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Short Story: With strategic thinking tools, you want dependable ones that deliver help to move forward in a smart fashion – no matter how unusual the tool may seem.

We share many Brainzooming strategy, innovation, and branding tools. The range is eclectic because their inspirations come from everywhere. In fact, one of the funniest questions I’ve been asked was whether I went to a training program, took the material, and called it Brainzooming?

The answer: NO!

The Brainzooming methodology continually emerges, refreshes, and grows from myriad sources and ongoing application with real-life clients and workshop participants.

One vital business strategy tool for me personally that I rarely mention directly in workshops is prayer. Prayer (and the humility in asking God for help) are an integral part of my business strategy tool repertoire. I try to dedicate a half-hour to prayer each morning after mass with other times sprinkled throughout the day. People seeing me in church probably think I have a deep, peaceful prayer life. The truth? Silencing my mind to pray and listen for answers from God is INCREDIBLY difficult. I spend much of the time on my knees or sitting quietly struggling to quiet and focus my mind.

Nonetheless, prayer and asking God for answers regularly helps me in business. The most fruitful prayers involve bringing a conundrum to God, admitting I have no clue about it, and asking for assistance consistent with God’s will.

Doubtful about this?

I’m sure some are. I cultivate enough friendships among avowed atheists and others that are skeptical that I know some of you must wonder how I look to prayer as a dependable part of shaping business strategy.

Here are two recent examples.

I was struggling to develop a sales call script and bemoaning that my dad (who was the quintessential sales guy) was gone when I needed his sales expertise. Frustrated, I went to bed after midnight, asked God to help me come up with something, and added that if my dad could hear me, I could use his help. Within a few minutes, before falling asleep, it was as if the sales script started to dictate into my mind. I wrote it out the next morning and had exactly what I needed.

In another instance, I needed to communicate about a potentially awkward situation to a client (awkward, that is, if it were poorly communicated). Wrapping up work for the evening, I didn’t know what to put in the email. I went to bed and prayed for the words because I could not see a way to explain it. Either during the night (because a close friend was texting me at 2 a.m.) or the next morning, the right words were in my mind.

Those are just two instances. There are many more.

Yes, prayer works as a business strategy tool. And for that, I am very thankful! – Mike Brown

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Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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Short Story: When it comes to creativity, start with and return to the underlying strategy; that’s the most important piece of creative advice I have to offer.

I’ve been trying to let go of some creative reins on the Brainzooming brand. This is a matter of necessity: too little time, too many other things to do, reaching the limits of my execution talents, needing fresh perspectives on things I have been looking at for years.

This transition forces me to formally communicate aspects of the Brainzooming brand, including strategic assumptions and brand personality, vocabulary, design standards, and other elements that have only been in my head until now.

It also reinforces something I’ve known for a long time: I’m both a great client and a horrible client.

I’m a great client because of all the creative thinking background and experience communicating with creative people. I’m horrible because I have just enough creative chops to do many things myself, which I’m not reluctant to do if a project isn’t quite working.

8 Pieces of Creative Advice from a Great and Horrible Client

While collaborating with others on the Brainzooming brand, I’ve doled out plenty of advice. Here are eight creative advice tidbits that are more broadly applicable beyond our growing creative team:

  • Sometimes they hire you for how you’ll bring your personal creative vision to a project. Sometimes they hire you to put your creative vision to the side and perform work that sounds/looks like the brand. Know which type of gig you are working on right now.
  • Get the strategy down before you move to creative ideas. Return to the brand strategy and the creative strategy frequently. Nailing the strategy exactly is more important than delivering the most stellar creative idea.
  • Make sure you get a creative brief in place so there’s some type of objective way to assess the work when you’re done.
  • If you’re strong on big creative ideas, you can probably slide on some of the fine points. If you’re very strong at creative details, that can make up for not having the biggest ideas. You can’t fall short on both big ideas and details, however, and think you’re going to thrive creatively.
  • If you are struggling with both the big ideas AND the detail, make sure you under-promise and over-deliver. Work quickly to allow time to recover from dead ends. Most importantly, be a person of your word: hit the deadlines you agree on with the client.
  • Push yourself to explore lots of creative ideas; more creative ideas than you can imagine you need. You WILL need all those creative ideas to uncover the winning idea.
  • Don’t throw your creative work over the transom with no explanation. Push for the opportunity to explain your bold creative choices. Once you get that hearing, be ready to tie your bold creative choices to the underlying strategy.
  • If your usual jobs or projects don’t allow you to regularly go for big creative ideas, cultivate something else creatively that allows you to grow and develop your big creative thinking.

That’s my creative advice. Do with it what you will. Mike Brown

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Short Story: You can take serious questions and wrap them in child-like situations to add fun and new thinking to a strategic planning process.

