Creative Thinking for Business
Creative Thinking E-book
People tend to typically see only a limited view of the subject and tend to naturally fortify their own position, which of course leads to arguments, not progress.
Let’s assume you have a new idea, proposal, new product design, or new process. You attend a meeting to review the product or concept. If your meetings flow like most organizations, your meeting will tend to randomly bounce back and forth between the pros, cons, information, gut feel, which leads to arguments, entrenchment, and either slow and inefficient progress, or no progress at all.
Obviously any subject matter can be discussed from various points of view. The concept of “Idea Rockets” is that the entire room is required to think about the subject and discuss it from various points of view, but only one view at a time and everyone at the same time. Everyone will mentally ride the same thought rocket at the same time.
If this concept is not totally clear yet, hold on and you will see what I mean as we go through some examples. This concept is very powerful and my research shows you can generate 5 to 10 times as many ideas in the same amount of time that you normally would.
The rockets are used as a metaphor. Each rocket allows the team to think about an issue, problem, or opportunity from only one perspective at a time. Everyone mentally rides the same rocket at the same time. Everyone is brainstorming at rocket speed with the same trajectory. Everyone is required to think about that specific view of the subject and only that view while they are on a specific rocket. When you are satisfied that you have enough ideas relative to a given mental rocket, you move on to the next.
Again, all of the team members ride the same rocket at the same time. Once a single rocket has been discussed appropriately, then all of the team members switch rockets and focus only on that rocket or aspect of the subject matter. Sounds pretty simple, huh? Perhaps you are struggling with how this would really help. The dynamics of what happens are pretty amazing.
Let’s take the “Positive Pete”, which stands for “feasibility and benefits.” Everyone starts off by mentally riding Positive Pete and the floor is open for discussion on “feasibility and benefits” only. As the ideas start to flow, some bonehead will likely interject why the idea, in general, stinks. Now in a normal business conversation, this would lead to arguments and fortifications. But because we are using Idea Rockets as a creative thinking tool, the team quickly tells the objectioner, “Wait until later to criticize, we are only discussing feasibility and benefits at this time. Hold that criticism until we get to “Negative Nick” or the Pessimists viewpoint.
So what usually happens? The objectioner will probably curl his lip and pout. They usually do, but not for long. After they sit quietly stewing, they listen to all of the great feasibility ideas rolling out from other team members and suddenly they join in. Why? Because they heard an idea that made them think of something else. Maybe it’s because they don’t want to be left out of the conversation, or a number of other reasons. But what’s important is that they are now contributing and not arguing. Now they are thinking along the same line as the rest of the room and riding the same rocket. The ideas continue to flow.
Does this always happen? Well no, once in a while the person will be quiet until their “favorite” rocket is launched. But this is rare, very rare. In any case if they don’t contribute, you still win because they are not interrupting the flow of great ideas.
What this tool allows you to do is to generate a lot of ideas in a minimum amount of time. You can spend as little as 10-15 minutes on each rocket. The first time you use this tool you will be amazed at the amount of ideas you have created and that it only took you an hour or so.
Let’s discuss each rocket, run through an example, and at the end we will discuss some of the more effective ways to use the “Idea Rockets” tool.
The Positive Pete rocket stands for feasibility and benefits. It’s a pretty straight forward concept. Your team starts brainstorming all the positive attributes they can think of. With Positive Pete, everyone is a pure optimist. If it is not obvious how the idea will work, try and brainstorm how it could work. Piggyback on each other’s ideas as much as you can.
I really like to start with this one because it is positive. If you have a hostile, negative crowd in the meeting, the first thing they want to do is jump on all the reasons why an idea won’t work. If you start off making people think of all the possible benefits up front, it tends to stop them from getting all worked up into a lather of negativity. Plus, the team building aspects of starting on a positive note and building upon other’s ideas is a great benefit.
You will often identify a lot of negative attributes to an idea. But when you analyze the whole concept, you may find the pros outweigh the cons. In this case, go back and look at the Negative Nick list again. Using a realistic risk assessment, your team can determine that perhaps two or three of the negative ideas are really valid or probable. The original idea can then be modified to minimize the identified risk. Your team can consciously design out the negative features. Plus you can modify processes and features into the original idea to minimize the impact on the project if the negative attribute really does happen. Negative Nick definitely has his place, just don’t overdue it.
What information do we have? What information do we need? What information is missing? What information would we like to have? How are we going to get the information?
