The Perfect Brainstorm

Companies are sparking new ideas by tapping into the next generation of idea management tools

By Fred Hapgood

Sci-fi fans like to speculate about the coming of The Singularity—the day when the accelerating pace of change goes vertical and everything around us becomes radically unknowable. For some this is a frightening prospect, but marketers will probably just shrug. What else is new?

Today, every marketing function seems to be in constant tumult, thanks to a swirl of internal and external forces. Follow the path of audio content distribution, for instance, as it catapults into areas such as satellite radio, ubiquitous wireless data, multi-gigabyte portable audio players and spread-spectrum broadcasting. For an advertiser, who knows where all this is going? And that’s just one case. You can tell the same story in media planning, creative design, customer support: Every aspect of the business is running in white water. Surviving chaos, pundits and practitioners contend, requires a steady stream of innovation. Traditionally, such innovation is ad hoc: Someone has a bright idea and then sets about selling it, or a problem arises and a manager throws resources at it. A more contemporary twist is to introduce new techniques into the actual process of innovation. The idea is to “operationalize” innovation, making it as routine a part of the workflow as running the loading dock.

This approach, known as idea management, is increasingly seen as a key element in the structure and survival of the 21st-century corporation. “GM is not behind because its people lack ideas,” says John Judge, managing director of Cambridge Consulting Solutions, an innovation and marketing consultancy. “GM’s problem is idea management.”

This new field has encouraged the creation of a special category of software. Idea management applications help companies gather, filter, distribute and implement new ideas. They expose problems or challenges to the widest possible constituencies and simplify the categorization of the responses. They route these ideas to the right reviewers and support feedback and collaboration among participating managers. They help companies control intellectual property, manage product portfolios, determine the financial impact of new initiatives, organize research and archive campaigns to provide quick reference to previously submitted ideas.

While the category sounds complex, the overall point of these products is fairly simple: to speed up the cycle of innovation, thus keeping you one step ahead of the grim forces of commoditization.

The Power of Suggestion

Robert Bosch Tool manufactures a complete line of corded and cordless power tools. Completeness, of course, is a moving target, and specific niches are always opening and closing. When Bosch’s marketing team identifies a new opportunity, it likes to call for suggestions from the Bosch workforce, many of whom are highly skilled and tool-oriented.

The employee responses tend to come in quickly, with half arriving in the first couple of days of a new campaign query, according to Peter Neumann, the company’s innovation manager. This places a premium on rapid evaluation, a need that helped convince Bosch to install the enterprise version of Brightidea’s On-Demand Innovation Management Suite. Neumann particularly likes a feature in the software that enables campaign managers to rate ideas quantitatively on predefined measures such as manufacturing costs or time to market. The program then keeps a running total of the cumulative scores of all the ideas in a campaign, making it easy to see at any point which ones are the most attractive.

Like Bosch, Georgia-Pacific has found it useful to publish idea challenges to its workforce. With 55,000 employees worldwide, soliciting suggestions can be complicated. But idea management tools make it possible for every interested constituency to participate in these challenges, says Cedric Steele, the company’s director of insights and innovation. “You can reach people across disciplines, in remote facilities, in mills and plants, at home and anywhere in the field,” he observes.

For the past two years, the paper and building products manufacturer has been using Imaginatik’s Idea Central software, and 15,000 employees have participated in the challenge system. Recently, a suggestion made in a campaign allowed Georgia-Pacific to shave several cents off every cardboard toilet paper core, which in that business is epic.

Steele cautions that to be successful, idea management tools require a strong internal facilitator, either a person or a committee, with the enthusiasm and clout to push the winning ideas through the necessary approval channels. Imaginatik’s cofounder and CEO, Mark Turrell, agrees.

“The old-line suggestion box system was usually run by somebody from HR,” he says. “Typically that person didn’t have any idea what the suggestion was about and had no influence with the people who did.” The result was that lots of good ideas were just lost. If the process isn’t plugged into someone with the standing to champion winning ideas internally, then the best tools will have little effect.

Public Displays of Innovation

Bosch and Georgia-Pacific have focused their idea management efforts on internal employees. Other organizations have opened up campaigns to the public. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) launched such a project three years ago when it asked Richard Pound, a sitting member and former chair of the IOC’s Marketing Commission, to look into changing the perception among some potential host cities that the Olympics was a high-cost endeavor that demanded unnecessary infrastructure improvements.

Pound understood that a complicated event such as the Olympics has thousands of cost drivers, some in quite specialized contexts, all with their own story. He knew he needed a way to expand the universe of idea contributors while controlling the volume and diversity of the expected flood of suggestions.

