The Care and Feeding of Ideas

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Does the thought of branding give you a headache? The “differentiation” mantra becomes nauseating after a while if you struggle to prove you can do things other organizations can’t… and that’s no good.

Your ability to produce a steady supply of fresh and compelling ideas is more critical than ever. What you know, and how efficiently you use that knowledge, is where ongoing differentiation -– and success -– resides.

That means it’s time to find your idea generators. Problem is, few organizations recognize that their heroes should be those who bring in new ideas: the idea people who believe better management of knowledge assets yields a competitive advantage. You probably have a few on your roster. They are the ones, according to Harvard Business Review editor Thomas Stewart, “who pore over management literature, love discussions about how things could be done better, test new ideas, and pester you about articles that could change the business.”

If you aspire to develop and maintain a strong brand, and a culture of innovative thinking, the care and feeding of idea generators will get you there. Encouraging idea people will help the non-profit sector finally develop the marketing culture it so desperately needs, because idea people can ‘tangibilize’ and promote their organization’s insights.

As a starting objective, provide a mechanism for interaction and debate. Last month, I mentioned Robert Sutton’s warning from Weird Ideas that Work, about how difficult it is to generate new ideas when standard business practices screen out (and drive out) those very people with diverse ideas, who see things in disparate ways. In their 2004 book The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organizations, Rob Cross and Andrew Parker tell us idea-friendly cultures venerate soft networks and personal connections. Their secret: they know that employees are more likely to turn to colleagues than databases for information.

However, it is hard to evaluate things you can’t see, so, when you’re looking for high performers it helps to be broad-minded. Creative work is inherently unpredictable; you can never truly know what knowledge will be useful and what will be useless. You need to look for people who have additional creative skills that can help your organization in as-yet-unknown ways.

The people who bring ideas into organizations, and infuse them with enthusiasm, are a distinct species. Sutton comments, “innovative people are pack rats, collecting ideas, people, and things they don’t seem to have any immediate use for, but they can’t bring themselves to forget or discard.” Cross and Parker — as well as Thomas Davenport, Laurence Prusak, and James Wilson, the authors of a tremendous Harvard Business Review article from 2003, “Who’s Bringing you hot ideas, and how are you responding?” — delve deeper, and believe that idea generators share several identifiable traits: they are convinced that people and organizations can change if a golden idea emerges, and they look outside their field for new approaches. They are neither fanatical nor trendy, but rather, as boundary-spanners, they are eclectic.

Undoubtedly their most important trait — the one that makes them vital to your success — is their practice of involving others in conversations. Exposing teammates to their ideas makes the whole team feel part of building a compelling vision that is worthy and attainable.

What do you do if you’re lucky to find such idea-folk in your fold? Prusak, Davenport, and Wilson provide some basic instructions on the care and feeding of idea practitioners: recognize their special gifts and create space for them. Relieve them of mundane duties (that ordinary people can do), and give them freedom to pursue ideas: not carte blanche, but liberty within the parameters of your brand. If your values and identity are clearly articulated, you’ve got guidelines in place for exploring new ideas. While they’re doing their thing, make sure you do your job: protect your idea leaders, clear obstacles for them, run interference.

Finally, accept that idea-friendly cultures tolerate the failures that sometime come with experimentation. Welcoming exploration is critical, so ensure the idea practitioner ends up in a good position regardless of how well a given project runs its course. After all, if they aren’t rewarded for championing new ideas then others will be inhibited. If you want to establish a culture of innovation, everyone must know the door to thinking, talking about, and reflecting on new ideas, is open for business.

(Originally published in Muse (Canadian Museum Association), March 2005)

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