Many brainstorming sessions naturally use Pete and Nick. Most people get around to talking about the pros and cons of an idea (even if they argue to get there). But asking the team to think specifically about the world of data and information is not common. In a typical meeting, someone will often present data and then the room is off to the races with the pros, cons, and what to do. Seldom do people stop and collectively as a group ask the data related questions.
Often you will find out there is more data available to help guide the decision process, or you find out what data the engineers really need to move forward, or you discover what information the sales force really needs to be able to sell the idea. Data Debbie helps reveal this information and is critical to the creativity process.
Why should we care? Your gut feel comes from all of your education, your previous experiences, similar circumstances, past data, past programs, previous successes, and failures. It comes from your lifetime of experiences. Even though you don’t have mounds of supporting data for how you “feel” about an idea, it is extremely valuable input to the discussion.
When you exercise
Gutsy Gale in a brainstorming session, the approach is a little different.
Everyone rides the same rocket at the same time as with the other rockets,
but only one person speaks at a time and every person must contribute
how they feel about it.
word here is short – no more than a minute at most. Just enough
time so the rest of the room gets a basic understanding of how each person
feels. You don’t want to have each person fully justify their feelings.
Just a quick answer. This forces the person to identify the most critical
things that are making them feel the way they do. Make it crystal clear
to everyone that each person’s feelings count. Also give the assurance
that each person can state how they feel without the fear of criticism
from the other team members.
Often the person sitting at the Control Console is also the scribe, but this is not a requirement.
Mission Control controls the agenda, makes sure all ideas are captured, and keeps people in line. There is some amazing psychology that takes place here. You simply have to announce, "Jennifer is Mission Control today, and she is in control of this brainstorming session. She will review the rules with you. Whatever she says goes. Please respect her position as the Mission Controller today."
Now you have one person who feels personally responsible for keeping the meeting under control. Without Mission Control, you could have a bunch a chiefs running around thinking they are in charge. This is another great one to experience when the boss is not Mission Control. If fact, never make the senior person the M.C. in a brainstorming session if you can help it.
The other benefit is that everyone knows who is in charge of running the meeting. It is amazing to see the effect on the group dynamics by simply telling the room "so and so" is in charge. They will actually listen and when they don't, Mission Control is usually quick to keep them in line. This really speeds up a meeting.
So we have just reviewed the basics of the Idea Rockets. Let's look at a quick example of how we would apply this tool.
Assume that we are thinking about buying a Little Caesars Pizza franchise. We could use any example, problem, proposal we want. It really doesn't matter; it works with just about anything, but let's try this one on for size. If you take each rocket one at a time and apply the Idea Rocket principles, we might get a list of items like this.
In each of the rocket sessions you can easily come up with over 100 ideas in a matter of minutes. You might then feel overwhelmed with what to do next, but it’s easy. Simply look at all the items and select the ones that you feel are the most important. Whittle the items down to a manageable list and put together a plan to either buy the franchise or not based on using this tool.
Do the positive items outweigh the negative ones? Can you put together a contingency plan for the most likely or risky Negative Nick items? Do you need more information before you make a decision? How do you feel about it in your gut? Did Creative Cathy generate a more attractive idea? Did you control yourself?
Before we move on to the next Sly as a Fox tool, let me give you a couple of really practical applications for the Idea Rockets.
Obviously all or part of the various rockets can be used to run any meeting and make it more productive in less time. Even if the rest of the team members are not familiar with the Idea Rockets, you can still apply them in meetings. Call it pros, cons, gut feeling, data, whatever works. Just make sure you review the brainstorming rules with everyone and that they know who is in charge (Mission Control).
The Idea Rockets is an excellent tool to use when you are first laying out the framework for a project plan. You can quickly brainstorm all of the issues that need to be addressed. You can use it to develop a presentation on a given subject.
Here’s a personal success story around Idea Rockets.
I worked as a NASA contractor for 15 years on the Space Shuttle Program. I worked at the Kennedy Space Center at the time the Challenger accident occurred in 1986. I will never forget those images for the rest of my life.
As I write this story, the Space Shuttle Columbia catastrophically broke apart on reentry just two days ago; a very eerie and sad irony.
The Challenger accident ended up being attributed to the joints and o-rings in the solid rocket motors that Thiokol built. The Shuttle was fixed and successfully returned to flight in 1988.
In 1989 the “Montreal Protocol” consortium banned the use of many ozone-depleting chemicals. The new laws directed manufactures to discontinue the production of chlorofluorocarbons by the year 1996. One chlorofluorocarbons called Trichloroethane, was used in the adhesive contained in the new solid rocket joints.
