Ideas Factory: How to Generate and Present New Ideas at Work?
Miłosz Wojtyna8 listopada 2023
You are being exploited cognitively. Every day. Your brains are the resource your employers, colleagues, and customers want to make use of. And they do – they rely on your brainpower in the different ways they do business.
That’s reality. We are brainpower for business. We are paid to offer whatever gray matter we have. There is no other way – at least as long as you want to do the jobs you do rather than switch to something more manual, physical.
The demand to think every day brings a challenging dilemma: what to think about? Seriously, I’m sure this is a major challange. Why? Because there are better and worse ways of using our brains at work.
In the training, I have tried to show you that thinking about optimization, improvement, innovation, and change can be productive and rewarding at the same time because it connects your own understanding of what could and should be done with the most basic needs of the company you work for – that is, the need for a better bottom line. For more money, that is. Improving your workplace is always a good way to use your brainpower.
There is also a softer dimension to it, too: when you are smart in deciding what you do with your time, you might also bring actual non-monetary change to your working environment. That change will be especially valuable because it will be yours – it will be the one you have designed, presented, and launched. But you know that: you know how much fun it is to get ideas and push them into the world.
Okay, but how to do all this well, again? Let me try and answer this question by summarizing what we did in our workshop.
In this summary, I’d like to bring together observations on three issues:
- What is an idea?
- How to present an idea?
- How to do it together?
1. What is an idea?
Some thoughts are easy to formulate and discuss. Some are more difficult. Some are almost indescribable. We don’t want to push those that seem slightly too difficult to talk about. Not because we chicken out, but because these ideas might perhaps need more time to mature. It is common practice among good thinkers to sit on a new thought for a bit. No hurry doesn’t mean procrastination. It means reasonable judgement.
Curating and promoting a ready idea is way easier than developing something that is not yet there. Take your time, then, and push your idea into production when you feel it’s ready to be developed.
How to know if something’s ready? Check if you can get short answers to the following questions:
- What does this idea consist in?
- What problem does it solve?
- What benefit does it bring – and to whom?
- Why should you do it now?
- Why should YOU do it – rather than somebody else?
- Do you want to spend (dozens of) hours developing this idea, talking to people about it, and then taking care of implementation? Yes or no?
If you can answer these questions without too much difficulty, it means your ideas is there, and ready for “processing”. If you can’t just yet, give yourself time. The thought will grow.
Or perhaps it shouldn’t – like Joey’s overenthusiastic business plan:
If you want to avoid a flop like Joey’s, try to gather information on your idea that will help you work nicely with some detail later. Much of what you gather at this stage will be useful later. You can use this file here to note down all relevant detail. Notice, please, how much this “Idea Generation Canvas” draws from the ideation model startups use to give shape to their business proposals.
2. How to present an idea?
At work, you are hardly ever alone (even if your seem to be in the online environments of remote work). There are people you affect and are affected by. For your ideas to work well, you need support. Where will you find it? The easiest answer is this: among your peers and superiors. These two groups will surely have something to offer – either approval, or actual help. With some ideas you’ll need that third source of support, too: the customers.
Think of who they are and what they need now. What is it? The first thing is always the same: they need to be taken care of. And that means we need to help them understand and enjoy what you want to propose.
HELP THEM FOCUS
You know we can’t focus on everything. Nobody can. That’s why before you ask anybody to analyse anything new you’re bringing to them, you want to remove any background noise or distractions they might be troubled by when you show that idea to them. You need to make it easier. How? There are several ways:
- speak to them at an appropriate time (e.g., when they’re still fresh in the morning or happy with a success, or when they’ve told you they want new ideas),
- give them time to focus before you get to the main point,
- say the same thing twice (or three times, or four, but with different words), so that it can grow on them,
- don’t overload them with things to do. Give them something so that they feel involved, but not too much.
To approach it differently – and to quote what one of you said in our training: think of how you want to say something important to a child. Before you speak, you want to make sure they’re listening.
