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Don't Make the Solution Part of Your Problem

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The problem

I've always been intrigued with innovation and how it can be forced. As an entrepreneur, my job is to create new products and companies; I can't just sit around waiting for the light to go off while playing Halo. As an executive, I have also been part of a lot of painful strategic planning processes. In one instance, we hired a consultant who took us through an eight month ordeal costing more than $1 million. In the end, we agreed on a strategy that we came up with on the first day. I've noticed this happen time and time again.

From my experiences working with companies to solve various problems, I've noticed a few "truths" that almost always occur when groups try to solve problems:

  1. The answers are already in the room. If you assemble a group of smart people who know your industry, they have already assimilated the mass of information from customers, employees, market research and elsewhere. The answers are in the room and not on some manufactured spreadsheet.

  2. Most of the time spent trying to solve a problem is typically wasted discussing options that don't really matter. There are 98 things you could, but shouldn't, be doing, but in reality there are only two things you need to do as a business to be successful. People often waste time talking about all the things that don't really matter.

  3. Personality trumps. Unfortunately, there isn't much correlation between speaking skills and quality of ideas. Most people are afraid to share their ideas for fear of looking stupid. But then there are the less deserving people who through force of personality get their way. In order to actually implement the solution, you need consensus and these meetings rarely build lasting consensus.

The solution

As executives, our goal is to generate as many ideas as possible, identify the top ideas and make a decision while building consensus. But how can you most effectively do that? Just follow these steps:

  1. State the problem clearly. Write at the top of the white board the problem you are trying to solve. For example: "How can we improve productivity?", "What are the biggest problems facing our customers?", "Which Sports & Recreation topics are best for comparison?"

  2. Brainstorm. Ask people to state their ideas succinctly -- usually two to three words. Do not allow any discussion or comments on the idea. You want people to play off other people's ideas and to feel free to say crazy ideas without fear of ridicule. Keep the flow going but don't beat a dead horse -- stop when the flow of ideas has ended.

  3. Lobby. As you are numbering each proposed idea, allow people to lobby or clarify their ideas. Make sure you combine similar ideas.

  4. Vote. Take the total number of ideas and divide by three -- this is the number of votes each person gets. For example, if you have 30 ideas, each person gets 10 votes (30 ideas/3 = 10 votes). The next step is to read off each idea, count the number of votes each idea receives and write the total number of votes next to each idea.

  5. Select Top Ideas. You should (hopefully) see a coalescing of votes for the top two to five ideas. Focus your attention on these top ideas and forget about the rest.

Here's a recent example of a brainstorm we just had at FindTheBest. We are constantly coming up with dozens of new Comparison App ideas, but having only limited resources, we only focus on the top ideas. We brainstormed new App ideas and came up with the following (partial) list:

  • E-Readers (5 votes)
  • Fast Food Nutrition (6)
  • Colleges (5)
  • Yogurt Nutrition (1)
  • Venture Capital Firms (5)
  • Planets (1)
  • Designers (0)
  • Empires (1)
  • Travel by Country (3)
  • Future Jobs and Careers Forecast (7)
  • Pulitzer Prize Winners (5)
  • Cosmetics Brands (1)
  • War Statistics (4)
  • State Facts (1)
  • US Presidents (2)
  • Energy Drinks (3)
  • Dating Websites (3)
  • Vegas Hotels (3)
  • Golf Courses (4)
  • Pokémon (5)

After voting, we narrowed down our 60 App ideas to the seven most popular ones (the ideas that received 5 votes and higher) and focused on developing those Apps. This efficient and collaborative process provides a platform for all ideas to be heard and for the top ideas to be carried out.

After trying this process out, you'll realize that you've just condensed a four hour meeting into 30 minutes and actually found the best solution to your problem. But aside from finding the best solution to your problem, you've built consensus between everyone within the company because each person was involved in creating the solution. I've used this system many times to help create business and product ideas and strategies resulting in tremendous success.

So go out and try this method and let me know how it works or if you need help. Please post a comment with your results.