Dynamic Process: Adjusting Process to Encourage a Steady Flow of Ideas

By Anthony Vengrove

As companies pursue the holy grail of innovation they learn quickly the importance of process and creativity.  There’s critical need for both, of course.  However, since corporations favor logic-driven behaviors and are highly competent at developing and implementing process, it’s no wonder creativity often gets short shrift.

Innovation process is required for numerous reasons.  During the front-end, process is especially needed to manage the creation, sharing and evaluation of ideas and to provide a pathway for an idea to be approved for further exploration and resources.  Without process, complete creative freedom becomes unproductive and chaotic.

In an ideal state, innovation strategy, along with innovation process and creative thinking, should drive a steady flow of ideas into the pipeline.  I like to use the analogy of a faucet.  Ideally, the faucet should be open just enough so a steady trickle of drops form.  Unfortunately, most companies keep the faucet off until they need ideas and then they turn the spigot on full blast, which, of course, is not sustainable.

I believe that excessive process during the front-end of innovation can diminish an employee’s willingness to proactively create and share ideas.  Since they already have a full plate, they essentially opt out of participating because it’s too time-consuming and frustrating to “go through the process” of presenting and selling an idea.

The concept of Dynamic Process was conceived to help improve organic idea creation in a company culture. Most people tend to think of process as a fixed concept – something designed to be put into place and followed repeatedly.  Process is also often conveyed in linear design – start at point ‘A’ and end at point ‘Z.’

Dynamic Process suggests that we think of process as a variable concept.  Similar to how the Federal Reserve adjusts interest rates to stimulate economic activity, Dynamic Process suggests adjusting levels of innovation-related processes to encourage the development of ideas and the participation of employees.

As seen below, the Dynamic Process model plots the “degree of innovation process” on the horizontal axis against “pipeline fill” on the vertical axis.  In doing so, we can create a hypothetical quadrant map that shows optimal and suboptimal conditions.

Fig. 1 Dynamic Process Model ©2012 Miles Finch Innovation, LLC

Let’s begin with the suboptimal conditions, as they are conceptually easy to understand.  In the lower right-hand quadrant, the condition shows that process is abundant and the pipeline is empty.   We want to avoid this circumstance because if we lack ideas, the last thing we need is to make employees jump over several hurdles to submit and pursue ideas.  Similarly, subjecting ideas to an abundance of rigorous testing and analysis will probably kill ideas that have merit but just have not had enough time to incubate.  This can quickly demotivate employees who went through the time and effort to share.

The other quadrant to avoid is the upper left where ideas are plentiful but process is minimal.  In this situation, engagement may be high but essential infrastructure that provides instruction and order may be missing.  The result might be the submission of any and all ideas – with many likely to be off strategy.  This quadrant can demotivate over time because with so many ideas, most will go nowhere.  Moreover, if the proper infrastructure is not in place, key processes such as feedback loops won’t be in place to let employees know the status of their ideas.

The model suggests that when a firm is not content with the amount of ideas in their pipeline (i.e., it’s too empty or too full) that they can adjust their processes to encourage different employee behaviors.  If the pipeline is depleted, make it easier for employees to participate by removing non-critical processes.  In addition, evaluate the infrastructure in place for how ideas are judged and approved.  Chances are if you are prone to high levels of process you may be bombarding early ideas with too much logic and critical thinking.  Relax the burden of proof and give ideas a chance to develop.

Lastly, when ideas are plentiful and abundant, a firm may decide to impose more process and apply more constraints (upper right quadrant).  The intention here is not to reduce employee engagement; rather it is to be more specific with the innovation objectives and criteria so that employees are more likely to submit ideas that are aligned with specific strategies.  In addition, this quadrant is where more analytical screening and process infrastructure can help assess ideas and determine proper resource allocation.

A traditional corporate process is usually implemented and set in stone.  It may not always be reviewed regularly to identify its value or determine ways to improve it.  The Dynamic Process Model encourages management to evaluate their innovation process levels on an on-going basis.   I recommend a quarterly assessment schedule where the new product management committee can discuss the amount of projects in the pipeline and the amount of ideas flowing into the funnel on a continual basis.

At the end of the day, the goal of this model is to help organizations generate a steady and sustainable flow of ideas.  While process is not the only factor that contributes to idea generation and levels of creativity, it certainly can play a major role in discouraging innovative activity if not implemented correctly.  Like most things in life, balance is key.

The Toyota Jump & Power of Objective-Based Leadership

By Anthony Vengrove

Toyota Jump

This is a photograph of my father, Steve Vengrove. He wrote the “Oh What a Feeling!” campaign for Toyota back in the 1980s. The story of the campaign and the famous “Toyota Jump” is an inspiring one and actually involves my late dog Kelley and yours truly. I share this story often with colleagues to teach the importance of objective-based communication.