One way to create greater engagement during a strategic planning process is through framing important questions in new ways. Sometimes that means asking familiar questions completely differently. Other times it means changing the perspective from which participants are answering questions.

Then there are times in a strategic planning process when the questions are mainly serious, but the premise is mostly silly.

Here is one of those times.

Based on someone reaching our website looking for reflections to kick off a strategic planning process, I started imagining adapting and wrapping strategic thinking questions in nursery rhymes. Except now, I can’t remember WHY I was thinking about using nursery rhymes. They must have seemed like a way to add fun.

Never wanting to waste an idea emerging from the Brainzooming R&D lab, here are two surprising (and fun) ways to frame important questions as nursery rhymes.

Goldilocks and the Three Competitors

If you have strategic planning process participants who are knowledgeable about your competitors, you may want to collaboratively tap their insights. How about framing the exercise as Goldilocks and the Three Competitors? Ask them to address:

  • Which competitor has been too hot? (Growing faster, making aggressive product or pricing moves, expanding operations or markets)
  • Which competitor has been too cold? (Seem to have lost its way, losing share and/or people)
  • Which competitor is just right to target? (Clear weaknesses you can better exploit, opportunities to create a major advantage)

Ask the group to identify not only the three competitors, but reasons for their situation, and the best offensive and/or defensive moves your brand can take against each of them.

Jack and his Extreme Creativity Beans

Suppose you need extreme creative thinking. The kind of extreme creativity that comes from people with their heads in the clouds! Take the story of Jack and the Beanstalk and imagine the magic beans are extreme creativity questions. Use questions such as those below to grow ideas that will reach into the blue sky!

  • What would we do if these magic beans let us ignore resource limitations?
  • What if these magic beans prevented anyone from ever telling us “no”?
  • What would we have if these magic beans allowed us to grow ideas bigger and bolder than anything we’ve ever done before?

As you use these questions, look for ways to turn the blue-sky ideas they generate into reality.

See what we mean?

These are a mix of serious and silly. But then again, that mix keeps business interesting! – Mike Brown

Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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Short Story: Instead of voting on strategic priorities, use exercises incorporating individual perspectives and strategic conversations to make fact-based decisions on where to focus your company’s attention.

How do you approach prioritizing strategic opportunities?

There is no one way that’s right for deciding among competing initiatives. In fact, we don’t even use just one way to prioritize them.

Prioritizing Strategic Opportunities

One frequent prioritization approach works well when we have tons of ideas in a strategy workshop and need to quickly (and spontaneously) narrow them to a manageable number.

We get there by estimating how many ideas we have, taking 1/5 of that number of ideas (assuming that 20% of the ideas at most have near-term applicability). We divide the number of participants into that number. The result is how many ideas each person can select for prioritization. They don’t need to get agreement from anyone to select an idea. Only one individual must believe in an idea for the group to consider it. Everyone then places their ideas on a large x-y grid based on an individual assessment. After every idea is placed, the group engages in a strategic conversation about each idea’s placement. The group discussion determines the ultimate location for each idea on the grid.

With more time, we frequently develop a decision support tool for a client to use in prioritizing strategic opportunities.

This involves working with the organization’s leadership team to identify important factors shaping strategic decisions. After selecting the factors, we work with them to describe very attractive, attractive, and unattractive options for each factor. We then create a decision support tool allowing each team member to assess an opportunity individually. After everyone is done with the ratings, we aggregate the results. The subsequent conversation focuses not on where everyone agrees, but on areas of disagreement. We look for differences in information, assumptions, and/or perspectives and work at resolving them. These conversations are typically efficient so we can quickly reach decisions across multiple initiatives.

2 Things in Common

Notice what is similar with the two methods? Each one involves individual assessment followed by group conversation.

Starting with people offering individual perspectives without influence from others taps greater diversity in thinking. The group’s strategic conversation creates the opportunity to challenge individual perspectives that may be off the mark.

Even though we don’t have only one method for prioritizing strategic opportunities, pairing individual perspectives and strategic conversation among a group works well to focus on the smartest alternatives.  – Mike Brown

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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Short Story: Strategic planning questions that allow people to challenge conventional norms are fun and lead to disruptive thinking, so employ questions to harvest ideas from the wild possibilities.

The other day, someone reached out looking for short, funny, strategic planning questions. We have tons of strategic planning questions, including a few we have singled out as more fun than others. We also have quite a bit on fun strategy planning, including one of our most popular new eBooks, 11 Fun Ideas for Strategic Planning.

The question got me thinking about specific strategic planning questions we use to liven up strategic thinking.

3 Short, Funny Strategic Planning Questions

Thumbing a group’s collective nose (or perhaps raising a prominent finger) toward someone or something standing in the way of pursuing new, innovative strategies always adds fun to a strategy workshop. Here are three opportunities to challenge typical roadblocks to innovation and new strategic ideas:

1. Stick It To Authority Figures

What completely outrageous thing could we do that would be incredible, yet get us into big trouble with the boss?