This is where I got a chance to use the Idea Rockets tool effectively, essentially out of survival. I was the program manager in charge of qualifying a new adhesive for the joints that did not contain Trichloroethane or any other of the ozone depleting compounds.
Over a two-year timeframe, we spent about $750,000 selecting and testing a new replacement adhesive. All of the tests were extremely successful. The final qualification was a $40 million full-scale static test of the solid rocket booster with the new adhesive in the joints. This static test had all kinds of machinery attached to it to shake and rattle the motor to directly simulate a real launch environment.
The static test was a huge success. The joints and the new adhesive performed flawlessly. It passed with flying colors. I was the “hero of the day”...but unfortunately, only for a day.
In the spring of 1996, the first launch of the Space Shuttle occurred with the new adhesive. The launch and mission were a huge success. However when the boosters were returned to KSC and disassembled, we were really shocked.
You guessed it…the adhesive leaked like a sieve. How could this be? We tested this stuff over and over again. We ran hundreds of lab tests. We simulated a launch in a full-scale static test environment.
Obviously we would be putting together an investigation team to figure out what went wrong. But right now we had a more pressing situation.
Shannon Lucid was aboard the MIR Space Station and was scheduled to return aboard the next Shuttle flight. This Shuttle was sitting on the pad waiting to be launched. It had the same “new” adhesive in the joints. “Houston, we have a problem.” NASA informed Shannon Lucid that there would be a delay in the launch and that she would have to stay on the station for an indefinite amount of time. Shannon said, “I am disappointed to hear that because I was looking forward to returning home so I could have some potato chips and ice cream.” When I returned to my office there were several dozen bags of potato chips on the floor. Who says rocket scientists don’t have a sense of humor.
So what does this have to do with creative thinking? I remember what seemed like about two seconds later, I was in the General Manager’s office learning that I had just been assigned to head up the team to figure out what to do next. His closing words of support were something to the effect “you messed it up, it’s your baby.” I remember saying, “That’s great, give me a couple weeks to pull together a plan and I’ll be ready.” Fat chance. He said, “You’re on the next flight out of here; there is a meeting tonight at KSC. Oh and by the way, they want you to present our plan at the meeting. If I were you, I would make sure it’s a damn good one.”
Contrary to popular belief, rocket scientists are not really all that bright. The term “it’s not rocket science” is only used by people not in the industry. I certainly did not have a magically creative mind to come up with a plan without some help.
So this is where I used the Idea Rockets tool. I had four hours on the plane from Salt Lake City to Orlando to come up with “the plan.” I used the techniques of each rocket individually to try and generate as many ideas in each category that I could. I didn’t have the luxury of having a brainstorming team with me. I was on my own. I knew I didn’t really need to have detailed test plans written, not yet anyway. But the Idea Rockets tool allowed me to come up with approximately 600 items that I knew would need to be addressed in one way or another. I actually surprised myself by how many items I came up with by using the tools. This only took about two hours. I then organized the ideas into several groups and quickly ranked them by risk and priority. You know, the normal “critical thinking” most of us are good at. Somewhere around Alabama I started to message this information into a PowerPoint presentation and finished the final touches just before landing.
I was shocked at how thorough the presentation appeared. Obviously I didn’t have every detail worked out yet, but in the short two hours of brainstorming, I was pretty sure I covered most of the issues. I felt good about my plan and was hoping the meeting would not be too stressful. This proved to be wishful thinking since the room was jam packed with people and there were NASA TV cameras set up for the meeting.
Although I was nervous, I felt I was well prepared with my plan and I thought the meeting went very well. The NASA team was really impressed with the thought and detail in the plan. I knew I had done well, but you always have doubts when you are the presenter. I was really pleased as the next few days rolled by. Many, many people congratulated me for an excellent job and presentation. Whew!
So what happened in the end? We executed our basic plan, wrote detailed test plans, rolled the Shuttle vehicle back to the VAB, disassembled the vehicle, replaced the adhesive, and successfully launched six weeks later. Shannon Lucid returned safely to Earth having set the record for the longest U.S. stay on the MIR Space Station at 188 days.
At least in part, I feel personally responsible for her record. Maybe there is a silver lining in everything. Another good use of the Idea Rockets is when you are writing proposals. By going through each of the rockets in detail, you can quickly highlight all of the key points you need to make in the proposal. Highlight your strengths; prepare adequate protection against your weaknesses – every aspect. I have applied this approach many times in writing proposals. I run the tool through my proposal and then I do it again from my main competitor’s point of view. It gives me a whole new set of ideas to address. It can really give you an unfair advantage.