My father was a creative director at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample in New York City—now part of the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency and part of the creative team that flew out to California to present to Toyota’s U.S. leadership team. One of the several campaigns they pitched was “Oh What a Feeling!” However, that campaign in its infancy did not include the iconic leap into the air. The presentation went great. Everyone instantly fell in love with the “Oh What a Feeling!” campaign and wanted to proceed. Except…one senior executive had an issue with the closing shot.

The executive said, “I love the campaign; however the final shot is really dull. You’re ending the spot on a static shot of the car with a super [the superimposed onscreen words] that reads ‘Oh what a feeling!’ It would be great if there was a visual way to convey what ‘Oh what a feeling!’ actually feels like.”

“That’s a great objective!” my father jumped in. “I really get what you’re asking for. I don’t have a solution off the top of my head, but we’ll think about it and get back to you.”

Back home in Connecticut, our family had just taken in a stray puppy; we suspected she was a mix of Whippet and Black Lab. After failing to find her owner, we eventually adopted her and named her Kelley. She looked fast and was fast! I was determined to train her to become the next great champion Frisbee dog!

On a Saturday afternoon after lunch, I took Kelley outside to start training. Long story short—I failed miserably. What began as training, quickly turned to teasing—I held the Frisbee high up in the air, just out of her reach. I was amused as Kelley enthusiastically kept leaping for it.

Meanwhile, my father, who was at the kitchen sink washing dishes, peered out the window and saw Kelley eagerly jumping for the Frisbee. Aha! Connection made: a leap into the air was the perfect way to visualize “Oh what a feeling!” The rest is advertising Legend.

Lessons for objective-based communication:

  1. Ask for solutions in the form of objectives, rather than simply requesting a specific solution.Had the Toyota executive tried to solve the problem himself, it’s safe to say the Toyota Jump would never have been realized. Asking for creative ideas using objectives encourages teams to think of innovative solutions. Most often the ideas will be above and beyond what the client would have come up with on his own.
  1. Avoid the same old routine. Get out of the office and create diverse experiences, which allow you to see the world differently.Creativity often entails making connections from unexpected or unrelated concepts, thoughts, or experiences. These trigger curiosity, imagination and create the conditions for serendipity.
  1. Don’t fall into the trap that you must solve problems on the spot.It’s okay to admit you don’t have a brilliant solution at the moment. Ask for some time to think it over. “We’ll get back to you” is a perfectly acceptable response.
  1. Objective-based communication is a great way to lead teams and manage direct reports.Providing team members with clear objectives empowers them to think on their own, develop solutions to problems, and grow. It may be tempting to take the easy approach and simply ask for what you want. But I’ve found life gets a lot easier when your team becomes adept at generating creative solutions that are better than your own.

I encourage you to think of ways to apply these insights to your organization. If you do, you may find yourself jumping for joy at the quality of ideas your team brings to the table.

Miles Finch Innovation helps companies navigate the messy territory of corporate innovation.  We’re strategic thinking partners who can help you get unstuck and identify creative solutions to your toughest challenges.  We also love to train and speak on the subject of Creative Leadership.  Email us or call us at 203-788-2665 to learn how we can help you unlock the creative potential of your employees.

Fill Out Our Survey, But Don’t Tell Us What You Really Think

By Anthony Vengrove

I don’t like watching companies completely blow good opportunities to learn and capture insights that can help improve their business.  In my opinion, no one does this better than car dealerships.

If you recently purchased a new car or took one in for service, then you likely have experienced their customer service survey “talk.”  It basically goes this like this: “You should receive a email in a few days requesting that you fill out a customer survey.  Just so you know, anything less than perfection (i.e. a ‘10’) is considered a failure and I won’t get paid my full commission.”  To make matters even more absurd they usually add, “So if you’re not completely satisfied please tell me now so I can resolve your concerns.”

What do most consumers tend to do?  We head for the hills!  The last thing you probably want is to get caught up debating whether your tire rotation was worthy of a ’10.’  So, we go home and usually fill out the survey with glowing reviews because we feel bad the sales associate’s income is tied to such a foolish survey system.

Of course, dealerships that employ this type of “research” are missing out on a great opportunity to get real data and learn from it.   Instead, they’re essentially pressuring their customers into providing positive reviews, probably so they can meet customer service goals from corporate or live under the illusion that their staff is actually providing optimal customer service.  The dealership might feel warm and fuzzy at the end of the year but there’s a huge opportunity cost left on the table.

The main objective of soliciting this type of consumer information is not to confirm that you’re doing a fantastic job, but to understand where you’re underperformingUnderstanding where you are falling short allows you to learn, change and improve.  Anything less is a charade, pure and simple.

Imagine if dealerships instead encouraged honest and candid feedback from their customers?  Imagine if they listened and took action to address poor marks?  Don’t we all know that the biggest opportunities for growth come by learning from our failures?   Feedback is a gift.