This is the core creative thinking question for our Shrimp exercise. We have mentioned previously using it to revive a group’s energy. This creative thinking question also helps them move beyond ideas they would typically self-censor in almost any situation.

2. Give Conventional Expectations the Heave Ho

If we did exactly the opposite of anyone’s expectations, what would we do?

This strategic thinking question is on our extreme creativity list. It does a great job of giving people permission to change everything, even if it’s only hypothetical at first.

3. Get around Expectations Because of Who You Are

If characters from The Big Bang Theory were solving this problem, what would they do?

This strategic planning question is an updated, hipper version of one of our favorite creative thinking questions: How would the castaways from Gilligan’s Island solve this issue? Both versions of Change Your Character exercises, they free a group’s perspective and energy to imagine how others would tackle daily issues around your organization.

Wait, There’s More!

These types of questions typically generate a higher percentage of ideas that, on the surface, seem completely ridiculous. That’s why you want to couple them with questions to help mine the ideas for possibilities that you CAN implement. These are a follow-up questions to consider using:

  • What could we take from these ideas (and modify) to apply to our situation?
  • How could we take this idea just as it is to challenge how we do things now?
  • How can modify this idea as little as possible to be able to move on it quickly without losing how outrageous / special / disruptive it is?

Granted, we don’t use each of these funny strategic planning questions in every client workshop. When we do use them, they definitely boost the energy level dramatically. – Mike Brown

 

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Yes, developing strategy can be fun . . . if you know the right ways to liven it up while still developing solid strategies! If you’re intrigued by the possibilities, download our FREE eBook, “11 Fun Ideas for Strategic Planning.”
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Short Story: If a group of experts struggles with innovation, provide an opportunity to look at the situation from the outside to discover mental space to innovate.

I was talking with an engineer at a company that primarily employs engineers. The company focuses on materials testing.

He told me how difficult it is for the organization to consider an innovation strategy. The reason why? The engineers are so accustomed to testing EVERYTHING, they routinely shoot down any innovative ideas. That’s what they are used to doing. When the whole business is built on trying to prove something doesn’t work, I guess it takes you out of the “let’s try something new and innovative and see what happens” game.

I suggested looking at a version of one of our extreme creativity questions: How can we innovate our processes to test things faster than all our competitors? Specifically, how can we test ten products in the time our competitors test two things?

I don’t know if they’ll do it or not, but they’d be better off if they did.

2 Ways to Take a Fresh Look at Outside-In Innovation Strategy

They could also take the outside-in innovation strategy approach we wrote about recently: look at other testing situations ripe for speeding up and solve those. They could then take those ideas and apply them to what they do. It always seems easier and more fun to work on somebody else’s problems and fix them. That is especially true when your expertise is tearing apart what others overlooked in their work!

Additionally, our conversation suggested an intriguing innovation strategy role. He told me how the company had its annual meeting at the same venue two years in a row. At the most recent annual meeting, the bartender was the same as the year earlier. The bartender remarked that all the engineers were sitting in EXACTLY the same seats as at the previous year’s meeting!

While the engineers obviously remembered where they sat (and returned to the same seats), it took an outside observer to point out the bigger message: YOU GUYS DON’T EVER DO ANYTHING DIFFERENTLY! That story got me thinking: beyond an outside facilitator, who else is witnessing your innovation strategy development over time and can point to what those closest to it will never see, or at least never mention?

If thinking about doing things in new ways is tough for your organization, start looking at an outside-in innovation strategy!  – Mike Brown

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Last weekend’s Wall Street Journal featured a piece called “Two Cheers for Failure in a Tough Drug Industry,” by Jonathan D. Rockoff. The article highlighted innovation strategy options that drug companies are using to instill and support risk-taking behaviors. These companies are trying to motivate researchers facing daunting odds for bringing a drug successfully to market. Rockoff cites odds of 1 in 10,000 for drug compounds to ultimately gain regulatory approval.

The innovation strategy options include cultivating company culture, celebrating failures with parties and awards, and making sure they are failing as fast as possible with sufficient learnings.

4 Ways to Celebrate Risk Taking

While an innovation strategy that suggests throwing a party to celebrate a failed idea seems outrageous, the message from the pharma companies is that it’s smart business. Even if your innovation success rate is dramatically higher, motivating employees to embrace risks vital for innovating can be challenging. It’s chic for gurus to extol embracing failure. Yet, most employees have no track record of seeing peers – or anyone else – fail repeatedly as a pathway to corporate success.

Let’s suspend judgement and see the innovation strategy decisions certain pharma players are introducing to motivate taking risks.

