Space for ideas

Aug 24 2005 by Robert Heller Print This Article

Ideas are the raw material of management, and also much of its product. You can't accomplish any task, large or small, without using old ideas and forming new ones.

Yet anybody styled an ideas man or woman is singled out as an exception. The rest, by implication, are relative plodders. Even if they try, they needn't expect great results. And that is nonsense.

Any company in any business can work towards superior thinking and planning – becoming a true "Ideas Company" with a competitive edge as sharp as any technological lead.

The future will be won by such companies. So how is it that managers don't pay much attention to idea power in the basic actions and activities on which all management depends – including the financial variety?

The explanation lies in the compelling appeal of two words: 'innovation' and 'creativity'. That's tough on most managers, since only a minority would claim creative powers – or expect ever to attain them. But creative concepts depend heavily on organised supporting thought: the power of innovation is available to anybody.

Hierarchy is always the enemy of the free flow of ideas

Hierarchy is always the enemy of the free flow of ideas. I once asked executives in the menswear group at a large retail chain in Britain how many levels of approval were required for a new range of shirts. The answer was two: their boss and his boss. The approval process took just six weeks.

My enthusiasm was curbed, though, when the leader said there was something I should know: 'then the Chairman visits one of the stores, sees the shirts, demands to know "who put this rubbish here?", and orders their removal'.

One solution is to set up independent departments (sometimes called 'skunk-works') to handle innovative ideas, with clear leadership and freedom to create their own timetables, budgets and cultures. Keep controls to the minimum, and provide immense encouragement to achieve the impossible.

That may well mean mixing different departments and functions, and adding outsiders to the mix. To avoid domination by the loudest speakers, a simple rule is to insist that everybody comes to the meeting with, say, three ideas.

All participants, speaking in rotation, get the same time to explain their ideas, and others are free to ask for explanations, but not to condemn or reject any idea out of hand.

When all have had their say, the leader sums up and either makes the decisions or postpones them for further discussion when more information and thought are available.

Any workplace can be inherently stifling and routine. You need difference – different people and ideas, if you're going to escape its limitations. The Creative Block is an example of a resource (created as part of the space for ideas campaign by the East of England Development Agency) which includes snippets of advice and ideas for finding inspiration from both thinkers and businesspeople.

My favourite is advice from one business leader: ask your mum. Just by having to talk about the problem in other ways can lead to new answers.

Excellent working discipline is as admirable in its way as creativity. Successful ideas generation depends on both disciplined, linear, logical thought and on random inspiration. You don't want a yes-man culture, but one which lives on challenge and the desire to be both different and better.

While discipline and freedom are equally important in creating a truly creative environment, it is freedom that leads the way.

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About The Author

Robert Heller
Robert Heller

Robert Heller, who died aged 80 in August 2012, was Britain's most renowned and best-selling author on business management. Author of more than 50 books, he was the founding editor of Management Today and the Global Future Forum. About his latest title, The Fusion Manager, Sir John Harvey-Jones wrote: "The future lies with the thinking manager, and the thinking manager must read this book".