I recently ran a workshop for a group of CEOs of small companies from different sectors and industries. We ran the following exercise. Each person started with a blank sheet of paper on which they answered the following questions about their organization.
- What are your main products or services? List three or four.
- What are your main markets? These can be industry sectors, types of customer or geographical markets.
- What are your greatest strengths? These can be technologies, skills, market strength etc.
- What is your proudest achievement? What has your organization done that is really exceptional?
Each delegate spent about 5 or 6 minutes filling this in. People then pass their sheet to the person on their left around the table. Each person reads the sheet they receive and then turns the sheet over and has to write down two or more suggestions for new products or services and one or two new markets for existing products. They then pass the sheet to their left. You have to add something different from any earlier suggestions on the sheet. We did this for four iterations and then the sheets were returned to their originators.
Each CEO now digested the suggestions. Some ideas were routine, some were ridiculous but some were genuinely useful and innovative. Every person had to select the best single idea from the ones they received and then had to develop a short plan for a minimum viable product. How could they test this idea cheaply and quickly to see if it had real promise? They then described this to the group for comment and feedback.
The whole exercise with ten participants took under 40 minutes. People agreed that it was highly productive with some provocative and promising suggestions. Running the exercise the way we did was quick and fruitful. Some delegates suggested a longer session run in series rather than in parallel. In this case each delegate in turn would answer the four questions orally to the group and people could quiz them on various points before making their suggestions. The whole group would then move on to the next person’s situation and make suggestions for them. This approach would take more time but allow a better understanding of the current business model for each company.
I am not sure that a deeper understanding would necessarily yield better results. You can hire consultants who pore over your business for weeks. They then submit a detailed and expensive report containing very reasonable proposals for strategy and innovations. But a diverse group of experienced business men and women who have a superficial understanding of your business are less constrained by conventional assumptions. They are far more likely to come up with radical and challenging suggestions.
Gather a cluster of strangers and share this method. It is quick, lively and productive. The more varied the group the better it works.
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Paul Sloane writes, speaks and leads workshops on creativity, innovation, and leadership. He is the author of The Innovative Leader and editor of A Guide to Open Innovation and Crowdsourcing, published both published by Kogan-Page. Follow him @PaulSloane