to produce them, identify core believes that guide and direct behavior, provide experiences that support efforts, and reinforce results to sustain their beneficial impact. In Part Two (Chapters 6-10), they explain how to align cultural values with change initiatives, apply effective three Culture Management Tools they recommend (i.e. focused feedback, focused storytelling, celebration of incremental progress), and three skills needed to move the culture from where it has been to where it should be (i.e. Lead the Change, Respond to the Feedback, and Be Facilitative). Obviously, it would be a fool’s errand to adopt and then attempt to apply all of Connors and Smith’s recommendations. It remains for each reader to select what is most relevant and responsive to her or his needs and those of her or his organization.
With regard to buy-in of the plan, once formulated, Connors and Smith suggest and then discuss Five Principles of Full Enrollment (Pages 196-213):
1. Start with accountability
2. Get people ready for the change.
3. Begin with the top and intact teams.
4. Establish a process control and keep it honest.
5. Design for maximum involvement.
Those who need additional assistance with achieving full (or at least maximum) enrollment, I highly recommend John Kotter’s A Sense of Urgency and his more recent book, Buy-In: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down, co-authored with Lorne A. Whitehead. For supplementary readings, I also highly recommend Dean Spitzer’s Transforming Performance Measurement: Rethinking the Way We Measure and Drive Organizational Success and Enterprise Architecture As Strategy: Creating a Foundation for Business Execution, co-authored by Jeanne W. Ross, Peter Weill, and David Robertson.
Here is an excerpt of an interview of Annie Barrows by Danielle Marshall for the Powell’s Books website. To read the complete interview and interviews of other prominent authors, please click here.
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Strange how life works. Mary Ann Shaffer, a long-time bookseller, librarian, and book lover, took a trip to Guernsey, a small island off the Normandy coast, in 1976; there, the seeds were planted for a novel she would begin 25 years later. Shaffer wrote The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in an epistolary style, with an obvious wink to the classic 84 Charing Cross Road. But as she began to see her novel take shape, and ultimately sold it to a publisher, she became very ill. As luck (and fate) would have it, Mary Ann was able to turn the book over to her beloved niece, Annie Barrows, who happened to be a published writer, a fellow book lover, former bookseller, editor, and confidant.
Barrows took on the task with a mission to fulfill the promise of the book that she knew would captivate and delight. As she began the project, she could hear the voice of her beloved aunt, lovingly handling the revisions and rewrites, and crafted a novel that has wowed both readers and reviewers. Says Newsday, “I have recommended it to all my friends. I sniffled at various parts and frankly cried at the end.” The San Francisco Chronicle writes, “It’s as charming and timeless as the novels for which its characters profess their love.” The Chicago Sun-Times describes it as “a book-lover’s delight, an implicit and sometimes explicit paean to all things literary, to libraries personal and public, to bookstores and their owners, customers, and contents…” Well, you get the picture.
Sadly, Mary Ann Shaffer passed away last February at the age of 73 before she saw their collaboration published. But her niece and co-writer is here to pass along Mary Ann’s legacy, story, and, in the end, their mutual love of books and all who read them.
When you answered our Kids’ Q&A for PowellsBooks.kids, I never spoke with you directly, so it’s great to have the chance to chat with you.
Here I am, in the genuine flesh. Are you going to ask me about my favorite breakfast cereal again? [Laughter]
As a matter of fact, I’m not.
Oh, dang! I love that question. It’s one of the best ones I ever got. I have a lot to say about breakfast.
I had such a good time reading The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. What an ebullient novel. And I can honestly say I have never interviewed an author who has come down a writing career path in a more interesting way.
It is strange. My career path is not what most people do — crossing over from kids books into adult books, and the collaboration with my aunt. It’s been a strange trip, but I’m perfectly delighted to talk about it.
The book itself is a love letter to book lovers and booksellers. You can guess that I really pored over the passages about booksellers.
Because we love you guys so much! [Laughter] Can you tell that both my aunt and I worked in bookstores?
Oh, yes! In fact, I wanted you to talk about that a bit. I did pick up that you and your aunt had been very close to books and to each other.
Our book paths coincided a lot. I grew up in the next town over from my aunt Mary Ann and her family, so our families were really, really close. Several times, we were employed at the same place. When I was 12 years old, I was hired at the tiny San Anselmo Public Library. I worked in the children’s room and Mary Ann worked upstairs. So every time I wanted to see Mary Ann, I would just clomp up the stairs. Later on, we both worked at a bookstore called A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, which is now gone, sadly, but at one time was a big independent bookstore in the Bay Area. Mary
Ann spent some time in publishing with Harper and Row, then at another bookstore, and ended with 10 years at the Larkspur Public Library. “Anything you had to do to be near books” — that’s the family motto.
I moved from bookstores into publishing, and became an editor at Chronicle Books. Then I got an MFA, had a baby and decided that what I should really be doing was writing. Since I had gone to all this trouble to produce this baby, I thought I should actually stay at home with it, and being a writer seemed like it would be so relaxing!
I did a little research and found you had written several books under a pen name, Ann Fiery, in addition to your well-known children’s books, the Ivy and Bean Series and The Magic Half. I couldn’t help but think, “This is a woman with a wide variety of interests!” There was opera, divination, urban legends…
This was my theory when I first began writing: anything I wanted to know about that I didn’t already know about, I would propose a book on it. That would be how I would indulge myself as a writer. I didn’t know anything about opera. You could not find anybody more musically ignorant than I. But I thought, “I want to know about opera, and what’s more, I really want to buy a lot of operas and I can’t afford it, so I’ll propose this book!” It was great. At that particular stage in my life, I was having baby number two, so for that whole first year of my second kid’s life, I just sat around listening to operas and writing the stories of the operas. What a great project.
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Speaking of joy, I consider The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society to be the most downright joyful and pithy novel I’ve ever read. Pithy. That’s the only word I can think of to accurately describe it.
That’s a great word. I don’t want to take credit for being pithy myself, because my aunt Mary Ann was one of the most entertaining human beings you would ever want to meet. As far back as I can remember there was an imploring from all who knew her, “Write a book, Mary Ann. Would you write a book? Write, write, write!” Everyone wanted her to write a book because she was such a natural storyteller. She was so funny, and delightful, and charming, and engaging.
Everyone in my family tells stories all the time, and as a result, everyone expends a lot of effort trying to drown out all the other people. Mary Ann was, by far, the best storyteller in the family, but she was one of those people for whom starting was easy, but continuing was hard. Now there is a monument, this book, to how completely fun and entertaining and witty she was.
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To read the complete interview and interviews of other prominent authors, please click here.