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Where do good ideas come from?

13 Dec 2010

Steven Johnson asks exactly that in his new book. The answer is perhaps not what many people might expect. The process of personal discovery is perhaps longer and slower than many people might expect.  Johnson talks about the importance of environment and uses the coffee house in seventeenth century Oxford to illustrate his point. Coffee houses brought people together and actually had them stimulated and sober (not always the case previously!) The creation of a place to socialize and share ideas changed how long it took for new ideas to develop. Johnson also looks at how some physics geeks who wanted to listen to Sputnik inadvertently created the basic thinking behind the now ubiquitous GPS system that sits on your phone or saves you from getting lost in the car.  His research does not point to ideas being created in some flash of inspiration but through a process of discussion, collaboration, exploration and realisation. He uses Darwin to illustrate this point very well.

So, take a look and think about where your good ideas come from?  Do you create alone? Or do you grow them with the support of confidantes who share your interest until they are ready to blossom?

1000 Thanks! @Bloomfire

10 Dec 2010

We recently signed up for Bloomfire with a desire to see how we might use it to build a learning community.  Our thinking was to be more interactive with clients and maintain a dialogue where not only can we talk to them but they can also talk to each other; it’s all about sharing, building insights and learning new ways to do business better.

Little did we know that the mere act of signing up had kick started a party in Kalamazoo, Michigan in the United States.  Unknowingly we had become the 1000th Bloomfire.  A short exchange of e-mails later and Josh Little the CEO granted us a years use of the application – much better than his other idea (a toaster – although we could have made use of that too!)

Bloomfire is a great service, it has a passion about it that we love, read their manifesto and you will see exactly what I mean. They think it is about time that traditional models of learning were disrupted, we agree!  What’s more, we love disruptive technology, it has the power to change the status quo and bring real improvements in how things get done. See my post on how Oracle technology can save millions by making use of law to build fantastic systems HERE for another great example.

So, good luck Bloomfire! It is great to share in your milestone achievement, we look forward to seeing just how you grow over the next year and what more you have in store for us.

Contestsourcing…are you scared? Maybe you should be!

08 Dec 2010

The world has shrunk!

IdeaSown logo

We recently posted some thoughts on our initial experience of using a logo design service from logomyway in The crowd in the cloud.  Well the contest that we had just kicked off has now drawn to a conclusion with the result duly posted in our header as our new logo.  It was a great service, a great experience and a great result; we can’t recommend them, or the winning designer Roseetha from Indonesia, highly enough.

We said before that the world was shrinking – when guys like Tom Peters started evangelizing  about outsourcing he made the point that you don’t find the best finance guys on the 17th floor of your own building.  If you have any sense you don’t have any finance guys, and maybe not even 17 floors!  You go get the best service from where the best service is available, and that might be any component of your business not just finance so that you can focus on what is core to your vision and mission.  People like Sir Richard Branson built empires based on this belief.  But, this is different, this brings a competitive edge to the whole process.  Logomyway are US based, the designers were from all four corners of the globe, who needs to look at what is nearby?   On things that can be competed rapidly like this why would I want to limit my choices to what is local to me?  Okay things are often competed, but usually they involve scale, IT contracts, building maintenance and so on.  Think smaller for once, think about components rather than large scale services.

The design world is different, if only in some small way at the moment.  But this is an unstoppable trend, if it can be done for logos then there are a lot more things that can be done this way.  Why should I pay an expensive fee to one designer for a couple of choices when I can get over two hundred options from multiple designers in more or less the same timeframe?  I was wrong when I said the world was shrinking, consider it shrunk!

We aren’t surprised by this, IdeaSown’s people have been working with this change for many years.  What is surprising though is that this model forces you to question just what else is being done at high cost in organisations where this kind of approach can not just cut cost but can slash it to pieces?  If I were sitting in logomyway or some of the other similar enterprises I would have other ideas in development now (might have to think about that more…).

If this has you thinking, then get in touch, we can help your thought processes along based on real experience of what can be done now and some thoughts on what the future might hold.


A perfect (brain)storm?

07 Dec 2010

I’m often invited to brainstorm ideas. 90% of the time, the format is identical to the one I was taught in school:

The person running the brainstorm sets the ground rules (no criticism), defines what the subject is and then stands at a whiteboard and invites people to shout out ideas, writing as fast as they can to keep up with the flow (but never managing to capture them all). After a  few minutes, the group stands back to ‘evaluate’ what has been said (in a fairly random way)

Does this approach capture the diverse thinking in the room? Does everyone get a chance to creative?
Does it  generate new options (rather than gathering things people have already thought of)?
Does this approach work for you?  – Do you feel that you’ve come up with your best creative ideas in these sessions?

How else should group creative thinking be done? What is the best you’ve seen?

Let us know and we’ll post the ideas we like the most.

