Three Ways to Mine Great Ideas

Good ideas are like gemstones. If you have one or two, things seem pretty good. Often leaders need to follow the miner’s lead and dig up good ideas from those they lead.
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We recently finished the annual report for the nonprofit I operate. I say we because it is always a team effort. There were several changes I wanted to make in the annual report to communicate better who we are, what we do, and how well we perform. I wanted to show data in ways that communicated important fact quickly and show off the accomplishments of our team. There is no need for leaders if everyone does their own work, so I leaned on others to make this report the best we ever issued. When I sat down with my team, I pointed out the things I disliked in our older reports, most of which I created. I showed them some ideas from other annual reports I liked and challenged them to find ways to integrate those ideas to tell our FY 2021 story. George Washington said, “When a leader cannot generate important ideas himself, he must look elsewhere.” In order for us to develop a better annual report, I as a leader, had to rely on others for ideas to tell our story better. Here are three ways you can inspire your people to generate good ideas.

Tell them Why

Simon Sinek said it best, start with why. Tell others why the project is important. How does it support the work you do to relieve other people’s pain. Who benefits from the project, not just the intended audience, but your vendors, other teams in the organization, and even the team members. If the goal of the project is to change something, explain why changing is important. Taking time to explain why you are asking for the ideas of others creates a culture of learning. You demonstrate the value of ideas regardless of their origin. You show them you care and respect them enough to listen to their ideas, which reinforces your organization’s principals surrounding integrity, trust, loyalty, and respect.

Ask Great Questions

One great way to inspire people is asking questions. For example, in our annual report project, I showed earlier examples of how we presented data. Originally it was straight out facts: $50,000.00 spent, 29 clients served, 1,200 hours worked, etc. Our next step was better, pie charts, but it was still weak. I asked the team how we could present the data, so people could grasp the important points quickly and understand the importance of those facts. Of course, I also asked if the information we were presenting was really important to our stakeholders? What information could we present that might tell the story better than the key indicators we previously selected? Where would we find that information? If we could not present some of these things this year because the information was not easily obtainable, what changes in the coming year do we need to make to our data collection? How would we accomplish those changes?

Asking good questions to start conversations is important. Listening to answers and demonstrating your listening by asking appropriate follow up questions shows respect and encourages participants to offer more ideas. One of my favorite responses to other people’s ideas is, “Tell me more about that?”

Allow Time to Create

Unlike data entry or parts production, creative endeavors do not fit neatly into time constraints. This blog is a great example. I try to publish around the 15th and 30th of each month. Sometimes the way I try to explain a concept, or my understanding of a leadership theory, is not fully formed. Often the act of writing helps me understand better. It enables me to make connections necessary to implement those ideas in my actual leadership practice. As a result, you may notice I revisit certain ideas again with a different understanding compared to when I first published a post.

Sometimes one has to lie on one’s back to create great ideas or enduring works of beauty. Ensure those you lead have time to develop creative ideas. Doing so encourages hard work & inspires them to stay.
-Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36772

You may have a deadline when you ask others for ideas, but ensure you provide them enough time to think and create. There are times you see someone sitting in their cubical or office listening to music or staring at a screen and it is easy to assume they are doing nothing. Sometimes that is true. More often, the gears inside that person’s head are turning, processing information, making connections necessary to develop a complete idea, and a way to explain that idea to others.

A great example of the hidden creative process appears on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni spent the better part of his life between 1508 and 1512 on his back. It would have been easy for the Pope to pass through and notice those periods when he did not have a brush in hand applying paint to the ceiling. However, one cannot argue with the results. Michelangelo’s work still amazes visitors 510 years later. Compare that to how long the paint job lasts on your living room ceiling. Creativity takes time. Not all of us are Renaissance painters. Most of our organizations cannot dedicate four years to the development of a product or service. However, recognize that the creative process does take some time. Ensure you allow enough time for it to happen.

Leaders provide purpose though their vision. They provide motivation and direction by creating plans to make their vision reality. Good leaders recognize they must use the good ideas others have to ensure their vision becomes a reality. No matter how good a leader is, s/he does not have all the good ideas. Developing creativity in others ensures there is a pool of talented thinkers with a proven ability to execute when an organization needs good ideas. Looking back to my example of the Annual Report story, as is often the case when I challenge others, my team rose to the challenge and created a great Annual Report. The ideas they put together to communicate key data amazed me. Your people will amaze you if you allow them the time and flexibility to create new ideas for improving processes, creating new products and services, or telling the world your organization’s story. Not all of us have Michelangelo working for them. If you did, under your leadership would he be able to create another masterpiece or be relegated to living with the status quo? Allow your people to reflect, create, and execute. You will be amazed at what they can do!