MAKE IT RELEVANT
Ideas are best assimilated when they are relevant to those we present them to. Think of how excited you would be with a fervently delivered detailed proposal for a revolutionary change in Romanian mining industry. Not even remotely, huh? I am assuming Romanian mining industry is not your world. You don’t know it, and you don’t care too much about it.
The relevance of ideas is best speculated on through the mapping of interests and involvement. What duties does the person you want to talk to have? What are their daily concerns? Do they think about processes or people? Or both? What is their priority? What are they responsible for? What do they need to find your idea useful, attractive, and – ultimately – relevant.
The relevance of ideas is best tested in conversation or a hands-on presentation. It is conversation that sparks interest. It is hands-on presentation that spurs belief.
If you cannot show your idea in a prototype “lets-see-how-it-works” mode, you should prepare to speak about it in as vivid and evocative way as possible – so that the people you are talking to can feel the proposal is palpable. Palpable: something material, something we can touch.
Touch and vision inspire belief. That’s why Jesus allows Thomas to feel his wounds. That’s why Steve Jobs takes the iPod out of his pocket at the end of the talk.
Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.Jesus appears to Thomas, John 20:27
If you can’t show your idea – because it is not about a physical object, but a process, an improvement, a campaign, a different way of doing things – you want to show its impact, or the benefits it brings.
How? By being clear, concise, and coherent (that is, by following the 3C rule) and planning your communication nicely. How can you do the latter?
CONNECT PROBLEM TO SOLUTION
First, try and connect the description of the problem your idea solves with a presentation of the solution itself. First problem, then solution.
This is not a rule that you cannot make exceptions from, but it’s a basis you can rely on very well.
The “problem statement” part is where you want to dramatize the importance of the matter. You want your audience to feel that – of all problems in the world – this one is important for them today. How can it – if everything else also seems to be competing for their attention, their support, their resources? Well, the more relevant your idea is to the person your are talking to – and to their problems – the more likely they are to help you launch it.
In the problem statement, you want to focus on how much the problem is:
- real – that is, not imaginary or potential; the problem must be shown as a fact,
- impactful – especially in terms of profitability, reputation, or business continuity; you want to show the problem is fundamental (not trivial) and affects the existence of people and business,
- burning – and urgent, too; if the problem has persisted since times immemorial, it might seem naive to even try to deal with it; if it has just appeared and continues to be killing us, it’s exactly what we want to focus on,
- solvable – you want assurance that what you are trying to deal with can, and will, effectively be handled.
How can you know the problem better? Try to observe it from the point of view of somebody it affects. You can describe the day in the life of somebody who suffers from the consequences of the problem. How, exactly? Provide answers to the following questions:
- Who is affected by the problem you want to solve? How many people are there?
- Who suffers the most? Why?
- What does this problem mean to them? How does it affect their work?
- Is the problem a real bloody-pain-in-the-neck issue, or something people have learnt to ignore?
- Do the people affected demand a solution to the problem? Or do they perhaps dream of it?
- Has anyone else - apart from yourself - noticed a solution might be needed?
- What would change at work for that person (people) if that problem were solved? How would they work differently?
Have you prepared your problem statement well? Then it’s time for social consultation. Talk to a colleague now who is known for their skepticism. Gather early responses. What are they? What does the colleague think of the problem? Is it a problem to them? Can you use their suggestions to improve your approach? If you can, do it.
PRESENT THE SOLUTION
It’s now time to think of a solution. How to present it well? Here’s a list of general suggestions, and then a link to some practical advice and my self-study materials on presentation skills:
- Show benefits. They need to know what good the idea brings them.
- Tell a story if you can that will present the problem in context – or will metaphorically make it more evident. For example:
- Show WHAT will happen, WHO will do it, and WHEN.
- Prepare materials to follow up with. Some document, slides, timeline, or even a simple summary to the meeting. Some people may want more than words.
If you are delivering a presentation on your idea, you can build it with the 3-step model I recommend here.
There is a lot of detail in the model on how to prepare a lovely talk from scratch, so here I’ll only remind you briefly:
The first step is about organizing content for your presentation. The second step is to design body language and the ways you are going to use your voice. The third step is to think of how you can engage your audience in the presentation.
