Why do ideas boxes remain empty?

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Every day in magazines we read about other organizations coming up with breakthrough ideas, and our sales people report that our competition is adopting disruptive strategies. But in our own case those ideas are missing. Why? What is the missing link?

Let’s consider a story…

Ramanathan was puzzled: he was doing his best to push the innovation initiative in his organization, but people were just not able to create great ideas.??He asked the Guru, “What more can I do? I have got idea boxes in every nook and corner. Our ad agency made a brilliant logo. We designed beautiful light bulb-shaped containers to put ideas in! I gave the money everyone said they wanted for the scheme. Like Google and other new-age companies I even gave people time off for idea creation, but…”??Guru smiled, “Let me tell you the story of the diamond diggers.”??Ramanathan put his diary down on the mat and fixed his gaze on the guru. He didn’t want to miss any insights.?

“There was a king, but apart from having a crown, he never felt like a king. this was because the empire was poor and the treasury was empty. The days were stressful and he was unable to sleep well at night.

“During one of those uneasy nights, one of the king’s illustrious forefathers appeared in his dream and whispered a sweet secret to his restless soul: ‘Dear son! You are not poor, but rich. There are diamond mines in our empire. Get those shining diamonds out and soon you will be so rich, neighboring countries will envy you.’?

“The next morning the king instructed his ministers, ‘It’s an order from the heavens! From today, all citizens must dig for diamonds. Those who come to me with diamonds will be amply rewarded’.

“After a grand prayer and ceremony, all citizens – young and old – took up their spades, shovels and trowels and began digging. People dug from morning to evening. They dug the soft soil in their fields, they broke hard rocks, they uprooted the trees and dug underneath, all to find the diamonds promised to them by the old king in the divine message.

“For months it went on, but no one found a diamond. On a few occasions it seemed they had succeeded. They cheered. But alas, those were only shining pieces of mirrors.”

Guru paused for a while. He took a deep breath and asked his disciple, Ramanathan, “Why am I telling you this story?”

Ramanathan said, “I can see the parallel. We are doing everything possible in our innovation efforts, but our ideas boxes are empty. And when sometimes we get ideas, they are really not good enough ideas.”

Guru smiled, “You think people digging for diamonds were not motivated? They were not honest? They were not digging deep enough?”

Ramanathan responded, “The way you narrated the story, they were more than motivated: they were obsessed with the quest of diamonds. And because there was a heavenly assurance, those people must have been doing their best”.

Guru was smiling as he played with his beard: “Then why did no one find a diamond?”

Ramanathan didn’t know. So he waited for the answer.

“Because all these poor people didn’t know what a diamond looks like in raw form,” said Guru. “They were digging for shining things. But a raw diamond looks nothing like a diamond. In fact sometimes the poor buggers had a diamond in their hands and they threw it away, thinking it was a stone! Now you know why the idea boxes are empty?”

“I am getting a sense, but please elaborate”

“Ramanathan, the secret is this,” said Guru. “Like those raw diamonds, ideas also don’t come to you in their full glory. Ideas in their raw form are all rough and edgy, unlike what you imagine them to be. It’s only after working on them that you get the shining forms you see on the magazine covers and patent sheets. You will never find that next big breakthrough in your idea box.

“And the irony is, in those ceremonies and pep talks everyone spoke about the shining examples – the case studies of Apple, Google, Linkedin, Ideo and the like. We tell our people that we too can do it.

“So then, when our people get a potentially good idea, they don’t put it in the ideas box, they don’t present it in a meeting. They compare their own raw ideas to other people’s shining innovations, the award-winning breakthroughs on the front covers of glossy magazines. In comparison their own teeny-weeny uncut idea looks quite inadequate, so they throw it away”.

Ramanathan nodded his head vigorously.

Guru finished the lesson, “We need to define what our idea diamonds are. We need to train team members to recognize potentially good ideas in their raw form. We need to encourage everyone to share their unshapely ideas and to create a culture where they can talk about them without fear of being laughed at.

“My friend! You will have many winning ideas in your boxes. And then we can get our experts to polish them to their true potential – becoming the breakthrough solutions.”

Guru smiled ear to ear, “Then your ad agency can create the sound bites for you and the idea champions. Your PR guys can come in to make it a cover story”.

Ramanathan folded his hands in gratitude. He knew once again that he received a real diamond from the Guru.

Puneet Bhatnagar is a columnist, author and a storyteller.

He is creativity and innovation trainer at www.creacos.com

and co-founder at Creativity Mission India.

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