Ideas via Intermediaries
A collection of stories about the ingenious use
of different perspectives
How often we are floored when we have to think about what kinds of things to do that might help us to get new ideas for solving one of our problems. The same old approaches come readily to mind (look for analogies/do something different/leave the problem to incubate etc), but the stepping stones we think up feel either way-out or else too weak; and we lack the courage to play with them.
Jurgen Wolff, the writer and teacher of creative writing skills, in his monthly newsletter “Brainstorm” suggested an approach: ‘for a current challenge you are facing, generate a list of situations that have something in common with it, and a list of apparently dissimilar situations. Then brainstorm ways that the latter are similar, and see what new ideas that gives you”.
Sometimes you hear stories about ways in which problem-owners have introduced people with radically different perspectives who have been able to come up with magical ideas. Below you will find some.
* British Airways used often to pay for a day of his/her time to a specialist from a different field in order to get new perspectives on old problems. On one occasion, faced with the problem of how to stop grease trails developing along the aisle floor-covering from the galley of an aircraft, they invited an expert on the lay-out and equipping of surgical theatres to help them. (Bob Nelson, then at BA)
* A group of cardiac surgeons at Great Ormond Street Hospital, concerned at the dangers involved when an infant was handed over from Surgery to Intensive Care because monitoring and feed lines had to be disconnected and new ones reconnected, asked Maclaren, the Formula One racing company, to help them because of their expertise in the pit stop. (John Farago, Royal Society of Arts.)
* First Great Western wanted to develop new products and they invited a Cabin Service Director from British Airways to their session along with a specialist in Stress Relief, Yoga and NLP! Needless to say the results went far beyond just train-related products and gave the resulting new product development ideas a much broader scope than would probably otherwise have happened. (Carole Lee, LB Innovations)
* Which direction? Not so long ago, but before the fast digital communications revolution, BT had a growing problem they needed help to solve. When routing phone calls at peak times, calls blocked by volume of traffic would be passed from one major centre to the next in the general direction of where the call was headed. This eventually caused a blockage at the next point and so on until the system became very slow. Apparently they approached Cambridge University Maths Dept. for a solution. After some modelling effort, it was soon demonstrated that the ‘random walk approach’ was the answer. This simply chose any route at random and this ended up being far more efficient at finding a clear path than persistently trying the main and hence busiest routes. At the speed calls are transmitted, even with contorted loops and doubling back, the extra distances travelled were not noticeable. (Graham Bushnell-Wye, CCLRC)
* An interactive illustration of apportioning time to tasks – useful at group meetings. Standing at the front of the room, the lecturer asks how many of these big stones can I get in this one litre glass container. Several suggestions are forthcoming and 5 or 6 stones are fitted in comfortably. “Is the container full – can I fit anything else in?” is asked. “It’s pretty full, so probably not” is the usual answer from the audience. Then a bag of pebbles is produced and much of the contents duly poured into the container, fitting into the voids left by the stones. “Is it full now?” – fewer people in the audience now think so. A bag of sand is produced and some of this too is added as the grains fit between the pebbles and stones. “Is it full now?” – not many think so at this stage and, sure enough, a bottle of water appears and some of this tipped into the container. “What’s the message for time management then”, asks the lecturer. A volunteer says “You can carry on squeezing more and more into the time available”. “No!”, says the lecturer, “whilst that is true, if I’d tried to put the stones in after the pebbles, sand and water, I wouldn’t have been able to fit any in. The thing is, to make sure you put in the important things first, then fit in the less important things around them.” OR, for time management, the most important thing is to spend time doing the most important thing, AND, to determine the most important things when planning your year/month/week/day. Ask yourself what thing(s) can I do that will have the greatest impact on the organisation/ my team/ my personal objectives/ my home life (important to consider home-life balance too!). (Graham Bushnell-Wye, CCLRC)
* One particular Canadian Province was having problems during the winter with ice build-up on the telephone lines that stretched across the province on telegraph poles. Each winter when the ice built up and the weight became too much the lines would break and the province had to send out teams to repair the broken telephone lines. They got together a team of people to try and work out how to a) stop the ice build-up, b) save some money as it was a costly exercise each time it happened and c) ensure the phone lines stayed up for customers! They held an open creative brainstorming session where people were asked to offer ideas as to how to stop the build-up of ice. During the initial session someone wrote or offered ‘get bears to climb the poles’. During the first review the person was asked how this would stop ice build-up and it was said that if bears climbed the telegraph poles then the poles shaking as they climbed would cause the ice to break up, loosen and fall. So along with other ideas they freewheeled again and were asked how might they get the bears to climb the poles, the answer came out, ‘put food on top of the poles to encourage them to climb’. Mmm, good but how do you get food on top of the poles? Well another solution came out, you could fly a helicopter low level and drop food on to the top of the poles. At this point came the Eureka moment when someone realised that if you flew low level in a helicopter along the phone lines, the downdraft from the helicopter blades would be more than enough to shake the ice build-up from the lines before it got too heavy and the lines broke. So from ‘getting bears to climb the poles’ they got to ‘flying a helicopter low level along the lines’ and this is now how they keep the ice from building up on the phone lines! (Gary Austin, Circle Indigo.)
