“What if we came to clients with a collection of solutions rather than a collection of problems?”
It was a startling insight that my friend, Greg Iszler, pointed out. One of the biggest challenges in the Customer Experience world is we are busy finding problems, but devoting little time to creating great experiences.
So called inner loop issues are typically what many have referred to as normal accidents. A fat finger on a customer ID creates an accounting issue with a customer. Someone forgets to put a certain bolt in with a self-assembly furniture kit. A busy drive-through employee forgets to put the nuclear hot apple pie turnover in the takeout bag. In other words, stuff happens.
In these circumstances many organizations institute ‘hot alerts’ or ‘customer alerts’ whereby they open up a ticket and go through a resolution process with the customer. This is a very basic solution that millions of companies do every day.
But let’s say those nuclear hot apple pie turnovers are being missed regularly. Perhaps then we have what is known as an outer loop problem. In these cases, action planning is a useful tool to resolve those systematic issues. Perhaps the apple turnover is a rarely ordered item so it’s easily overlooked. Perhaps the containers are stored in an inconvenient or forgettable location. Whatever the reason, there is a whole process for resolving these more institutional issues.
While all that is fine and admirable, if you remove all the ‘friction’ in the experience what are you left with?
You have made yourself utterly forgettable.
Rather than just putting out fires; lunch bag sized and dumpster ones alike, we should focus more on creating great and memorable experiences. This is something that Chip and Dan Heath refer to as ‘peak experiences’ in their excellent book “The Power of Moments“.
Ok, but how do you do that? Well, it’s not easy, but it starts with a little bit of discipline, some imagination, and of course a heaping spoon full of curiosity.
Step 1: Define the Problem
Einstein is quoted as saying “If I had an hour to solve a problem I would spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” While I have written extensively about that elsewhere, suffice it to say that is a critical first step.
As humans, we are driven to fix things as fast as possible. There is a reason duct tape and superglue are such hot sellers. They take advantage of our human compulsion to fix things quickly. Before solving a problem, we need to understand it and for whom we are solving it. I have found design thinking principles of documenting three simple components to be helpful in that endeavor. Document and get agreement on:
- Who is/are the stakeholder/s — that is, whose problem is it?
- Describe the problem in empathic terms.
- Define why is the problem important to solve for those stakeholders.
Once we have those things identified we are ready to start ideating on how to solve them. In our sessions we focus primarily on customer problems vs. business problems (i.e., how do we make money).
Step 2: Getting the Right Group Together
The idiom “Birds of a feather flock together” has ample support in the social sciences. We like to be around others like ourselves. Another finding from social science is that diverse groups tend to produce more novel solutions. Unfortunately, these two human dynamics tend to work against one another.
This preference to be with others who are similar to ourselves results in insulating us from others with different viewpoints. Organizations are especially prone to this homogenization effect where they differentially attract and select people into their organization based on similar values and spit out those that don’t fit. While great for group cohesion, this means that most organizations with a tenured workforce are already riding into the wind uphill when trying to innovate.
At Curiosity we try to assemble a team of folks who are very diverse demographically but more importantly have divergent world views. On our roster of ‘brainstormers’ we have a single mom who is an aerobatic airplane enthusiast, a restorer of eastern-bloc European cars living in Serbia, an ex-law enforcement officer, and a second-generation immigrant ex-restaurateur who owns a high-end knitting store. In my mind; the weirder the better.
Diverse world views lead to diverse solutions. Research has shown that diverse groups come up with more novel ideas. While our group is 20 and growing, we regularly change up the group composition to make sure we still have fresh perspectives. I usually have a maximum of 6 in any given group. All of these folks are prescreened for being skilled in the art of brainstorming; knowing when to self-censure and knowing when to challenge, all the while checking their ego at the door.
The other reasons why these diverse folks work well is that 1) unlike client denizens they don’t have a vested interest in any particular solution and 2) there is no power differentials like you find inside organizations; these are all just ego-less acquaintances working together on a common problem.
Step 3: Marinate
Many people, when faced with the prospect of brainstorming, do so with a sense of dread. To break the ice, facilitators use all kinds of icebreakers to ‘get people in the mood’. While this is great for a new group to soften group dynamics, research has shown it does little to help with ideation productivity. What is the best source for innovation?
Several studies have found that letting that boredom versus creative priming results in better creative outcomes. In an experiment Sani Mann and Rebekah Cadman had people read phone numbers from a phone book then complete a creative task. Those who completed the boring task outperformed the control group on the creative task that followed.
