A Creative Method For Developing Innovative Solutions: Magic Tool Box

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It can be helpful to use analogies to inspire new ideas.  I have leveraged a brainstorming tool for years called the Magic Tool Box.  In this exercise one uses a box full of tools as a metaphor for solving the problem at hand.  The objective is to spur new thinking.

I leveraged this brainstorming exercise with a group of journalists who were stationed at locations around the world.  They explored using a Swiss Army knife that was magical and could capture interview content, as well as still images and video.  It spurred the journalists to come up with approaches whereby they would capture more than just print copy as a result of their interviews.  This was before the iPhone was used to capture photos and video.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not saying that I am Al Gore and claiming that I invented the Internet!  I am simply pointing out that this exercise allowed the journalists to imagine doing innovative work via tools that were not even invented at the time.  Generating this kind of out of the box thinking is the greatest value of this exercise.

Below are the steps to facilitate this exercise:

  • The facilitator provides a focus statement or problem related to the area being brainstormed.
    • The problem statement is related to the area being brainstormed. For example, our challenge may be that due to a new technology system our team members are drifting apart and not collaborating.
    • The magic tools in the tool box can be items such as: Magic drill, saw, hammer, duct tape, screw driver, tape measure, glue, etc.
  • Think of uses for a wide variety of “magic tools”
    • This is where you ask the group to use their imagination. For example, ask yourself: If we had a magic hammer, what would we use it to do?
    • Come up with ways we can use the magic tool to resolve the problem that has been articulated.
    • For example, one could leverage the magic tool box to address the problem of a team being stuck in silos and not working well together. One could use duct tape to wrap it around all the team members in order to bring everyone together again.
  • Explore the results for inspiration
    • We have fantasy solutions from step two that would not work in the real world. However, these make believe ideas may lead to insights that are practical.
    • Look at the responses and explore what kind of feelings and images are arising. Look for actions and goals that make sense and could be applied in the real world.
    • For example, while it is not practical to use duct tape to wrangle everyone into a more cohesive group, an initiative or event to bring people together may be a practical solution.

This exercise can clearly help our organizations think in new ways.  Spurring this kind of creative thinking is a true contribution that we can bring to the table.

Adapted from Alexander Hiam, Manager’s Pocket Guide to Creativity, 1998

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No more Drivel! Give us the Practical and Useful.

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There is no substitute for business advice which is practical and useful. Yes, I am talking about suggestions which actually work. … As in make things better in the real world! Drivel, on the other hand, is defined as “silly nonsense”. Unfortunately there is a lot of these unhelpful opinions flying around our field of organizational development.

At its best, management tips and techniques have allowed me to face numerous organizational challenges and provided a clear, successful solution. When one is in the middle of a structure, process or people challenge it can be difficult get to above the chaos and envision a path forward. Yes, management thinkers really can be your best friends.

However, this is not always the case. I have observed that management thinking tends to fall into three buckets:

Bucket 1: Interesting, But Not Practical: Much of the academic work around management offers up clever concepts around leading others that have limited practical application. These are the types of management ideas that are fascinating to think about. However, you are left asking yourself “What would I do with this idea as I stand before my team Monday morning?”

From my experience, leadership styles provide an example of a theory without apparent application. Leadership styles essentially categorize types of leaders as being dictatorial, authoritarian, consultative or participative. Great! So let’s assume that you want your style of leadership to be more participative.   What actions do you take and what do you tell your team in order to create a participative environment?

These management theories often answer the “What” without ever addressing the “How”. In other words, this work often times offers conceptual statements about what is means to be a manager without providing advice on how to be a manager.   The theory is interesting, but, is not going to help you be a better manager.

Bucket 2: Practical, But Not Useful: The academic management thinking in this bucket offers you some practical ideas for how to manage your team. However, when you carry out these ideas in your organization you find that they are met with confusion and poor results. These are the types of ideas where you are left saying “Well, it looked good on paper!”

An example of practical but not useful management thinking is the business reengineering craze that many organizations adopted a decade ago. Reengineering called for reinventing the way work was done via the redesign of business processes and workflows. However, this practical approach resulted in negative consequences in the end.   Too often the effort resulted in corporate down sizing without better results. It did not take employees long to realize that it is was not in their best interest to volunteer for a reengineering effort! [Tony Carter, 1999, https://www.amazon.com/Aftermath-Reengineering-Downsizing-Corporate-Performance/dp/0789007207]

It is easy to identify the management theories in this bucket. This is because when you introduce these ideas they are oftentimes met with confusion and skepticism by your team. They clearly do not resonate with the employees who do the actual work. When you roll out these ideas many of your employees ignore your advice since they suspect it will fail. Those employees who do infuse this approach into their work get poor results. These ideas are quickly abandoned.

