By Andrew Jenkins
Over the past month I have been fortunate to attend a number of events that reminded me that there is no lack of ideas. What seems to be missing, however, is an execution mindset. I am not suggesting that people are lazy but rather that they either do not realize or have forgotten how easy it is to turn an idea into something tangible. We too frequently allow gaps to form between our ideas and our ability to execute them.
Last month I attended the Business Innovation Factory’s Collaborative Innovation Summit (BIF-6). Over the course of two and a half days I heard a number of inspiring stories and three were especially noteworthy because they were not complex ideas and their impact was based on simply changing behaviour and attitudes.
The first storyteller was Cassandra Lin who received a standing ovation after she described her Project T.G.I.F. (Turn Grease Into Fuel). She heard about families having difficulty heating their homes and started a program to collect and refine grease from restaurants into usable fuel to heat homes. Cassandra is in the 7th grade and showed a room filled with experienced adults what is possible when you set your mind to it. Her program also included a educational game show component used to raise awareness with schoolchildren. She didn’t face huge obstacles. Grease was abundant and refining partners existed. She simply put the two together and championed the idea. We can learn a great deal from her. You can hear her story here.
The second storyteller was Dean Esserman, the Chief of Police for Providence. He is the son of a doctor who was tasked with improving policing in his city. He reflected on the past when his father would make house calls and developed strong ties with his patients and, more broadly, his community because of it. Inspired by that, Esserman gave his police officers Blackberries and business cards. He then asked them to get out of their police cruisers and get into the community to get to know the citizens and become known by them. Nothing fancy beyond community outreach and that is something we have been hearing a great deal about in the online world but it is great to see it happening in the offline world.
The third storyteller was Gerard van Grinsven, President and CEO of the Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. Formerly an executive with Ritz-Carlton, he has applied his expertise in hospitality to healthcare. By bringing quality food, amenities and education to healthcare, he has created a facility that people actually want to visit, even when they are not sick but wish to participate in one of the many wellness or educational programs being offered. How many other healthcare organizations will adopt this kind of thinking and behaviour? You can hear his story here.
Fresh off my visit to BIF-6, I tagged along to Startup Weekend Toronto. I supported team Tadwana with a Social TV idea. Although we did not win the competition, I still got a tremendous amount of inspiration from being a part of it. The weekend showed me that, with a small team of bright, energetic people, you can take an idea from concept through to tangible business idea in about 48 hours. A mockup in powerpoint or a working prototype online or using a simulator are enough to convey what you are trying to accomplish and how. It was also further proof that a prototype, even a poorly constructed one, is still better than an exhaustively constructed business plan without a prototype to give the idea credibility.
The following stats are also noteworthy from that weekend:
157 participants, 52 observers, 38 ideas pitched, 13 teams formed, 14 sponsors, 8 speakers, 4 panellists, 5 mentors, 5 winning teams and over 900 bottles of water consumed.
If there was enough stamina, how many new companies could be formed by running startup weekends on a regular basis? How many problems could be attacked and resolved by running hack weekends on a regular basis? I am not suggesting that this is the only approach to idea generation or problem solving but it certainly gets people focused and energized around ideas which is the whole point.
Lastly, I was involved in an innovation workshop to help some companies identify the different mindsets that exist within in their organizations when it comes to innovation and how to put together the best teams to tackle the problems that require innovative solutions. The emphasis was not on how creative people are but on how they are creative.
Several of the activities illustrated how adults have unlearned things. We can give too much thought to things because we have accumulated knowledge and experience which drives a particular perspective. We fall into the trap of thinking of how things should be rather than how they could be. This is why children can often focus on the outcome and work backward to develop the most appropriate path rather than getting bogged down with over-engineering the process to achieve the outcome.
We were doing a number of activities used for workshops in corporate settings that had originated in the Destination Imagination Program for Children. For example, teams were tasked with constructing a tower as tall as possible with the materials provided and launch a feather from the top of the tower. The height of the tower plus the distance travelled by the feather would be added together to determine the winning team. No matter how successful a team might have been, none came close to achieving the success of teams comprised of children. All the adult teams focused too much on tower construction rather than the overall objective. If you had a tower two inches tall but you used a paper airplane constructed from the materials to send your feather greater than ten feet then you would have easily beaten a team who built a tower three feet tall but could only blow their feather a little over two feet because they missed the point of the exercise - outcome trumps process.
If we chose to take a more holistic perspective with emphasis on the outcome or objective as well as the parameters we must play within then I wonder how many more times we would find solutions rather than getting distracted by development of the process.
When I reflect on these different events and the stories I heard, the ideas I saw developed in a weekend, and the examples where adults need to unlearn some things in order to be more innovative, I can not help but think that we are spending too much time thinking and too little time doing.
If we remind ourselves to draw inspiration from broad sources, strive to prove a concept through prototyping rather than written explanation, and learn to unlearn for the purposes of innovation then we will have better chance of closing the idea-execution gap. Good luck to us all!