* I’ve heard of the Formula 1 pit stop idea before (urban myth?!) used to inform commercial aircraft turn-round at terminals. Similar problem: speed is essential, refuel & re-supply, get it moving again. I used to teach business process re-engineering and the generic technique I call “industry hopping”, ie take a great idea from one industry and apply it in another. Example: if your problem is marketing, identify who you think is a star at marketing, and see what they do. If you think Coca Cola is a star (and they manage to sell us fizzy acid in remarkable quantity) then consider what they do as a source of ideas. As ever, it relies on the “nothing new under the sun” principle. (Mike Barrett, Marcham Consulting.)
* I have been asked by Renison Goldfields to take a fresh view of a gold mine. As a systems person (IT consultant) I had no prior knowledge of gold mining, but that was the point. Traditionally there were two processes in sequence: dig out the ore and then extract the gold. Each operated separately. My contribution was to recognise that the only thing that really mattered was the amount of gold produced, implying that it’s better to compromise the amount and/or choice of ore if that meant more gold produced. I think I had unusual advantages in having great trust from the client; and mine management determined to set new benchmarks for the way things were done. (Mike Barrett, Marcham Consulting.)
* A recent Radio 4 programme was about natural analogies and the fact that BT has a section which develops technical ideas from nature. And there is said to be a US technology outfit called Antics or something similar which devises ideas exclusively from the behaviour of ants. (Rosie Walford, CEN Network.)
* In a workshop looking for new ideas for toothpaste based on the senses, ‘What if..” recently got a blind woman to make delegates do tasks with different visual impairments, a glassblower to talk process and textures, a cocktail barman to mix cocktails to conceptual briefs like ‘smooth white’ or deep down freshness’, and a composer to have delegates sample sounds to concept briefs then compose them in a studio into a short piece of music. (Rosie Walford, CEN Network.)
* I’ve had a masseur and Cosmopolitan magazine editor come to sessions about a contemporary female brand. (Rosie Walford, CEN Network.)
* In an effort to learn more about project management we recently had two talks back to back. The first was from the Project Manager of the London Eye and the second the Project Manager of the Windsor Castle restoration after the fire. The things I picked up where the many and different constraints that projects face. The London Eye had a fixed time (31st Dec 1999), but not fixed cost (original cost £25M – final cost £75M). The Windsor Castle contractors were chosen because of their reputation in restoration of old buildings, and known to be ‘good’ contractors – interestingly one of the highest project priorities was that the palace didn’t want any scandal about being ripped off or dodgy work. The London Eye talk was Powerpoint (ie modern) – the Windsor Castle guy showed two overheads (I think) but essentially just sat at the front of the lecture theatre and talked. Both were very good talks, but it was almost surreal seeing the different styles of presentation and how this mapped to the actual projects. Both projects were very much in the public eye and this had a factor on the project plans – not just technical issues, but ‘softer’ factors dictate how a project is run. Both had many issues to face and had to manage risk eg the London Eye had a huge safety assessment, whereas the Windsor Castle needed 10th Century skills in the 20th century. At the point of taking on the project these were not solved, but by skill, sweat and determination were won through. (Andy Dent, CCLRC.)
* One international airline wanted to improve its luggage handling system so it studied how Indianapolis 500 car crews handled their pit stops during races. (Marion Devine.
* A Californian construction company raised its rate of on-time cement deliveries from 68% to 95% by taking route planning lessons from a local pizza delivery company. (Marion Devine.)
* BT used to despatch its 80,000 strong fleet of service vans as and when calls for repairs or service were received from customers. The trouble with the system was that those customers always faced a wait, and if their phone lines were down, that delay could be, at best inconvenient, and at worst financially costly. The system was inefficient for BT too, because its personnel spent a large part of their time driving between customers’ sites and the local BT service centre. Did they invite an anthropologist in to suggest that they look at these vans as a system like that developed by ants to gather food and detect threats in the area around their nest? Rather than wait to be despatched by the nest, ants constantly patrol designated zones around it, remaining on the alert for food and enemies – without the need for a command centre. BT vans now each spend all day patrolling local areas where demand is expected and they are able to respond far more quickly to calls. In the first year after the system’s introduction, the company saved £240 million. (Do disturb: how to have better ideas. Design Council, 2001)
* Britannia Building Society got a blind person to talk to them about how he experienced different branded retail outlets – to give a perspective on non-visual branding stimulus towards the redesign of new branches. (Simon Gravatt)
* The BBC has arranged for the person who is to head its coverage of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee celebrations to get together with the person in Honda who is responsible for the launch of one of their new models. (Deryn Holland, BBC)
* A conference on mentoring for women was attended by one man – who wanted to better understand how women think. (Rachael Leggett, Sun University)
* The oil company Amerada Hess was concerned that it appeared unable to attract talented young people into the company, so they made contact with the BBC in order to learn more about how and why the BBC attracted talent so effectively. (Deryn Holland, BBC)
John Whatmore First published 2001
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