Ask the Expert

FRAMINGHAM (07/06/2000) - THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX Doug Hall, founder of Richard Saunders International's Eureka Ranch, a Newtown, Ohio-based company that specializes in new business development, training and consulting, answered readers' questions on CIO.com about his area of expertise, encouraging radical thinking and effective brainstorming within a company. Here's what he had to say.

Q: How do you encourage radical thinking and effective brainstorming?

A: The quantitative research we have done indicates three critical factors:

The use of stimulus to spark the mind

A collection of truly diverse thinking styles Dramatic reduction in the "fear factor" among participants The last factor is the main reason why we try to work fun into the process.

Laughter has a great way of reducing fear.

Q: The strong demand for highly skilled technology workers has created a need for innovative solutions to recruit, reward and retain these employees. Most high-tech companies follow a predictable formula of offering large grants of stock options with comparatively low salaries to employees who join during the high-risk startup phase. These companies progressively raise the salaries and reduce the grants as they go through several rounds of venture funding and ultimately an initial public offering. This strategy works well for the founders and early employees, who can be handsomely rewarded for their risk taking. But as a creative vehicle it actually promotes the opposite effect. The early starters become fully vested in their original allocations and move on, while the new compensation package attracts the 9 to 5'ers who are not interested in taking risks and who are unwilling or unable to take the company to the next level. How do you get senior management to think of new and creative ways to reward the ongoing risk takers and high achievers who contribute to the overall growth and valuation of the company?

A: I fundamentally believe that all workers want to do work that is of value.

And, all workers want to make a difference in the world. The pride of craftsmanship cannot be bought. The difference you talk of is not about money.

Rather, the reason for the difference is the management itself. As Ben Franklin once said, "Fish stink from the head down." If management wants to encourage risk-taking, it needs to walk the talk.

Q: I enjoyed your book, Jump Start Your Brain. My question is not as much about work within a company as it is about improving creativity across a group of collaborating companies. Any hints on how to help a more diverse group let go of fears and assumptions to let the creativity flow? Also, any ideas on how to encourage radical thinking and creativity using online text-based conferencing as the tool?

A: Thanks for your support. A diverse group of companies is a great advantage, however, don't confuse process with content. The more diverse you are, the more likely you are to have loud and sometimes obnoxious debates. This is good. It means that all the folks have passion and a pulse. Remember, real teams are more like the family on the television show Roseanne than they are like the Cleavers in Leave It to Beaver. Real teams fight to make their point, yet they still have respect for each other.

I am not a big fan of online text-based conferencing. I've tried a number of variations to it, and each time the effectiveness scores have stunk big time.

Nothing beats people sitting down and talking with each other. And, to those who say text-based conferencing is needed so that folks can give their ideas without identifying themselves, I say you have a bigger problem...get a life.

Your corporate problems are much bigger than brainstorming.

Q: Can radical thinking and brainstorming be done in the typical environment of fast-paced, structured corporate culture? These cultures usually require quick, sometimes short-sighted answers, heavily influenced by resource constraints and political-hierarchical power. How is effective thinking encouraged (or even accepted) in that kind of environment?

A: Everything can be made to work if there is adequate leadership and responsibility. Sadly, in most corporations leadership is lacking at the top and responsibility is lacking at the bottom. You need to stand up and scream:

"The Emperor has no clothes!" And if people don't listen you need to walk. If you're not prepared to scream or to walk, then you must be willing to accept the fact that you've sold your soul to the devil.

Q: I own and run an interactive design company. We have a very creative staff.

We have chosen to make our decor reflect our creativity--very bright red, yellow and blue. Most visitors comment, "It's bright." It seems they don't know what else to say--good or bad. We have also printed business cards with unusual titles in addition to sets with standard titles like art director and so on.

The unusual titles are nothing too wild, just different, more reflective of what we do. We have hesitated in handing out the nonstandard cards to visitors because of their reactions to our office. But those that have been handed out received positive comments from visitors for the most part. Since we still have to deal with corporate types, are we branding ourselves wrong? Does it pay to stand out from the crowd, or are we shooting ourselves in the foot?

A: No guts, no glory. When I started my company back in 1990, folks were still wearing suits. I hadn't worn a suit in the Proctor & Gamble headquarters for five years before that. So, when I left, I just kept wearing jeans and sneakers or sandals. Today I've taken to tropical shirts from Key West. Titles and clothes don't make a company great or bad. Great work and people of vision are what matter. Stop worrying about the little stuff and go be brilliant.

Q: Can you recommend any software that supports the process of brainstorming, both individual brainstorming and collaborative brainstorming?

A: It all stinks as far as I'm concerned. That's both my opinion and the results of quantitative testing my company has done.

Q: What's the single biggest impediment to brainstorming sessions being successful within IT organizations?

A: Poor leadership from management.

Q: How does one provide the assurance to others that radical thinking creates no more risk than a coma--it's radical action that creates the risk?

A: There is no such thing as a guaranteed lottery ticket. In today's world, it is grow or die. If you are not moving forward you are moving backward.

If you would like to recommend an expert for this column or suggest a topic, e-mail Senior Writer Daintry Duffy at dduffy@cio.com.

ASK THE EXPERT Have a question about offshore outsourcing? Marty McCaffrey, founder and executive director of Salinas, California-based Software Outsourcing Research will be available to offer insight and advice on how offshore outsourcing of IT work can offer productivity and quality improvements as well as cost savings. Post your questions for him now until July 15 at www2.cio.com/CIO/expert or e-mail questions to asktheexpert@cio.com.

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