References and Additional Reading

Gardner, H. (2000). Gardner’s art through the ages. Vol II. Wadsworth Publishing. Belmont, CA

Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why. Penguin Books. New York, NY

SOAR above the Problem, Don’t SWOT It

Like many other leaders and students of leadership, I learned and use the SWOT model to help analyze during change. For those who have never heard of SWOT, it stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. You can read more about it in my December 2018 post https://saintcyrtraining.com/2018/12/27/strategic-planning-for-2019/. The Model is great to help organizations identify things that are wrong. However, the SOAR model helps leaders and organizations identify what is right. Using SOAR allows leaders to understand things that do not need fixing and should be preserved.

SOAR model can be used instead of or as a complement to SWOT as you and your organization plan future changes.
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SOAR is the model that helps leaders identify Strengths, Opportunities, Aspirations, and Results (Moore, C. 2021). The model builds upon the idea of leading from strength discussed in the book Strengths Based Leadership by Rath and Conchie. As a result, leaders find themselves focusing on the important things to keep. It is equally important to know what works in order to keep it as it is to know what is broken in order to fix or replace it.

The SOAR model is based on a method called appreciative inquiry. Appreciative inquiry revolves around a series of questions pertaining to a particular topic such as organizational governance, or product and service line.  Examples sound like, “What is something that excites you about this widget?”, or “How does our current structure encourage creativity?” The purpose is to identify those things to save and bring forward as change happens.

Aspects of appreciative inquiry are described as a series of Ds depending on the source. Positive Psychology describes them as discovery, dream, design, and delivery (Moore, 2021). Forbes uses five Ds; define, discover, dream, discover, and deploy(Spavell,2021). 

Like SWOT, SOAR begins by examining strengths. In this model however you ask a series of questions that reveal strengths. Two examples of strength finding questions appear above. This process provides different points of view on those things that are strong. Those strengths allow us to lead from those points.

Opportunities is also a common point between SOAR and SWOT. How and what questions help leaders identify opportunities such as, “What does the future look like given current trends?”, and “How can we use our strengths to meet our clients’ future needs?” Opportunities give those in the SOAR model to see the future and develop possibilities.

Aspirations allow inquiries about things we as individuals, leaders, and organizations hope to be at our best. This step requires imagination. The conversation may begin with a prompt like, “In three years, our group is operating like a well oiled machine. Employees are excited to come to work. Peace and harmony reign. How did we achieve these ideals?” Of course, the answers to these type of prompts offer possible solutions to move from the good work you now do to great work you could be doing!

Results are important. Ken Blanchard said in his book The Secret, he proposes that both relationships and results are important. You may not always need others to achieve things, but you do if you are a leader. Ask other things like when they felt their talents were best used or what ways help you work better.

The SOAR model based on the appreciative inquiry process is different. Use opened ended questions to encourage others to respond with narrative answers. Create space for people to answer the questions by remaining silent(Miller etal, 2004). I have a professional coach who warned me at our first meeting that after she asked a question, she would not speak again until after I answered her question. She said it took a long time to get used to silence but learned important insights are born in silence. Crafting quality appreciative inquiry questions may seem difficult. Fortunately, there is help in the form of books and websites that offer examples. 

Appreciative inquiry is frequently used in groups. I found it a helpful tool in one-on-one situations. When I am trying to collect feedback about my performance as a leader from my boss, peers, or employees, using appreciative questions prompts people to provide better information. Remember that if you are asking questions, you need to accept the answers. Record them so you can later reflect on them and make changes as necessary, and of course identify things to keep with you. When you ask questions of others in an appreciative way, it inspires confidence in them as change happens.

Problems and change are difficult. As a leader, you can SWOT them or SOAR over them. Both models have advantages. When used together, there is an even greater potential for break through successes. Identify your strengths, find your opportunities. Dream of your aspirations, achieve results. When you use the appreciative inquiry process in the SOAR model, you find the good stuff to keep with you as you make changes. Don’t SWOT your problems; SOAR above them!

References 

Miller, C, Aguilar C, Maslowski, L. McDaniel, D. and Mantel, M. ((2004) The nonprofits’ guide to the power of appreciative inquiry. Community Development Institute. Denver, CO.

Moore, C. (6/5/2021). What is appreciative inquiry? A brief history & real life examples. PositivePsycology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/appreciative-inquiry/ retrieved 6/16/21

Sparvell, M. (1/25/2021). Appreciative inquiry: Getting more of the good stuff. Forbes.com. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescommunicationscouncil/2021/01/25/appreciative-inquiry-getting-more-of-the-good-stuff/?sh=19f8d9856fd9 retrieved 7/16/21