This third step brings us to something larger: recruiting support and maintaining other people’s engagement in your project. And I don’t mean just those who need to get your their approval. I mean everybody who might either be able to help, or to benefit from your work. What you need from them is the exact opposite of what Ross gets from the professor here.
3. How to do it together?
“Why should we?”, you may ask. “It’s my idea, not somebody else’s”. That’s a perfectly valid objection. I know some of you excel at individual deep work. That’s awesome! It’s your strength, and you can very nicely launch a lot of projects single-handedly.
I believe, though, that some of the best things in our lives are experienced in the company of others. Analogically, best ideas – even if they are born in the minds of individuals – are best explored in teams, or in communities. Solitude helps the creative mind, but only to a degree.
In other words: brains need company. Ideas need confrontation and following. Even more so, perhaps, in business.
[That’s why it is always essential for me to work with teams rather than individuals. There is that fire burning in each of you that needs sharing, and it’s best shared in the group of colleagues.]
Business needs those confrontations more than anything. Not only can it (the business) validate the logic of the idea it considers, but also can improve it through conversation and collaboration. That’s obvious and important, but difficult to practice. Most often decision-makers want things done, but can hardly afford to help them be done. For that reason, they might be hesitant to get involved.
Similarly, your colleagues might support your new proposal theoretically, but it will cost them a lot (of time, of cognitive power) to help you practically. So it will be difficult to expect them to support you. Unless…
Unless you solicit that support early on and make it your common interest. Unless you make it a team win. How? Let’s see.
Do you remember this video?
The power of the strategy the employee uses here is in the fact he involves the boss. The employee knows very well that he is not going to make a success of his intentions without her support. Without her blessing. She knows, in turn, that the idea makes sense – and his engagement does, too. It would be a mistake not to use his energy for the benefit of the company – and her own.
Notice, though, that she was given no chance to be mistaken – not to notice the benefits to herself and the company. The guy is smart to be well-prepared and empathetic (rather than egocentric) in the way he presents the proposal (“You’d be able to get to your sun’s play without being rushed”).
This is how we can help others make sense of our ideas – and solicit their support.
What kind of support do you need, really?
This depends on what you want to do, but these are usually the 6 things:
- You want them to know and understand the idea (project, proposal). This is difficult to achieve.
- You want them to share comments (or test the idea early on). This one is even more difficult.
- You want them to get your their blessing. If the two above are achieved, this one should be relatively easier.
- You want them to want to learn more as the project develops. This, again, is difficult, because they will tend to forget what you meant.
- You want them to get engaged at some point. This is risky and necessary: if it’s just you, they’ll hardly ever think the change is relevant to them.
- You want them to get you feedback on implementation. Simple feedback is easy to get. Detailed feedback is what you will sometimes want.
How to get these 6 kinds of support?
When you have developed a presentation for the idea (project, proposal), and arranged a meeting at which you will present it, think of the next steps:
- Follow up with materials that describe the same idea in a different code (e.g., in a written document, in images, in a video instruction, etc.).
- Once you’ve got approval, organize a practical workshop that explains the idea (project, proposal) to everyone affected. If meeting is costly, prepare a video with a screen recording app (check here how to make a training video with Loom).
- At the same time, run a series of individual conversations with those people you want to be advocates (promoters) of your idea. Make sure they understand the idea and see benefits.
- Report progress (success, failure) regularly so that everyone knows how advanced the project has become and how close the better reality is.
- Ask them questions about how the idea (project, proposal) has changed their work. Do this either individually, or in the form of a survey if the audience is large.
- Show how obliged and grateful you are for the support and engagement.
Yes, a big systematic “thank you” is fun. Even if the project ultimately didn’t bring the results you expected. Let’s not make Joey’s mistake again and “Damnit-Carl” everybody.
Okay, and then what?
Then the long life of your idea begins.
How long will it be? Will it be life worth living? Well, you’ll see for yourselves. But if you have gone through this summary thinking of how to launch your project nicely, I’m sure you’ll do well!
Let me know how things are going. And watch some “Friends”.