Great writers know that letting the mind wander is important to creativity. Stephan King in his book “On Writing” suggests creating your “first shitty draft” and then putting it away… for months ideally. Jon Steele offer similar advice in his excellent book “Perfect Pitch“.
So, while we don’t intentionally induce boredom with our ideation participants, we do allow for a period of ‘marination’ before we enter into a discussion. We have found a briefing with the team a few days before the group provides an opportunity for questions, allows for that ‘thought marination’ period, and results in a more productive session later. During the briefing, we review the background, any primary or secondary research we have conducted, what the ‘brackets’ are for ideation, and what problem we are trying to solve.
Step 4: Set the Location
Many think the key to good ‘brainstorming’ sessions is it has to be conducted in person, in a room with stuffed toys, loudly colored furniture, and an ungodly number of stickie notes. We don’t see it that way. The real focus of the session should be on the people participating, not the setting.
To that end, we regularly hold these sessions online in a collaborative space with cameras on. We can then see and hear each other and also collaborate in the virtual space using virtual stickies. This arrangement allows Curiosity to get people from all over the globe to participate vs. those who happen to live in a given geography. As an added benefit illegibility issues are also avoided, and downloading the results can be accomplished with the click of a button.
Step 5: Ideate
Our ideation sessions are about 90 minutes in length which we cut into chunks. We have found that people “bonk” if sessions are longer than 90 minutes. Therefore, we will conduct multiple 90-minute sessions if that is required. The goal here is quantity not necessarily quality, although the latter is appreciated!
We only have three ground rules:
- Don’t be a jerk, treat others with dignity and respect, and don’t talk over others.
- There is no criticism of ideas generated in these sessions. The time for ‘this won’t work’ is later in the process.
- The only off-limit solution in brainstorming is the current solution.
The process we use while in session is to first lay out the problem and then have participants go solo on ideating as many solutions as possible within the collaboration platform. This gives each participant a chance to organize their thoughts. Like psychotherapy, it is hard to understand what you think unless you say it or write it.
Next, as a group we review our solutions or pieces of solutions. Each person runs down their solutions in a round-robin. Everyone must contribute. While we are debriefing we try and ‘build’ on each other’s ideas. Incomplete thoughts or ideas are fine, even encouraged because they lead to productive building. A technique I borrowed from the Improv Lab is to try and use the approach of ‘yes and..’ This approach is to encourage people to build on one another’s ideas.
“So, a robot would come out and service the vehicle,” says participant 1.
“Yes, and the robot could have tracks so it can get over most obstacles,” says participant 2.
“Yes, and it would be small enough to get down a narrow driveway,” said participant 3.
I usually act as the moderator, conducting the group versus actively participating. We move very fast. Usually, two to three minutes for set up and then five minutes for solo ideation, followed by 10 to 15 minutes of sharing and building. This keeps the energy high, and people engaged. We can usually get to around five problems per 90-minute session, depending on the complexity. I don’t worry about clerical issues and incomplete thoughts. We mop that up later.
The key to all this is to keep it simple and keep it fast moving.
Step 6: Mop Up
At the end of the session, I send folks on their way, and then we go through and organize the brainstorming output. I will generally start by just compiling all the ideas with a list for each problem statement. I will then synthesize ideas and sometimes combine them. When done, we have a large list of ideas; usually 30-50 per problem statement. It is not uncommon to have 300 ideas or more per session.
Step 7: Prioritize
At this step it is time to work with end clients to figure out which ones are useable or not. I generally toss out ones that are known duds or ones that are clearly not feasible. After that, we again borrow design thinking techniques to reduce the options. We use three criteria:
- Desirability – how likely will end users want or like this solution (is the idea successful at solving an important problem for stakeholders)
- Feasibility – how technically hard is it to bring this idea to an actual solution (MPV or otherwise)
- Viability – how likely is it to achieve the goals set forth by the organization (usually profitability or cost avoidance/reduction).
Out of the hundreds of ideas we boil it all down to around 3-10 solid ideas on average. That is the reason why quantity is so important upfront. There are very few novel ideas, so it’s a bit like panning for platinum. From there, it is time to move on to consumer testing and prototyping.
Less is More
While I have divided this into seven distinct steps, I think once you get moving you will see that they move quickly and are fairly easy to execute. I have found the key to this process is fresh diverse minds tackling unfamiliar problems. This approach has been found to consistently uncover novel solutions. Using this approach, you get the advantage of buying smart creative minds by the cup rather than incurring the expense of hiring an entire agency. What works for you in ideation, I would love to hear in the comments below. If you need help with ideation, please shoot me an email.