1. Cultivating a Resilient, Innovative Environment

Ironwood Pharmaceuticals is targeting both learning and emotion to prompt engagement and risk taking among its nearly 700 employees. In business for nineteen years, it has only one drug in the marketplace; eight more are in advanced development stages. To create broader understanding among employees about embracing serial risk taking amid tough odds, it invites well-known pharmaceutical innovators to share their experiences and practices.

The company also depicts development paths of drugs that have successfully made it through the regulatory gauntlet. They display these case studies in the workplace. To further engage its team, Ironwood asks staff to submit clever early-stage names for products in development. They encourage temporary names that are inside jokes or reflect pop culture interests.

By involving employees beyond its research team, Ironwood personalizes for all staff the challenges of innovating when you expect to meet many setbacks and dead ends. Inviting everyone to name test drugs creates personal investment in products under development, even among non-researchers.

Something to Think about for Your Business: How does your organization create opportunities for all employees to invest in innovation, even if you are not looking for them to generate or develop new product ideas? Just as you might encourage every employee to find the connections between themselves and end customers, how can you encourage them to create closer connections to the innovation centers in your business?

2. Celebrating Risk-Taking Behaviors

The biotech units at AstraZeneca and at Bristol-Myers Squibb each award scientists and researchers for outstanding work. Their awards are independent of ultimate commercialization or lack of it. AstraZeneca hosts an annual event to recognize scientists. The awards, presented at a black-tie event (dubbed the “Science Oscars”) are based on promising work; results are not a factor. The “Bravo Awards” at Bristol-Myers Squibb are similarly granted based on research efforts.

When an organization singles out people for dedicated, positive effort AND successful results, it sends a powerful message. It says the organization realizes successful innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Innovation depends on ideas and exploration, development and testing, and ultimately, achieving some threshold rate of commercialization. Reinforcing a multi-dimensional innovation process view with incentives and rewards along all phases shows that the company understands the importance of cultivating all aspects of innovation.

Something to Think about for Your Business: Do your innovation metrics track performance from idea generation to R&D, and through business results? If not, what are some smart steps that will expand your innovation dashboard?

3. Letting Go when an Innovation Strategy Isn’t Working

Beyond ingenious names, Ironwood holds wakes for drugs it has tested but killed before reaching the market. The company introduced the idea of a drug wake to allay researchers’ fears related to its first failed drug. With research and development on the drug suspended, employees were dreading restarting their research efforts (at best) or losing their jobs (at worst).

The wakes salute development efforts that extend up to a decade without commercial success. Ironwood now has six in its history; the wakes are integral to helping employees move to new assignments with strong outlooks. Recalling personal experiences and memories conveys appreciation for each innovation journey, even if the desired destination proves elusive.

Organizational behaviors convey whether or not true appreciation exists for risk taking that doesn’t result in bankable ROI. The audacity of throwing a party for what could easily be classified as failures signals confidence in ultimate success, investment in valuing people (beyond exclusively ROI-based outcomes), and a relaxed environment. These send the clear message that support for innovation and risk taking exists independently from market success.

Something to Think about for Your Business: What do your organizational behaviors say about your organization’s risk tolerance? Do you back up communication about the value of risk taking with obvious support and encouragement when individuals and teams pursue new ideas that fail to come to fruition?

4. Failing and Learning

Vertex Pharmaceuticals is training employees to conduct thorough post-R&D analysis. It wants to ensure that scientists capitalize on every possible learning from failed innovation. Embedding the US Army’s “after-action reporting” technique provides a methodology for in-depth researcher interviews to identify themes behind successes and failures. The process turns personal learnings into organizational knowledge.

Something to Think about for Your Business: Are you using every innovation initiative, regardless of its success, to create learnings that make your organization smarter and better? How often are you prioritizing and green lighting higher-risk innovation initiatives that promise disproportionate new learning potential?

What ideas does this raise about your innovation strategy?

Could you identify a couple of areas where pharma companies are supporting risk-taking behavior that would benefit your organization’s innovation strategy? Maybe it’s not a wake for a dead idea, but what else can you mine for an innovation strategy boost? – Mike Brown

 

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3d-Cover-Innovation-FearsWhether spoken or unspoken, organizations can send strong messages saying, “If it isn’t broken, don’t screw around with it” in a variety of ways. Such messages make it clear that good things do not await those pushing for innovation involving any significant level of risk.

This free Brainzooming innovation eBook identifies seven typical business innovation fears. For each fear, we highlight strategy options to mitigate the fears and push forward with innovative strategies. We tackle:

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  • Situations where your best strategy is taking business innovation underground

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Mike Brown

Founder of The Brainzooming Group, and an expert on strategy, creativity, and innovation. Mike is a frequent speaker on innovation, strategic thinking, and social media.

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