Think! Before you plan…

06 Dec 2010

Too busy planning to think?

In my experience, it is all too easy to rush into a Programme or Project, throwing the full panoply of planning methodologies at them and then be surprised as the initiatives begin to founder. Why is that?

Often, the problem is that too little thinking is done up front, when a project or programme is started. Projects and programmes are designed to implement or deliver some form of change – whether that is (for example) business process improvement, a new policy, an ICT project or a new building. However, too little thought at the outset as to the nature of the change and the level of uncertainty involved can mean that the best planning methodologies are applied in an inappropriate way.

Eddie Obeng[1] has helpfully written about two main elements of uncertainty for Programmes and Projects – how well the objectives/outcomes are known (the ‘what’) and how well the mechanisms for delivery are known (the ‘how’). This classic ‘Boston Grid’ (see below) then suggests four different kinds of change project or programme.

Obeng project analysis grid

Problems arise if, for example, ‘vanilla’ PRINCE 2 is used on a project in the bottom left box. Here, lack of clarity of exactly what is being delivered and how that will be achieved, means that detailed planning with resource schedules, full document control, mature governance arrangements etc., is highly likely to do more harm than good. Instead,the plans needed are likely to comprise very short bursts of activity designed to clarify the ‘what’ or the ‘how’ (quite often – though not always – in that order), working very closely with stakeholders with frequent decision points to review progress.

Surely, I here you cry, all change initiatives know what they are trying to achieve – otherwise, how could they start? Well – yes and no. Yes, because there is likely to be some high level statement of direction. For example, eradication of child poverty in a generation or diversification into a new market. No because, although both of these examples are about the ‘what’ – that is not defined to a level that much reduces the uncertainty of exactly what will be delivered. For example – what mechanism will be delivered to help reduce child poverty? Or exactly into which markets and with what products should we diversify?

Interestingly, on this ‘what’/’how’ analysis, the ‘simple’ application of project or programme management methodologies only works well in what we have called the ‘template’ box – where the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ are both clear. ‘Simple’ not because such projects or programmes aren’t complex or difficult – they often are; simple because the planning horizon is much longer, with clear understanding of resource needs etc.

That doesn’t mean that initiatives starting elsewhere on the grid shouldn’t be planned – far from it. But the nature of the plans, the type of resources involved, the nature of governance, the level and type of stakeholder involvement, etc. will all be very different for each of the areas on the grid.

So – what’s the message here? That methodologies like PRINCE 2 and MSP don’t work? Emphatically not! They are both sound and highly comprehensive approaches. Paradoxically, given what I have said above – both can be applied to all points on the grid. The message is the unthinking application of these approaches in the expectation that the project or programme can then be successful is positively dangerous. Both PRINCE 2 and MSP should be applied with careful thought, including consideration of where on the above grid the project or programme falls.

For more information on our approach to project and programme kick-off or evaluation, please contact us at

[1] Founder of the Pentacle Business School

Beware banana skins

03 Dec 2010

Why is it so hard to deliver public sector outcomes?

Beware banana skins! Firstly, the nature of public sector outcomes are often intrinsically difficult. Many concern so called ‘wicked problems’ (I’ll return to this theme in another post – looking at what I mean by a wicked problem and why even the terminology can become a barrier). Examples include: eradication of child poverty in a generation; tackling childhood obesity; creating the so-called ‘big society’; and a recent addition – improving the well-being of the nation. These are big issues with multiple causes that interact with each other in complex ways.

Secondly, many of the outcomes demand patience; they are long-term conditions that take time to change. And patience is in short supply. In both the public and private sectors, short-termism is king. Whether it is results for the public before the next election or fast returns on shareholders investments, most managers and leaders are encouraged to think in months or quarters rather than years or decades. Yet, for example, tackling childhood obesity is likely to demand changes in behaviour both amongst consumers and producers that will take longer than the term of one Parliament to yield results. And it may well be that we are genetically programmed to like precisely those foods that are most harmful – because in times of hardship, access to high calorie, high fat foods was a rarity. It is only now that such foods are available in such large quantities that our genetic predisposition has become a problem.

Thirdly, even when longer-term approaches are instigated, the reality of day-to-day politics – and the media frenzy that accompanies it – means that fire-fighting can become the predominant modus operandi for any administration, regardless of political persuasion.

Fourthly – and more worryingly – even when all the above factors are tacitly acknowledged, the public sector (both politicians and officials) tends to value problem-solving techniques. That is, an issue is seen as a ‘problem’ to which a single ‘solution’ can be found rather than a set of conditions that are likely to require multiple approaches, working together and being adjusted over time to reflect changes in those conditions and the environment. My personal experience in the civil service is that problem-solving is deeply ingrained into the culture; it is a key factor for recruitment and is the main source of reward in terms of performance management and promotion. Whilst capabilities such as ‘strategic thinking’ that might offer alternative, more nuanced approaches to outcome delivery, are a part of the published senior civil service skill set (see Professional Skills for Government on the Cabinet Office website), it is rare (though not impossible) to find these recognised and rewarded. Meanwhile, Whitehall’s mandarins continue to develop leaders in their own (problem-orientated) image.

