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How IBM incubates ideas


IBM, the Big Blue, was founded in 1911, has 12 research laboratories worldwide and has held the record for most patents generated by a company for 20 consecutive years.Its employees have garnered five Nobel Prizes and six Turing Awards, among many other garlands. Notable inventions by IBM include the automated teller machine (ATM), the floppy disc, the hard drive, the magnetic stripe card and Watson artificial intelligence.

Although in recent years, IBM has apparently been eclipsed by younger, sexier tech-companies, when it talks about innovation, it is definitely worth listening to.

Phil Gilbert is general manager of IBM Design and here he explains the IBM strategies for unleashing employee talent and potential, looking for the next big idea.

Gilbert says: “When you walk into a meeting, there’s always someone who thinks he or she is the smartest person in the room.

A meeting room is often the “Breakfast Club” of the working world. You’ve got the extrovert, the introvert, the know-it-all and the ambitious steamroller. No matter what the mix, there’s always someone who dominates the discussion, and others who defer to that person out of frustration — or worse, complacency.

But getting the best work out of a team isn’t about silencing the loudest person. It’s about getting everyone involved to explore every angle, bring all ideas to the surface and collaborate on a path forward.

Two years ago, I was asked to lead the transformation of product design at IBM. My challenge isn’t simply to add designers. It’s to create agile, multidisciplinary teams that include designers, developers and product managers.

Designing around the user experience, part of what’s known as “design thinking,” has become crucial to the success of business software. It’s not simply because people expect consumer-type experiences at work, but also because the information we receive and the speed with which we’re expected to deal with it have exploded in just a few years. Work tools must be redesigned for this new complexity.

I’ve seen that team members are pretty good at organizing themselves when they have established relationships. When people know one another and have developed empathy and trust, the issue of getting everyone’s ideas on the table doesn’t come up much. Over time you learn about each other, come to respect those who can contribute and just figure out how to work together. I’ve seen this happen more often than not.

But when your organization is in the midst of transformation — whether it is a three-person start-up hiring a fourth employee or a big global company leading major shifts in technology — you are faced with teams of people who don’t necessarily have the shared experiences that enable them to behave well together. Team dynamics can easily get in the way of good ideas, and the loudest voice often wins.

I used to lead start-ups and have found that the same basic meeting practices can be used no matter what the size of a company. These strategies are effective with design thinking because they not only unleash everyone’s creativity but also give voice to every idea.

It has been my experience that the biggest impediment to getting people to think about what’s possible — instead of what’s not possible — is the difficulty in exposing everyone’s ideas to the broader team. So we focus on two things: getting everyone to contribute and letting everyone’s contribution be heard.

That doesn’t come naturally. Sometimes organizational hierarchy might prevent a good idea from being considered because it wasn’t shared. So at IBM, we intentionally assemble teams that span skills, levels of experience and points of view.

And then? It starts with a sticky note and a pen.

We did this for our new business email tool, IBM Verse, which helps workers prioritize tasks and find the right people and information quickly. We began not by declaring that we wanted to transform enterprise email, but by asking the team to think about what people dislike about email.

In cases like this, we begin by holding workshops where teams are given minimal instructions, and pen and paper. After the team leader presents a challenge, the room goes silent. Everyone spends 10 minutes writing their thoughts on sticky notes. One idea per note. No talking allowed.

Then, idea by idea, people post their sticky notes on a big whiteboard. There’s still no talking, no judging yourself or others. It’s total mindfulness about the user’s experience. There’s no battling over the best ideas or who owns what. Just get your thoughts out of your brain and on the wall.

The group keeps posting sticky notes until they slow to a dribble. When the members are done, everyone steps back. We call this popcorning. You don’t want to give people too much time. The point is to get everyone involved quickly.

Then, the team leader groups the sticky notes into overlapping and logical areas. People take it all in, reflect, and then they disappear. They are free to leave the room — or the building — to brainstorm with colleagues face to face, on the phone or via a group texting tool. This opens up the playing field to less-vocal members of the team who are more apt to speak up online.

After this freestyle brainstorming, the group returns to the room, sometimes after minutes but it could be hours or even days. Invariably they bring at least a couple dozen new ideas. Those go up on the board. Getting every idea in front of the team is important because it’s very difficult to quash a good idea if it’s shared. Once you know something, you can’t unknow it — you have to act.

None of this is rocket science, but it’s powerful if applied consistently. It makes for better teams and it leads to better outcomes. When you give voice to more people, the best ideas win, not the loudest ones.”

Nigel Phillips



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