Idea (part 1) – your improvement foundation

The idea is the very foundation for the journey of change. In the overall approach that I will suggest, the idea phase is something you never tick off and leave. Instead you should often revisit the idea space. How else can you work iteratively? How else can you continually refine the improvement?

A well-grounded and worked through idea that has immediate appeal to stakeholders is the key to future success. And to the contrary, an ungrounded and half-baked idea will sooner or later be caught up by reality. The idea holds enormous value! But how does the idea come about and what do you do with it? I will try and share the most important aspects that have worked for me. Maybe it can work for you as well.

How to enable and get an idea
You have been assigned to investigate how something can be improved or maybe your own intuition says something is not optimal. Personally, in the whole journey of change, this is what I love and yet dread the most. It is a vibrant and thrilling period, knowing there should be something, but not yet seeing what it is. I think the most common mistake here is to give in to the uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty and jump to conclusions and lock the idea too soon. It is hard to reset your mind whilst it has been biased (for personal, financial, and political reasons among others). So, keep an open mind … and after you think you have an idea, keep an open mind and throughout the whole journey of change, still keep an open mind. Or at least try your hardest. The sooner you find out you’ve been wrong the more likely you are to be able to correct it.

Of course there has to be a relationship between the level of impact and the time spent on coming up with an idea, but for someone like myself who tends to be a bit impatient, it has always been good practice to spend more time on the idea than I am comfortable with doing.

Some practical advice
Unlike school exams, where you are not allowed to find answers through books or people, it is essential with improvement projects to do just this. Take every opportunity to cheat. Go to Amazon.com and buy yourself a big case of books directly and indirectly related to the subject. Use blogs, newsletters, Google, anything. Skim through content, but don’t get stuck. Pick the sweet cherries and move on.

Talk to any person that might have an opinion. Give open questions and throw out ideas.  Have the courage to share an idea even if you think it may be bad, as a bad idea often triggers a good one. Build an environment of non-prestige and open thought. Test ideas between different people and learn from their reactions.

Even more important than the solution ideas are the relationships you establish, simply because they tend to stick much longer and they will help you evolve the idea. You should establish relationships with the senior managers. They will eventually become sponsors and senior advocates. You should also engage with experts. They are your main source for ideas, your future pilot teams, your early adopters and eventually your ambassadors of change. Having these people on board and engaged from the very start is your ultimate game changer for success.

As tradition suggests, you might also want to look at historic data and in this way build an understanding for the underlying problem and impact. It will help strengthen your case going forward.

Strive to have the starting point for creative thought as close as possible to the sum of current knowledge and then integrate. Don’t be afraid if you are a generalist rather than an expert. It helps you let go of prestige and keeping an open mind. If you are an expert, try to pretend you are not. It helps driving true curiosity.

Throughout this intense drive for knowledge, I have found it very important to also seek space for reflection. My mind needs a chance to digest and integrate all information. Funnily enough, it seems that the last place people seek creative reflection is in their office. I have two favourite places for reflection. One is a high hill close to nature and the other is my bath tub at home. No phone, no email, no notifications, no one jumping in through the door, no nothing, just some time of peace. Even if I don’t get the idea at that moment, I am convinced it creates the space for good ideas.

Summary
Throughout the idea phase I tend to want the following results. In my mind these things together form the idea.

  • Knowledge from as many sources as possible integrated through reflection
  • Good relationships with senior managers and key experts

And also:

  • Guiding principles – High level principles that point out key future characteristics around required behaviour, organisational structure, and process and enabling tools. This is important, because even if the underlying problem statement or the suggested solution turns out to be slightly wrong, the key principles can still make sense.
  • Problem statement – Points out key problems (and possible impacts). Important because the problems may be agreed even if the solution is slightly or completely wrong. It helps create a sense of urgency and works as a rationale to why you are doing the change.
  • Solution idea – An idea for a solution, which can be prototyped and evaluated. Important because it is tangible and serves as your starting point for further evolution. However, it is not likely that the initial idea for a solution is the same as the one eventually launched. So try and commit as little as possible to the solution. Instead, stick to the guiding principles and the problem statement. Use the solution to prove that this is not just a theoretical exercise but an evolution together with experts and stakeholders.

This is a bit longer than expected. Sorry about that. Maybe it is because I find this phase so exciting. Next I will try and share some experience on how to best leverage on an idea. Until then, good luck with your improvements!

Johannes

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