Six Tips for Generating Better Ideas (Part 2 of 2)
(Part 1 of 2)
4. Transform data to information. Find skilled professionals who know how to move up the cognitive food chain — from data to information, from information to knowledge, from knowledge to wisdom.
Rather than a group steeped in the state’s health care culture, Romney’s health care reform team was composed of private-sector types from his investment banking circle: Tim Murphy, Kelt Kindick and Brian Wheelan from J.P. Morgan, Bain and Co., and Harvard Business School, respectively. They brought a different skill set, a different language and a different perspective to the problem. The new policy group didn’t have much institutional knowledge, but its members were familiar with examining organizational structures and looking at value streams, and they were used to dealing with complicated finances.
“Leaders coming into government from the private sector have to appreciate that one thing government does quite well is to collect data. There’s tons of it,” said Murphy, who would eventually become Romney’s secretary of health and human services. “The key is being able to translate that data into usable information. To do that, you need to have people who are experienced with analytics, people who understand systems and who can offer suggestions around process changes. Those skills tend to come from certain training grounds — management consulting, investment banking, operations managers.”
5. Get ideas from partners. Give the problem to someone else to solve. Let your network of partners, both governmental and non-governmental, help develop new solutions to old problems. The Connect + Develop strategy used by Procter and Gamble, a leading manufacturer of household and health care products, focuses on establishing networks to leverage the innovation assets of others. When a technology entrepreneur in the company discovered that a Japanese firm was selling melamine foam (traditionally used for soundproofing and insulation) as household sponge, P&G purchased the product from an outside manufacturer and marketed it as Mr. Clean Magic Eraser in the United States and Europe.
P&G developed its elaborate system of scouts, proprietary networks, external networks and suppliers to search for adaptable ideas. The strategy explicitly recognizes that it’s a big world out there. Most solutions already exist — somewhere — and most problems are eminently solvable if you ask the right person.
6. Use mashups. Combine ideas from unrelated fields to create new solutions — free-market environmentalism, for example, to promote acid rain reduction. Another mashup is Virtual Alabama, which merged Google Earth 3-D visualization tools with emergency response data to create a state-of-the-art disaster response system. In our book, we used a mashup approach when we applied the process mapping tools of the manufacturing plant to the world of public policy, which provided valuable insights into the challenges facing government.
Overcoming the Tolstoy syndrome is all about listening. If we think we know the answer, we close off avenues of exploration. We ignore evidence that conflicts with our theories. We don’t invite people with different skill sets to apply their unique combination of knowledge, wisdom and experience to work with us.
Beating the Tolstoy syndrome means breaking across all kinds of boundaries: professional, psychological, organizational. It means economists weighing in on world hunger and management consultants reforming health care. It means letting your customers design your products, letting frontline workers set your policies and letting the private sector help solve public problems. It means the federal government allowing states to experiment, and it means Republicans working with Democrats.
Beating the Tolstoy syndrome requires being open to painful feedback. Doing so can prevent your idea from being tested very publicly in the real world with far more painful results. Thirty-five years later, you can still buy WIN buttons on eBay. Nobody wants that to be their legacy, do they?