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On Innovation and Ideation

Dec. 15, 2020
Is it time to question what and how we do things, at work and at home?

There is an old story about a woman making a traditional Christmas Ham for her family. She cut the ends off the ham, placed a pineapple on top and slid it in the oven. As she was throwing the ends into the garbage, she paused a moment to consider a fleeting thought, “Why do I cut the ends off the ham?” Well, after all, that is what her mother did. So she picked up the phone and called Mom.

“Mom, why did you cut the ends off the ham at Christmas?” Taken a little aback, she replied after considering the question, “Well, honey, that is what Grandma always did. You need to ask her…” Without hesitation, she called Grandma: “Why did you always cut the ends off the ham at Christmas?” After a long pause, Grandma said with just a bit of nostalgia and charm, “Well dear, when your grandfather and I were newlyweds, we didn’t have very much. One Christmas, a kind neighbor, a widow from next door gave us an enormous ham as a gift. I went to put it into the only pan we had and the pan was too small. So I cut the ends off the ham to make it fit; I’ve been doing it that way ever since. Why do you ask?”

Why do you do the things you do? Is it because, “This the way the way we have always done it?” Well, that is quite simply a tired and outdated old saw. Is it time to question what and how we do things, at work and at home?

When I say the word INNOVATORS, who comes to mind? I think of Thomas Edison and Walt Disney in the last century and before. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk come to mind in this century.

“I’ve become rich and famous by THINKING a couple of times a week.”

             -George Bernard Shaw

Tom Watson, Sr., founder of IBM, placed signs all around the office that said simply, “THINK!”

How much time and resources do your organization invest each day, week or month to THINK? To innovate? To ideate?

At 3M (Which was originally called: “Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing”) employees are encouraged and rewarded for investing 15 percent of their time thinking and creating new ideas and products. The most famous was Arthur Fry in 1974. As the story goes, he was in church one day and had the hymnal page marked with a small bit of paper. He dropped the book and the paper fell out. He was embarrassed to not be able to find the page again as his fellow parishioners sang away. He said to himself, “There must be a way to make a piece of paper that will stick to a page but not rip it like tape does, a kind of Sticky Note paper.” After months of trial and error, he invented the ubiquitous 3M Post-It sticky notepad.

There are lots of ways to innovate. What is needed is a culture that encourages, fosters and rewards innovation and ideation. What follows are ideas about the ways and means of creating new ideas. Submitted for your approval.

1)        Give people permission to come up with ideas that are new, outrageous, interesting, opposite or even controversial. Encourage innovation.

2)         Make the time each month or week to get people together to think, argue, create, brainstorm and exchange ideas.

3)         Reward new ideas that lead to improvements in process, in lowering costs, increasing sales, creating new products. There are no bad ideas.

4)         Create comfy rooms where your people can go to think, meditate, percolate and ideate.

5)         Learn how to brainstorm effectively and teach that process to your teams so they can do it on their own.

Ideas are floating around in the ether. We need to be open to them and capture them when they appear. Sometime they come as a whisper.

Tom Edison used to “Sit for Ideas.” He had a big chair he would sit in for an hour. The goal was to come up with new ideas. He would hold a large ball bearing in each hand and strategically place a metal tub on the floor below his hands. He would choose a topic or problem to solve beforehand, then close his eyes and eventually fall asleep; his hands would relax, the ball bearings would fall into the metal tubs and the sound would wake him up. Whatever thoughts came to mind in the midst of this process he would write down. I challenge you to name a person, living or dead who came up with more great ideas and innovations than Mr. Edison.

Why do you cut the ends off your Christmas ham? Maybe it’s time to call Grandma… she was a great leader.

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