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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How to Renew Your Organization

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Whipping down the streets of Washington D.C. in a taxi, I was dreading my arrival at a recent business acquisition.  I mistakenly believed that my organizational design role was to break the hearts of these leaders.  Twenty years earlier, they had founded a company in their garage and now they had made it big, having been purchased by a Fortune 100 company.  I erroneously thought that my role was to deliver the news that their small company ways of doing things would now have to completely change.  They would need to assimilate to the mother ship!

I glanced down at the final piece of research I had gathered in preparation for this meeting.  It was the Ichak Adizes model of an organizational life cycle (Ichak Adizes, www.adizes.com, 2017).  This holistic and intuitive approach fundamentally changed how I approach recently merged companies, as well as how I engage with all smaller entities within larger organizations.

The Adizes model of an organizational life cycles provides a metaphor for viewing the stages of organizations.  Adizes wisely observed that the basic principles for managing organizations as they mature are similar to living organisms.  We have all exclaimed in frustration at some point that managing our staff is like trying to deal with a bunch of unruly kids.  Adizes took this statement usually made in jest to a whole new level!

Adizes pointed out that the predictable and repetitive patterns of behavior that humans experience as they grow and develop are similar to what organizations experience. As a result, just as you develop ways to help your teenager move from adolescence into adulthood, you can leverage similar strategies at an organizational level.  One can reflect on the characteristics of the organization at each stage and, more importantly, identify prescriptions that will assist the organization to move to the next stage.  This model, metaphorically, allow long standing bureaucratic organizations to detour and in some cases even avoid death.

The organizational implications and lessons that fall out of Adizes model are wide and deep.  However, my main concern was that I was about to be dropped off at the door step of the founders of the small company that we had recently acquired.  Wasn’t there a more positive message that these leaders should hear as we become the same company, working towards the same goals?  This is where Adizes learnings about why large mature companies buy small growing companies is invaluable.

Adizes maintains that the large bureaucratic companies desperately need the small innovative companies in order to grow and stay alive.  While established companies often times have a great deal of cash and strong financial statements, they have many factors working against them.  Adizes points out that they tend to:

  • Be interested in reducing risks
  • Reward employees who follow directions versus innovate
  • Value uniformity and consistency

This push towards maintaining the status quo is exactly what brings down many of these organizations.

Enter the newly acquired kid on the block…  These small nimble organizations typically offer growing technology in new markets.  And most important, they have flexible ways of thinking and working, quickly embracing new strategy.  This provides an agility injection into the staid bureaucratic organization.

Based on this line of thinking, you can probably guess the end of the story.  I did inform the founders, who it turned out still acted more like teenage rebels than leaders, that I would be helping them introduce more structure and control.  They understood that this was an important part of their growth and development.

However, the larger, more amplified message was that our now combined companies needed their innovative products and new markets.  And most importantly, we needed to tap into their agile approach of doing business and infuse some of that bias for action into our increasingly unadventurous culture.

I had falsely believed in a compliance focus in working with newly acquired companies.  I was all about sticking pins into them for their own good.  Adizes helped me realize that the actual opportunity lay in bottling up the innovative thinking and approaches that the smaller companies offer and infusing them into the larger bureaucratic culture.  This strategy offers big wins as the ripple effect positively impact a hundred times more employees than are housed at the acquisitions.

In the years following my mergers and acquisition role, I have applied the Adizes approach in working with all types of small, innovative departments and teams within larger organizations.  As I help these groups grow and accomplish their larger objectives, I make sure to avoid squashing their agile thinking and approaches.  In fact, I help them find ways to capture these innovative approaches and embed them into the larger organization.

With mixed results Americans spend millions of dollars a year on products which claim to help us stay young.  The Adizes approach offers a tonic that really does allow old dying organizations to reclaim youth!

Note: The views expressed in this blog are my opinions and do not reflect the views of my employer.