Some years ago, I found myself in a Bridgeport, Connecticut, Holiday Inn poking my head into both the men’s and ladies' restrooms. I was looking for the male restroom attendant. I finally found him, and asked if he’d be willing to help me with an ideation session I had scheduled at this hotel for the following week. It was a new product brainstorming session for Unger Enterprises, a family-owned company also based in Bridgeport that manufactures a variety of cleaning tools for both professional and consumer markets.
“I need you to show us how you clean restrooms. We’ll pay you for your time, and give you a free lunch as well. I’ve cleared it with the manager of the hotel. If you’re willing to do it, he said it’s okay with him,” I said. The restroom attendant was Hispanic, young, maybe 17, and naturally a bit suspicious. But with a little more explaining and coaxing, he agreed to do it. And something told me he would be a great resource for us. As I was leaving, I reminded him not to clean the men’s restroom the day of the ideation session… and he agreed he wouldn’t. We were set.
The day of our session, 15 senior executives, product managers, industrial designers and myself squeezed into the men’s room of the Holiday Inn for our lesson on how to clean restrooms. It couldn’t have been easy for our 17-year old restroom-cleaning expert, as “the suits” watched him scrub toilets, wash sinks, and spray and wipe bathroom mirrors. But he was great: very professional and as we soon discovered, an excellent teacher. He did a masterful job of patiently answering all our questions while simultaneously doing the actual cleaning.
This educational session with our young friend helped inspire the Unger ideation team to invent and subsequently launch several successful new products including a customized restroom-attendant cleaning belt, an instructional restroom-cleaning video in both English and Spanish, and a new line of professional cleaners.
Of the more than 1,500 ideation sessions and creative focus groups I have led in my long and adventurous marketing innovation consulting career, this is still one of the most memorable, and certainly one of the most heartwarming. To me, this session will always be a poignant example of how important anyone (and everyone)—no matter what their station in life—can be to the creative process.
There are at least three important lessons that all managers can take from this story if they are looking to lead and inspire creative breakthroughs in their organization.
Lesson #1: Create New Worlds of Learning
New learning, with the right creative perspective, can create new innovation opportunities. In the case of Unger Enterprises, even though they had experience in the world of cleaning, their decision to enter a new market for them—professional restroom cleaning—made their learning challenge clear. They needed to quickly get up to speed on current restroom cleaning practices, challenges and unmet needs. This was an obvious prerequisite for designing and facilitating a successful ideation session.
Balancing the now and the new
The potentially greater learning challenge is when a company is an expert in their particular category—and is looking to create “the next big thing” within this category. The innovation leader must learn to strike a balance between inventing creative ways to inspire “the new,” and yet also leverage the significant experience and expertise of “the now.” The biggest challenge is that the decades of experience with how “it’s always been done” can get in the way—at least in the initial idea generation stage—of creating new, potentially breakthrough ideas.
Lesson #2: Create Idea-Provoking Stimuli
The second lesson from the Unger restroom-cleaning ideation session is that the innovative leader should find and customize appropriate “idea-provoking stimuli” to help his/her team be more creative. For Unger, the idea-provoking stimulus was pretty straightforward: a live, interactive demonstration of how to clean a restroom.
What idea-provoking stimuli might you use for your specific creative challenges? The availability of a virtually-unlimited supply of key-word-searchable on-line stimuli – that can be tailored to a specific creative challenge – creates extraordinary opportunities for creating targeted and compelling thought-starting stimuli.
For instance, to help a credit card company encourage patrons to use their card for fast food restaurant purchases, we used a series of hilarious videos we discovered on You Tube of a fellow trying (unsuccessfully) to place his fast food order on a drive-through intercom. And to discover unmet needs in the world of foot care—which we in turn used as idea starters in both new product and new promotion ideation sessions—we ran key word searches of all the social media, including Facebook and Twitter, to see what consumers were complaining about and/or wishing for to take better care of their feet.
Lesson #3: Involve Everyone in the Process
The third and final lesson we can take from the Unger example is how important it is to involve a wide variety of people, at all levels, and from very different functions, in the creative process, since you never know who might have, or who might inspire someone to have, a breakthrough new idea. If it’s a new product ideation session, you also want people from all the departments who would be involved in the eventual implementation of the idea, since they should feel a sense of ownership and pride in the new product that they will most likely spend a year or more of their lives developing.
And, as with the Unger example, creative ideators—and creative idea inspirers—shouldn’t necessarily be limited to those who work for the company. Outside experts can be a rich source of creative inspiration. For example, when we were helping Godiva invent new high-quality chocolate concepts, we invited world famous dessert chefs to help us ideate. To invent new store-of-the-future ideas for Bath and Body Works, we had the architecture critic from the New York Times do a presentation of original architecture ideas. And to generate new bread and baked-good concepts for Thomas’s English Muffins, Arnold Bread and Entenmann’s, we made repeated trips to the Culinary Institute of America to involve both chefs and aspiring chefs in our creative ideation sessions.
One Creative Strategy that Works for Everyone
We call this “involve-everyone” creative process, the Whiteboard Technique, and unlike, say a companywide suggestion box program, it is both interactive and provides the time necessary to evolve preliminary thoughts, idea fragments, relevant facts, and intuitional starting points into well-developed, potentially-breakthroughs ideas. The technique also has the advantage of being able to be used for any creative challenge.
Here’s how it works: The manager looking for new idea posts a blank whiteboard in a public venue: the hallway, near the water cooler, the cafeteria, wherever. Next she decides on a creative challenge, and writes the challenge in the center of the whiteboard. The challenge could be anything: from how to make work more fun, saving money on trade promotions, inventing new products, or creative ways to reorganize the sales force. Then she and her coworkers, over a predetermined time—usually seven to fourteen days—start adding random ideas, questions, wishes, potential areas to explore, provocative questions and relevant facts to address the creative challenge. Each day co-workers are encouraged to add new creative thoughts and ideas to the whiteboard. Over time, new connections will be made and innovative new ideas will be inspired by all the rich stimuli posted on the whiteboard. After the allotted time is up, a new challenge is posted and the process begins again. That’s it! Simple. Affordable. Productive. And very powerful.
An interesting advantage that the whiteboard technique has over a traditional ideation session is creative “soak time.” Time allows the wonderful pattern-finding, idea-combining power of the subconscious mind to work its magic, magic that anyone and everyone can and should be a part of!