January 12, 2014

Feeling inspired?

Filed under: Business,Consumer Trends,Innovation,Marketing — by xrematon @ 9:30 pm
Tags: , , ,

A little while ago, I wrote a piece about the importance of staying curious. I’d like to follow this up with some thoughts on where inspiration come from. Now, I’m under no illusions about how big and mighty this topic is. I’ve already touched upon it in a two-part article, and there are many people out there, far more expert than me, who have spent many hours exploring at length what environment and processes will stimulate that magical creativity. In fact, if you’ve got time, take a look at this somewhat tongue-in-cheek article describing the author’s frustration with this narcissistic literature of creativity.

My aim here is to put this topic in the world of everyday reality. Actually, I imagine that, for many small businesses and entrepreneurs, having ideas isn’t the big issue – it’s the driving force behind their venture. Based on their own experience, people know there is a gap in the market.

This was the case for Julia Boddy, founder of Mrs Tinks ready-meals for bigger children and a fellow member of the Brand Gathering community. She explained, “I had three small children and was doing too much cooking, but felt guilty about not cooking. Though I could find a ready-meal for my two year old, there was nothing for older kids.” In this instance, knowing what to do is easy because you know what you want and the market place doesn’t offer it.

However, I want to go beyond this point. To stay fresh and dynamic, businesses need to keep having ideas coming in. I have worked a lot with large organisations who have teams dedicated to this process, spending many thousands on sophisticated systems and structures. It doesn’t have to be that complicated. Ideas can arise out of everyday business – so long as we are ready to listen.

Let’s start with a pretty obvious one but which shouldn’t be forgotten: customers. They can tell you what’s what – whether it’s to praise the good, or question the bad. An example of the latter is a change in the design of some girl’s boots at Clarks. Following customer complaints, a zip was moved from the inside leg, where it caused girls to trip, to outside. You are probably thinking this is very prosaic, but it makes a big difference to those concerned (think of those happy knees). This example highlights another important point: that ideas don’t have to be huge. Little incremental changes are vital to maintaining relevance and continuing appeal.

My chat with Julia flagged another source of ideas: the organisations whom you work with to make ‘stuff’ happen. For Mrs Tinks, it was the supermarket buyers who had lots to say about brands, packaging, and in particular how to achieve standout. Suppliers and partners can provide valuable insights and information, especially as they have expertise in areas where you may not. However, this rubs up against another important point: how it can sometimes be difficult to make all these ideas fit together – for example changing a recipe to make it better value – and not lose sight of what a business is meant to be about – ridiculously tasty and healthy food for kids – as is the case for Mrs Tinks.

Depending on set-up, size and structure, employees can also play a role. Some big companies are really going to town in trying to ensure that the creativity of their staff is allowed to blossom and flourish. Zhang Ruimin, the boss of Haier, a Chinese firm that is now the world’s largest appliance manufacturer, has decided to get rid of all middle management. A tad radical perhaps, but the aim is to make the company more responsive. Mr Zhang has explained, “In the past, employees waited to hear from the boss; now, they listen to the customer.” Haier encourages ambitious employees to spot opportunities and propose ideas for a new product or service. A vote, which can include not just employees but suppliers and customers, decides which project goes ahead. The winner also becomes the project’s leader. They then form a team by recruiting from across the company.

Whilst this may be excessively elaborate for small companies, the principle of giving employees incentives and structure to get going on ideas is important, even if it does lead to just a small scale change. Finding a more efficient way of responding to invoices can mean more time to spend on developing important customer relationships.

Getting ideas doesn’t have to be tricky. The seeds of inspiration can be found in the interactions that take place in the routine of running a business. It’s about staying curious and being alert. Some ideas need to mature over time to develop clarity and actionability. In the story of MOMA that was posted in the Brand Gathering Resource Hub, we found out how founder Tom Mercer spent eight months perfecting his bircher museli recipe. Other ideas might appear in a flash. On that note, I would like to finish with a puzzle – just something to get you in the mood for seeking ideas and to keep you on your toes!

A giant inverted steel pyramid is perfectly balanced on its point. Any movement of the pyramid will cause it to topple over. Underneath the pyramid is a £50 note. How do you remove the note without disturbing the pyramid?

A version of this post first appeared in Brand Gathering, and is re-published here with acknowledgments


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