THE BLOG
04/17/2013 10:22 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2013

The Brilliant Complaint Department

When AT&T was deregulated in 1984, it opened the door for something the organization never had to deal with before -- competition. No longer a monopoly, Ma Bell had just become, via the intervention of the U.S. government, simply another telecommunications company, albeit a big one with lots of benefits to pay and a nice logo.

With upstarts like MCI and Sprint now on the scene, AT&T was quickly discovering that not only was its lunch being eaten, but so was its breakfast, dinner, and late night snack, too.

Clearly, something needed to be done to right the ship.

That's when AT&T decided to launch its "WinBack" program -- a noble attempt to win back customers who, attracted by MCI and Sprint's promotional offerings, had gone over to the "dark side."

And that's when AT&T reached out and called my company, Idea Champions.

Their request was a simple one -- to lead a series of breakthrough brainstorming sessions that would spark the kind of ideas that would send MCI and Sprint back to the Stone Age -- or, if not that far back, at least to 1958.

As a upstart ourselves, my partners and I were thrilled at the opportunity and jumped in with both feet and every other body part we could muster.

For three months, we facilitated a series of two-day ideation sessions for our new, non-monopolistic client. Many ideas were generated. Many cups of coffee were consumed. Many Post-Its were posted.

But after five sessions, it became painfully obvious to us that each group was coming up with the same old, same old ideas. While our overlords were perfectly willing to bring us back again and again to spark even more ideas, we could not, in good faith, return without first informing our client about this phenomenon.

It didn't take a genius to figure out why.

The groups we were working with were all composed of the same kind of people -- the "usual suspects" -- senior leaders with power ties, impressive titles, and enviable parking space. Yes, they were smart. Yes, they were experienced. And yes, they were motivated. But they were also, it seemed to us, all inhabiting the same box -- the box of expertise.

What we needed was a different mix of people. Fresh blood. Unusual suspects.

"Who else you got for us?" we asked our client, "the untapped, the unappreciated, the under-valued."

The answer came faster than AT&T's rate increases: The Complaint Department -- a group of 20 long-term employees whose sole focus was listening to customer lamentations -- day after kvetchy day.

The profile of the Complaint Department was very different than the profile of senior leaders. For starters, they were mostly women -- women of color. Secondly, none of them had a college education. And thirdly, this was not group that anyone considered to be all that creative.

Which is why we were thrilled to have them in a room with us for two days.

Since no one had ever invited the Complaint Department to a brainstorming session before, they were not only tickled to be there, but showed up with no bad meeting habits, no ego and no preconceived notion of what was possible.

The results were extraordinary. In two days, these closet geniuses generated more brilliant ideas to regain AT&T's rapidly dwindling market share than the previous five sessions of senior leaders combined.

Commentary

During the past 25 years, I've asked more than 10,000 people where and when they get their best ideas. More than 98 percent tell me they get their best ideas outside the workplace -- early in the morning, late at night, dreaming, exercising, showering, commuting, or any number of other oddball times and places.

I have always found this fascinating, especially when you consider how much time we spend at work and how so many of us are expected to work miracles with limited resources.

While there are many reasons why most people don't get their best ideas at work, there are at least as many why organizations don't get their best ideas a work -- the main one being their tendency to rely on their usual suspects, or what I like to refer to as the so-called "creative elite."

The AT&T example is only one of many I've seen over the past 25 years. Somehow, even the most forward thinking organizations have become "creative elitists," inviting only the usual suspects to their brainstorming sessions, as if great ideas were the logical extension of the "3 E's" -- education, experience, and expertise.

It's not.

In fact, in many ways, education, experience, and expertise are the enemy -- tidy little boxes that constrict, confine, and constrain. Instead of being the springboard to possibility, they become the quicksand.

Think about it. Why did the kings of old have court jesters on the payroll? Because the court jesters had fresh eyes, were not afraid to speak the truth, and were free of the rules and regulations that drove the other courtiers up the castle walls.

Bottom line, this is the challenge all organizations face: how to tap into the innate creativity, insight, and wisdom of their workforce,

Mitch Ditkoff is the co-founder and president of Idea Champions, an innovation consulting and training company dedicated to unlocking and unleashing the innate brilliance, insight, and wisdom of the global workforce.