To help with the project, Pound approached an idea management company called BrainBank, which implemented its Idealink product on the IOC’s website and solicited responses from sponsors, organizers, athletes, fans, officials and other visitors. Each was asked to organize his ideas by choosing standardized descriptors and category names from a series of lists. The predefined categories made it possible to organize the volume quickly by routing every idea to the right person or committee. Thousands of responses came back. Pound would not disclose how many workable ideas resulted from the campaign, though he does cite one example: an ingenious but very complex suggestion about repackaging event schedules to improve facilities utilization. “It’s just amazing what is out there,” he says of the public’s propensity to offer good ideas.

Triz the Season

The idea management process described so far focuses on managing ideas that are assumed to have been formed somewhere. There are, however, a number of emerging techniques that address the invention side of innovation. Perhaps the most powerful of such systems is TRIZ (the acronym comes from the Russian for “Theory of Inventive Problem Solving”).

TRIZ has an unusual back story. It was developed in the Soviet Union by a patent examiner named Genrich Altshuller, who worked for the Soviet Navy in the years just after World War II. A good Communist in spirit, Altshuller was interested in finding ways in which ordinary workers could innovate at will, just by turning the crank on a process. Fortunately, he had a brilliant mind to yoke to this utopian ambition and was able to develop three families of insights:

Almost all technical problems (the kind of problem whose solutions get patented) can be reduced to one or more conflicts between two physical properties. If, for instance, you are trying to reduce the weight of a brick without compromising structural value, the conflict is between weight and strength. Such a conflict can crop up in just about any field.

Despite all the patents that exist, there are really just a handful of solutions to these conflicts: replacing single expensive parts with large numbers of cheap ones, for example. These solutions also pop up across a variety of fields. The conflicts (as Altshuller defines them) that plague a distiller of Scotch whisky might also arise in paper making or petroleum refining, and the solutions to those conflicts might be the same in all three.

Most technologies work through the same series of conflicts in the same order. Systems evolve from rigid structures to flexible ones, from a few large components to many small ones, from lower to higher levels of precision and so on, regardless of whether you are building computer chips or cars or houses. This simplification made it possible to see not only how to solve problems, but also which aspects of a technology were problems in the first place and therefore which innovations needed to be introduced when.

Unfortunately, Altshuller’s ideas never went far in his lifetime. He did a stint in prison (Stalin apparently did not appreciate Altshuller’s suggestions that the average Soviet worker was not sufficiently empowered). Even after his release in 1955, Altshuller was adamantly against commercialization of his ideas. As a result, TRIZ lay dormant for decades before making its way out of the post-Soviet rubble and into the West in the early 1990s.

The first North American company to commercialize TRIZ, Invention Machine, was formed in 1993 by an émigré and former student of Altshuller’s named Val Tsurikov. Since then, the system has been gradually spreading through the innovation community, with a cottage industry of consultancies springing up around it.

One such company is Breakthrough Management Group (BMG). Six years ago, Michael Slocum, the company’s vice president of innovation management, began working with OnTech (at the time called Ontro) on a self-heating coffee can. During development, the team was concerned that users would pop the can and drink the contents without waiting for the can to heat. This would cause the empty can to overheat, because the chemicals generating the heat had nothing to pour their heat into except the can itself. This was not necessarily a huge problem—the contents would already have been drunk—and in theory the problem could have been addressed with warning labels.

However, Slocum knew TRIZ, and TRIZ told him that compromises like this—in which an important conflict is basically avoided—are unstable. They are a gift to competitors, however, who use their better solution to the same problem as marketing leverage for second-generation products. So Slocum’s team continued to work until they found a better solution: a way of sealing off the can-opening tab with a temperature-sensitive adhesive that prevented access until the contents were heated. The first self-heating latte was released earlier this year under the Wolfgang Puck brand.

Slocum is so high on TRIZ that he confidently predicts the technique “will become as important in the management and analysis of innovation as Six Sigma has in quality control.”

What else does the future hold for these applications? One possibility is the development of strategic innovation pathways—systems for planning innovations years ahead. Another is the tighter integration of specialists throughout the enterprise (such as accountants) in every phase of the idea management cycle. Some experts, such as John Gabrick, CEO and founder of MindMatters Technologies, also predict the melding of invention platforms such as TRIZ with idea management programs.

As these products evolve, enterprises in every sector stand to become ever more responsive and creative. From there, who knows? The quickened pace of these changes might even bring about The Singularity. But if they do, they might also allow companies to weather it.

Fred Hapgood is a freelance writer based in the Boston area.

From CMO magazine (a publication of CXO Media, Inc.), September 2005

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