So, many public sector outcomes are undoubtedly hard to achieve. Perhaps they should be by definition – otherwise we could address them ourselves. They demand sophisticated approaches that are more about creating the conditions for success than simplistic quick-fix ‘solutions’. The failure at the heart of government is one of imagination and creativity – thinking through the conditions that will successfully deliver outcomes, the indicators that be used to monitor success and the feedback mechanisms (and adjustments to conditions) that will keep delivery on track. To find out more about our approach to unlocking the creative potential latent within your organisation, contact us at

(In later posts I shall return to the theme of Wicked Problems and whether public sector outcomes matter).

Getting really involved in a conference or large meeting

03 Dec 2010

I’ve just got back from a great conference on the mobile user experience (MEX) which brought together practitioners in mobile, media and design to consider 6 pathways or challenges. What was great was its design – imaginative speakers, workshops to consider how to overcome each challenge and a great venue. Space to be imaginative and really discuss your own views and ideas.

How many conferences have you been to where the quality of the speakers is the only attraction ? – where after lunch on day 2, people are drifting off, where you really can’t switch off from the demands of the office. Where if you don’t feel like asking a question in front of all your peers, you don’t really have a chance to speak, where you’re hoping to meet just a few new people over coffee or lunch.

Careful design of a conference or meeting can lead to a much more involving and engaging experience – IdeaSown has implemented a stack of really great approaches to add fizz and energy to a conference or meeting. Email for more.

find out more about MEX at

Dealing with dominant voices

02 Dec 2010

Working with groups

How do I deal with the same old people who always dominate the conversation in our product development meetings? asked a designer from a new telco JV.

The secret is not to ‘deal’ with them at all – but to get others in the room talking:


  • acknowledge what they have to say is useful/valuable
  • summarise what issue the group is working on (in case the conversation has gone off track)
  • say you’d like to offer everyone in the room the chance to contribute
  • divide people into smaller groups (2s, 3s, 4s)
  • after a few minutes ask for feedback from each group

This will enable the quieter ones to share their views in a ‘safer’ environment and ensure that a diverse range of views are heard.


30 Nov 2010

@tdelet on Twitter posted an interesting message today saying that he wished his daughter could get her textbooks on Kindle or ipad because the textbook was such an anachronism.  I wrote about six responses before finally settling on “Textbooks may be an anachronism but you try throwing an ipad at an annoying classmate and see what happens!” and at least made light of the post.

The first six were a real moan at someone wanting to get rid of books in any form.  As a species we owe so much of who and what we are to books that it is simply immeasurable.  I know in reality that @tdelet was only after the removal of the paper component and not the book itself and that ultimately this is the way things are going.  But, there are times when just because we could it doesn’t mean we should.  I had it pointed out to me not so long ago that there is much to the touch and feel of a book that an ipad or Kindle cannot replace.  Try keeping a love letter in between the electronic pages of an ebook, or passing a classmate a sneaky note or hiding under the covers late at night with a torch, or reading in a hot bath; there are plenty of other things you can do with books that their electronic cousins can’t cope with or just don’t have the same appeal (throwing them at annoying oiks definitely being one of them).

Much of our understanding of lost civilizations comes from the written record that they leave behind.  Even now we are still decrypting and interpreting ancient languages and their texts.  The electronic book readers are somehow not as likely to be as resilient as their anachronistic cousins.  Even if we believe we are safe from the extinctions of history and that technology can cope with any eventuality there is still much to be said for books on paper.  We live in a fast paced world with information overload I don’t think we need to push that more on to children than we already do.  Encourage them to be creative, thoughtful, find their own way…who knows some of them might prefer the weighty feel of a good textbook.  You can’t put a Kindle down the back of your trousers before getting a caning from the Headmaster…no wait a minute they don’t do that anymore, do they?

Okay, so things move on, times change and the book’s days may be coming to an end.  That doesn’t mean we can’t mourn their passing and look back fondly.

Opportunity knocks

30 Nov 2010

Apple Logo

“So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.'”

–Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and HP interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer.

Do you recognise opportunities when they present themselves?  Or, do you let old patterns of thinking constrain your imagination?  Do you have processes in place to encourage your team to bring you new ideas?  Do you have something in place to collect thoughts, evaluate ideas and encourage collaboration to improve on good ideas? Do you reward your team when they bring you great ideas to encourage everyone to want to improve things?

Not many organisations can answer yes to any of these questions, fewer still can answer yes to them all.  Yet this is what you need to have in place as a minimum to encourage creativity and innovation in your organisation.  There are lots more things you can do if you want to get serious about it.