Bucket 3: Practical and Useful:   As is the case in so many areas of life, we have lots of opinions but very little wisdom.   Once we have shed the management ideas in buckets 1 and 2, we are left with a few practical and useful management ideas. The good news for you is that there is now less to learn since we are down to a handful of management approaches.

The practical approaches and tools in this bucket are made up of organizational interventions that can transform human behavior on a regular basis. They simply address complex aspects of work including structure, processes and people practices.

Below are some examples of practical and useful management thinking that I have benefitted from over the years:

  • Structure: Jay Galbraith’s emphasis on leveraging design principles in the creation of organizational structure helps ensure that the design accomplishes the desired outcomes. The principles are statements about what the design should provide.  These principles guide the design process, provide criteria for making trade off decisions and keep all parties focused on creating the same outcome.  This organizational design methodology has allowed me to take a dozen independent marketing groups within a Fortune 100 company and align them for quick response to customer demands and other unexpected challenges. [http://www.jaygalbraith.com]
  • Processes: Edward Deming’s Plan-Do-Check-Act [PCDA] continuous improvement circle has provided the framework for managing improvement projects.  The method helps employees stay focused on data collection and analysis driving them towards identifying and solving root cause.  Outcomes of leveraging this method include savings millions of dollars, along with better quality products and services.  [http://asq.org/learn-about-quality/project-planning-tools/overview/pdca-cycle.html]
  • People: ‘Start/Stop/Continue’ is a straight-forward group exercise that any manager can easily introduce. The approach can help groups move from strategy to execution and lead to increased effectiveness and efficiency. As the name suggests, the goal is to get employees to brainstorm programs, activities and processes that should be started, stopped and continued.  I have had employees report back that this simple exercise has been transformative in terms of helping them improve and align their work. [https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/SKS-process.htm]There is a huge volume of management thinking to wade through before finding advice which is practical and useful. Mission accomplished if this blog helps raise awareness on the importance of crafting management thought which helps practitioners in the real world.

This blog does not reflect the views of my employer.

Am I On Track With My Professional Purpose? [“Start With Why”]

“The two most important days of your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.”—-Mark Twain

Mark Twain offers up the profound idea that our primary mission in life is discovering why we are here. Once we have a driving reason for getting up each and every morning our life simply becomes wonderful! While we can all agree that finding our professional purpose in life is a good thing, the difficult part is figuring out how.

For example, unearthing why we lead, why we do organizational development or why we do any chosen profession is not as easy as opening up a fortune cookie. Rooting out our core professional purpose takes a great deal of lived experience and self-reflection.

In fact, #SimonSinek [www.StartWithWhy.com/WhyU] has created a cottage industry around the importance of finding what he calls your “Start With Why” statement in order to answer the question: Why you do what you do in your professional life?

Sinek and other have convinced us that is it valuable to know our why statement. However, how do we know if we are on the path to “why” enlightenment? Without cues to help guide us towards finding our professional purpose, the task can become daunting.

As a result, I offer up a few key signs that you are digging deep enough to figure out your professional purpose:

  • You are energized, excited by the statement

When I read my “why” statement I actually get emotional at times.   I cannot imagine doing any other type of work since helping others succeed via organizational development is just so darn rewarding.

“To provide employees with voice for more productivity and fulfillment. “

You believe that the world would be a significantly better place if your why statement became true. Your purpose is the reason you get out of bed in the morning. It excites you to know that you get to work on this amazing mission all day and positively impact those around you.

  • Your why statement will not change fundamentally

You cannot envision your why statement ever changing – you are that committed to it. Your ideal job would be spending all your time making your why statement come true.

For many of us doing mission driven work such as organization development is a calling. I find myself describing my work to improve organizations in a manner similar to how clergy describe being called to their religious positions. The work is such a perfect fit with my need to help others via organization that I forget that choice is even an option. This profession is a win-win so why not continue forever!

  • You can relate to the words in your “why” statement, they are real to you

You can cite examples where you have “lived” the statement. You have carried out your purpose in your personal and professional life. I have held many organization development positions, however, a common thread across these gigs is that I always help employees be more efficient and happier in their roles.

In addition, I have helped give “voice” to my son who initially had a medical issue which made speech a difficult task. The irony is that not only did he recover from this childhood challenge, he went on to excel in speech, winning the state speech tournament in high school. I have clearly literally lived this why statement!

If you answered no to the above cues, then you simply have more work in front of you. Dedicate time to reflect on your professional experiences in order to figure out what is gratifying and energizing about your work. Then, your path becomes one of amplifying this message to those you are partnering with.

The content reflected in this blog does not reflect the opinions of my employer.

 

The Importance of Peers In Our Organization Development Work

“We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community.”

Dorothy Day

As #OrganizationDevelopment (OD) professionals working with peers is one of the most important factors leading to our success.  Helping our organizations succeed is a team sport and the ideas and support we receive from our fellow OD colleagues is invaluable.  I have been a sole provider of OD consulting at several organizations.  The freedom to design and deliver interventions that I deem to be the best is empowering.  However, I will take an OD partner to collaborate with any day.

