Ask Berkun (Friday mailbag)

I get lots of questions and suggestions for things to write about during the week. And while the forums are locked, I’ll answer here instead:

Kishore asks: when too many ideas are created in a company, have you seen a efficient (and web 2.0) way for colleagues (every knowledge worker) to rank each other’s ideas ? and select the top and implement? (See collatodo)

This is never the big problem. There are a zillion ways to track ideas and they’ve been around for a long time (A whiteboard, a spreadsheet, a wiki, any database, etc.). The lack of a tool for this is not the reason why a team isn’t creative, or isn’t making good products. It’s that the people with power are not putting them into action.

Sure, some tools are better than others, but it’s like having grocery lists: having a tool for families to vote on things to buy is one thing, but someone actually going to the store and laying down cash to buy them is another.

The problem in most organizations isn’t a shortage of ideas, it’s that few ideas are given a chance to grow before they’re killed. If you want an organization to be more creative, the people in power need to decide to fund, develop, and ship those ideas out to people. And if people don’t know how that happens currently, then the first step is for leaders to make the existing process visible to everyone.

Here’s another good one:

JR asks: I’m working in a tech company as a Project Manager and would like to change my career slowly in the direction of an innovation enabler. Where shall I start? (It can be an URL you give me ;)

First step: stop using the word innovation. It’s a buzzword, it’s jargon, and most creative people’s eyes will glaze over when you use it. Instead, use words like: positive change, better decisions, and making co-workers more effective and creative. Those 3 things are tangible and co-workers will have a clue as to what you’re talking about.

As far as enabling, here’s 3 quick tips:

  1. Identify one specific challenge or unmet need your customers have. It’s easiest to anchor creativity around customers, since that’s who you’re making things for. Collaborate with your team to create this list, or pick something from an existing list. Start small, pick one problem, and rally your team around it.
  2. Brainstorm ways to change your product to satisfy that need. Keep the group of people involved small, make it fun, and do it in an afternoon.
  3. Make quick/cheap prototypes. Do some experiments: try out some of the ideas for #2. Make it fun. Give programmers an afternoon to play with ideas (buy them lunch, and protect this play time). If few are interested, pick the few and focus on them. After a few sessions pick your most interesting experiment, and refine into something you can pitch to decision makers.

As the PM, you’re a great person to be leading the process of identifying problems, generating ideas, and prototyping solutions. If you do this once for a small thing, and it ships, you’ll have earned the trust from your team to repeat it, possibly on larger ideas.

Have a question you want me to answer? Leave a comment below or contact me.

5 Responses to “Ask Berkun (Friday mailbag)”

  1. jr

    Hi Scott

    Thanks a lot for your answer to my question. It just made my day. :)

    Best regards

  2. Sabrina

    What do you think the Parthenon used to be like, and what was it used for in the olden days. And how has it changed?

  3. Berthold

    Your answer to q1 is absolutely spot on. We don’t need people who have ideas. There is millions out there, billions possibly.

    We need people who ship. Those are few and far between, and without them, an idea is nothing but a cerebral flatulence. Those are the people who are celebrated for being innovative, not the guy who has thought up the most brilliant project management system, plugs his website and promises a Beta for 2 years before never being heard off again (with apologies to the one bloke who fits this example to a t).

    People tend to confuse the success of companies like twitter, digg, etc. with having an excellent idea, and miss the entrepreneurial challenges entirely. This however is the key component which leads to success.

    I may well write the software that perfectly suits my individual needs, but totally disregard the needs of my target audience. I may have a huge feature lineup, but never know where to start, erratically jumping to and fro, effectively stalling the project through time spent bugfixing and backtracking through components that should have been finished. I may even have a well laid-out project plan and simply fail to execute it, leading to dissatisfaction and procrastination.

    It’s not about the idea. It’s about the execution.

    Everybody has ideas. In fact, I have one right now. It’s totally awesome and it will never see the light of day. Happens to me every day. Move on.

  4. kari v

    Hi I’m an eighth grade honors English student and I love to write. I’ve always wished to write an actual book. I have started four already and I go between them all working on which ever one I have an idea for. Do you think that I am too young to write a book? Oh and i have this problem with writers’ block and it comes around when ever it is time to make the climax the action, What could be wrong? And is there a way to fix it? Please answer it would make me so happy and if you have any other advise for a young writer too that would be GREAT!! – Kari

    1. Sean Crawford

      Kari, by now, 2013-14, you know the answers. But there are new babies being born every day, and folks in school who don’t know. To them I say: A useful concept is cost-benefit. In life, this can mean, for a guy to old to socialize about TV shows, that the benefit of cable TV does not outweigh the cost to my writing time, so I cut my cable.

      In class, when you make a comment or ask a question, is the benefit to the class worth the cost of the class time? (We all like to get attention or a laugh, but the benefit should be more than half to the class, rather than mostly to you)

      In the writing/creative world, basic questions should go to your librarian, because the sources you will be referred to have the time (cost) to write out a concise thoughtful answer. In my writer’s group we would not answer questions on “what is manuscript format?” because we had to travel to our meetings, and limited time in our meeting was precious. (The answer could be supplied by a library book)

      When it comes to asking questions in person of real people, your teachers and parents will cut you some slack if you are unprepared—others, not so much. Preparing means you don’t “just wing it” but instead you write out your question(s) as a complete grammatical sentence. Trust me on this, or ask someone you can trust whether I am mistaken.

      If you wanted the benefit of getting your brother to help you man-handle a big crate into a far corner of the garage you would first reduce his time cost by clearing a good path through the junk before you went and got him to help you, right? “God and people help those who help themselves.” When you prepare by “doing your homework” and “paying your dues” before you ask for the time of an older person like me, then I see you as sincere and I will gladly help you.


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