You might think this is an isolated example.  Sadly the truth is far from it, the business world is littered with examples of missed opportunities.  It is important to think through your innovation strategy and build a process structure so that you recognize opportunities when they come along.  Don’t miss the vital opportunity that can set you above the rest.  Contact us now to discuss how we can help.

FedEx Logo

“The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.”

–A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)

Will it be Bleak House or Great Expectations for the UK?

25 Nov 2010

Take a look at the Briefing Paper (Resources > Downloads) entitled Bleak House or Great Expectations and give some thought to how creative you are and expect your team to be.  The UK finds itself in an unpleasant situation economically and yet the Prime Minister Gordon Brown had an early warning signal of a banking collapse as the greatest threat to national security.  Sadly his response was to close down the establishment that made the prediction.  There may not have been hard evidence for the thinking at the time, but with hindsight the frighteningly prophetic nature of the warning seems at least to have been a lost opportunity to consider the potential and risk. We place too much reliance on institutions at times and not enough value on creative thought.  Now we need some real creativity to get us out of a deep hole.

Slaying dragons with Sir Ken

24 Nov 2010

Sir Ken Robinson is an educational guru with a fantastic ability to put the most complicated problems in clear and simple to understand terms. This animated version of his RSA talk is fascinating, frightening, encouraging and a whole lot more. It is well worth the investment of time to prompt you to think about how creativity is being constrained by the way we educate our children and a system that is no longer fit for purpose. This chimes with my earlier post A glorious rant which had Tom Peters on much the same topic. If you are in education then this is essential viewing.

A glorious rant

23 Nov 2010

Tom Peters is a man who presents with real passion and conviction.  He looks at the same things as everyone else but somehow sees them differently to other people.  The results are often astounding.  When he wrote the Circle of Innovation in the 90’s there were almost no competitor books available anywhere.  Now, and I would suggest largely thanks to Tom, innovation is a major issue with plenty of awareness and a lot of good material on the market to help.  In this talk he shows just how easily we allow creativity to be systematically destroyed by a lack of thought and awareness.  Creativity has probably taken over from innovation as a key issue (not everyone has realized yet!) so just take a moment to think…do you foster creativity in your organisation or are you inadvertently crushing it?

Having had the pleasure and privilege of seeing Tom speak live I can say that from real experience when Tom speaks it is worth listening.  When he rants…pay close attention it just might be something that changes the world.

Tom Peters on Creativity

No thinking please – we’re civil servants!

19 Nov 2010

The ThinkerI was shocked to hear from a colleague recently that a senior manager in a large central government department in the UK had said to someone whom they manage “we can no longer afford the luxury of thinking – we just have to do!”

It’s difficult to know where to start when exploring the many levels on which that statement is wrong. Leaving aside the de-motivating affect it had on the staff member involved (though that in itself is bad enough), here are just a few reasons why it is very far short of the mark:

  • Firstly, it implies that in times of austerity ‘thinking’ is no longer required. Wrong; as I have said elsewhere – in times of crisis more thought is required to ensure that the desired results or outcomes are crystal clear and prioritised
  • Secondly, it implies that there is no need to question activities that have always been done. Wrong again; scarce resources should be directed towards the achievement of desired results (see first bullet). Some activities may need to stop entirely, others reduced, others increased (yes – increased, even when times are hard)
  • Thirdly, it implies that there is no better way of doing things than what has always been done – that the civil service is a machine honed to perfection. Almost certainly wrong again – though that needs to be tested. That too requires more thought, not less: could we achieve the outcomes more efficiently and effectively in a different way? Are there alternative service delivery models – including collaborating with partners – that could better achieve the outcomes? Are our efforts all prioritised with respect to the desired outcomes?
  • Fourthly, it implies that the coalition government is all-knowing and merely needs automatons to do it’s bidding. Most certainly wrong – the government has explicitly stated it wants to “steer rather than row”. I hope that steering involves thinking, otherwise we will all be in trouble! Joking aside, this government, like any other, recognises that there is a partnership between ministers and officials. That requires thought and challenge from both sides. Ministers may provide the Political vision (which can define and prioritise the desired results), but officials have a huge role in helping them define that through clear thinking and evidence about the operational environment in which services will be delivered. Officials will also help to identify options for delivery – that might even require (dare I say it) creative  thinking
  • Fifthly, it implies that the UK public doesn’t expect the civil service to think. From this taxpayers personal point of view that is most certainly wrong again (see above!)

On reflection, given that I know the senior manager who made the comment, I was less shocked than I should have been. However – and thank goodness – not all public servants are like that member of the senior civil service. If, like me, you believe such a sentiment to be utterly wrong-headed and would like to explore ways to unlock the potential latent within your organisation, perhaps we can help.

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