Financial transactions in the automotive industry are costly and therefore can be emotionally charged and difficult to navigate.  There’s certainly a huge opportunity to collect a lot of actionable comments and real, raw feedback.  Dealerships might not enjoy hearing it all, but it’s valuable consumer insight.

Dealerships can fix this by incentivizing the right behaviors of their employees and stop penalizing failure.  A ‘pass/fail’ approach will only encourage employees to get the ‘pass’ grade at all costs – and ignore the true opportunities to provide a more consumer-centric experience.

Getting Back to the Human Side of Human Resources: How to Make Online Recruiting More Effective

By Anthony Vengrove

Recently, the Wall Street Journal featured a piece that caught my attention, Software Raises Bar for Hiring.  For the past several months I have been privately fuming over how silly the job application process has become.  Evidently, Peter Cappelli (Wharton School of Business) seems to agree with my feelings on this subject.

 Via The Wall Street Journal:

In an essay in this newspaper last fall, Peter Cappelli … challenged the oft-heard complaint from employers that they can’t find good workers with the right skills.  “The real culprits are the employers themselves,” he asserted.

“For every story about an employer who can’t find qualified applicants, there’s a counterbalancing tale about an employer with ridiculous hiring requirements,” [Cappelli] says.  In many companies, software has replaced recruiters, he writes, so “applicants rarely talk to anyone, even by email, during the hiring process.”

For anyone who has applied for a job recently, you know how different and stale the process has become.  As noted above, you rarely have a conversation with anyone.  You must submit your resume online and hope you’ve included the right keywords in order for the hiring company’s computer to select your resume for review.

I think it’s time for companies to take a breath and reflect on what they’re doing. Sure, high unemployment coupled with all the available online job search tools has resulted in companies being swamped with resumes.  I also understand the desire to automate the application process as it allows the ability to capture and manage data.

However, the problem here is not to figure out how to weed through hundreds of resumes.  If you think that’s the problem, then using computers to scan resumes is a perfect solution.

I argue the problem is:  how do we reduce applications and attract only the candidates we wish to attract?  The solution to this problem will be significantly different.

According to the IBM 2010 Global CEO Study, “creativity is the most important leadership quality” that CEOs want in their workforce.  It’s hard to conceive that the current scanning practices will help CEOs get what they want.  A creative person’s resume might look different: its writing and appearance might be unique or the career path might be atypical.  If such a resume doesn’t have the “right” words, or it includes the “wrong” words, it’s certain to be overlooked.

Computer software will only get you so far.  Based on what’s currently being input into most systems, it doesn’t seem likely that a computer can reliably recognize or predict someone’s creative potential.  The implication, therefore, is that you’re certain to miss out on some great talent.  Need more evidence?  Read this excerpt from the same WSJ article.

A Philadelphia-area human-resources executive told Mr. Cappelli that he applied anonymously for a job in his own company as an experiment.  He didn’t make it through the screening process.

Six opportunities for improving online recruiting and applications:

  1. Make the application process more challenging so as to only attract candidates who are willing to put in the time and effort.  Filling out online applications is relatively easy and mundane.  Instead, challenge yourself to create an experience that requires your applicants to think.
  2. Why ask your candidates to submit repetitive information that is already on their resume?  Would it not be better to ask them to answer thought-provoking questions that will shed insight on their thinking and creative abilities?
  3. Allow applicants to include links to their blog, Twitter account, Instagram feed and other ‘portfolio’ sites that can provide insight into how they think, create and view the world.
  4. HR should work with hiring managers to create laser-focus job search criteria.  When job qualifications read like the kitchen sink, you’re likely to get increased applications because people assume that no one can possibly have all the qualifications.  If you limit yourself to the absolute required qualifications, you’ll likely weed out many resumes you don’t want.
  5. Do not simply utilize “default” criteria such as “MBA preferred” or “current industry experience required.”  Think about what it is you really need.  Sometimes it’s the MBA candidate.  Sometimes, it’s not.  Diversity is the friend of creativity, so don’t be afraid to speak to candidates with diverse and unique career backgrounds.
  6. Most firms use online tools provided by third-party service providers.  As a result, there is a sameness that exists in the online job application process.   While there may be some benefits to familiarity, it seems unthinkable that companies are satisfied asking the same questions of candidates as their competitors.  Instead, customize questions and data requests so that you are differentiating your company and receiving information that helps your organization make better hiring decisions.

I recognize there is no simple “one size fits all” solution.  Most of these suggestions will only increase time and effort – something today’s leaner HR department lacks.  While I empathize, I cannot accept the current state of affairs.  I’m surprised any CEO who declares a desire for creativity isn’t frustrated by now.  It seems pretty intuitive that the investment of time and effort in finding top-notch talent will pay off exponentially.  So, let’s get back to basics and employ more of the “human” side of human resources.