As we start our careers, most of us learn the field of OD from our peers.  This was certainly the case of my career path.  I learned a great deal about the theories of organizations in my Doctorate program.  However, I became adept at actually doing OD work early in my career by spending countless hours with my OD teams discussing business challenges, designing solutions and co-leading interventions.  The powerful and unique viewpoints and techniques that each of us brought to the table was my true school of OD.

I focused on industrial organizational design as part of my academic program and early application work.  My peers steeped in the psychological world of OD opened up for me the importance of coaching, teams and culture.  Working with talented colleagues I observed first-hand how to navigate the “soft” side of our work.  I learned a great deal from them and it motivated me to become a well-rounded consultant just as prepared to take on an organizational design or process project, as a teaming or culture challenge.

Once we have found our footing as an OD professional, we are looking to hone our ability to provide even more impactful work.  At this stage in our careers there is no substitute for the clashing of ideas that professionals steeped in various aspects of organization provides.  I can clearly recall a heated discussion where each member of our OD team saw a business problem from a completely different perspective.  Each of us made a case that the root cause of the problem at hand stemmed from people, process, structure and even technology challenges!  In the end, our solution encapsulated each of these aspects of organization and was much more effective than addressing a single root cause.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that in addition to success, OD colleagues provide a deep level of satisfaction in carrying out our work.  I experience this on a daily basis with my current OD peers.    Together we share the highlights when things go well with a client, as well support each other through the challenges and disappointments.

As OD consultants we help our clients work through challenges.  But who helps us when we run up against road blocks?  The answer is simple, it is our peers who provide us with the community that allows us to carry out powerful, fulfilling work.

As OD consultants we help our clients work through challenges.  But who helps us when we run up against road blocks?  The answer is clearly our peers.  At a recent MN Organizational Development Network (http://www.mnodn.org)  meeting some of the founders of the OD practice in the 1970s cited the community of practitioners as being one of the keys to putting our field on the map.  That has not changed over time. It is our peers who provide us with the community that allows us to carry out powerful, fulfilling work.

Note: The content of this blog does not reflect the views of my employer.

A Productivity Win Via An Electronic Bike

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No more long exhausting automobile commutes!  Yesterday I purchased an electronic bicycle that I am using to travel to and from work.  My automobile commute involved heading far north and south of my final destination, while the bike path runs directly as the crow flies from my home to my office.  As an organizational development consultant, I view this effective and efficient method of getting to work as a personal and professional process improvement.  I am avoiding all the “non-value add” time spent in my car!

Anyone who has a long commute can attest to how much it impacts ones life.  After starting my day by spending almost an hour in my car crawling along the highway, I am less than enthusiastic knowing that I will be ending my work day spending even more time inching my way back home.  I am clearly not alone in this sentiment.  Tens and thousands of others are experiencing similar commutes which have become even longer in the Twin Cities given the recent launch of tunnel and exit construction. In fact, the Star Tribune noted my e bike solution as a creative way to avoid traffic jams [http://strib.mn/2udEHyj]

An electronic bike! You may be asking: Why don’t you just jump on your regular bike and pedal the 20 miles each way?

The simple answer is that I am not an exercise junky who wants to bike that far day after day.  I have been known to bike 40 miles on a nice summer weekend day.  Granted, most of these trips are part of bike brewery tours with neighbors where biking is not the main attraction!

You get the idea.

  • I am not one of these spandex clad bikers who you only get a glimpse of as they whip past you on the trails.
  • I am also not keen on having to rent locker space at my office gym in order to shower each morning.
  • However, the other option of sweating like a pig while manually biking to work and then heading directly to meetings would not be appreciated by my co-workers!

The pedal assist electronic bikes like I purchased have an electronic motor to assist the rider.  Th e motor kicks in while I am pedaling.  As a result, I am still getting plenty of exercise.  The key benefit here is that my commute goes from a daunting trek to being very doable.  I still get exercise, am refreshed by the outdoors and, on top of all that, cut my commuter time by a third!

Why write about e-bikes in an Organizational Development blog?  The answer is simple.  Personal productivity solutions can have a significant positive impact on our entire lives. As an organizational development consultant I spend most of my professional life building high performance workplaces for more productivity, fulfillment and connection.  Helping leaders and employees get more work done and be happier in the process makes a big difference and is gratifying.

However, I am only impacting folks lives 9 to 5.  If these workers are burned out from arduous commutes each day, the impact of organizational interventions is dampened.  In addition, as a productivity practitioner my effectiveness is also impacted as I join my peers on this long commuting march.

We are clearly impacted by our total environment on and off work.  I am more effective, efficient, and healthier as a result of my e-bike. That is a win – personally and professionally.

Note: The content of this blog does not reflect the views of my employer.