Based on 3D Agile Leader Model, the three dimensions required of a “solid” agile leader — Servant Leader, Value Creator, and Intrapreneur — are the three critical roles a manager must assume in order to become an agile leader. Each dimension comprises three themes. The third dimension is Intrapreneur, and the first theme of this dimension is Ideation.
Ideation contains two broad kinds of activities — generating ideas, and then qualifying the ideas in order to prioritize them.
No doubt, ideation has to start from generating ideas.
A good idea always addresses one or more strategic drivers.
An agile leader enables idea generation with three types of strategic drivers in mind. These drivers establish the playgrounds for generating ideas and at the same time create boundaries around these playgrounds to set good ideas apart from bad ones.
The first type of strategic driver is to solve an organization’s recurring and complex challenges that can’t be solved in usual ways. For example, a public transport operating company has a hard-to-solve problem — its platforms are always overcrowded.
The second driver is to seize opportunities in the market. For instance, the users of the same public transport operator expect to have integrated mobility — they want to be able to switch seamlessly between different means of transportation. This is something new for the company, also a great opportunity for it to further solidify its current user base and attract new ones.
The third strategic driver is the emerging technologies. A good case in point is artificial intelligence that is gaining maturity at an increasing pace. Some organizations have already been trying to leverage it with their services, products, or internal operations.
Together, these strategic drivers help us to build both the playgrounds and their boundaries for generating ideas, so that as many bright ideas as possible can be brought up to potentially benefit, even reshape our organization’s future.
The context of idea generation
Ideas ought to be generated in a broad context. We shouldn’t rely overly on a certain type of people to generate ideas, be it top executives, or employees. Great ideas can come from anywhere in an organization’s ecosystem — its users, partners, suppliers, or academics and research institutes in the related field, and more. All types of players in the environment that the organization is connected with can be a healthy source of idea generation, which resonates with the theme of Stakeholders Networks in the dimension of Value Creator.
Idea generation practices
How to generate great ideas in practice?
First of all, we have to acknowledge the fact that the emergence of ideas can be encouraged and facilitated, but cannot be directed. A leader cannot simply ask people to submit a definite number of ideas before some certain deadline — it never works this way.
The key to generating ideas is to think out of the box. A box can be the computer we are facing or the cubicle we are working in 8 hours a day; it can also be our habits or our usual way of thinking. Ideation needs space that refers to both location and time. To think out of the box is to create this required space to open our mind and explore all the possibilities in all the dimensions.
Besides typical brainstorming techniques, other practices for spawning good ideas include, for example, inviting people with kindling minds to “lunch & learns,” using “hackathons” to produce novel ways to solve problems, and organizing ground floor or front line visits to offer a clearer view of the front line operation and a better understanding of the customer.
There are also some analytical ways to generate ideas, for example doing a market scanning and analysis of the competitors, the industry trends, and the changes from the partners, etc.
However we choose to encourage emergence of ideas, all ideas must serve a big purpose. Put differently, we have to think big when generating ideas — we don’t do that just to simplify a form or improve a small procedure; we do that because the ideas could have significant impacts on our organization.
After ideas are born in an organization, we need to qualify them, i.e., to decide which ones have the most potential of delivering real value to the organization and its stakeholders at the end of the day.
Qualifying ideas from strategic point of view
To qualify an idea, the very first criterion is to verify its strategic alignment — that is to see whether it falls within the boundary of one or more of the idea generation playgrounds established by its corresponding organization’s three strategic drivers mentioned earlier, including solving complex recurring challenges, seizing market opportunities, and leveraging new technologies. When the idea is within the boundary of one or more of these playgrounds, it serves the matching strategic driver(s) of the organization, thus it’s regarded as strategically aligned with that organization’s purpose.
Another criterion to qualify an idea from strategic point of view is associated with balance — the pool of qualified ideas must maintain a good balance in terms of their degrees of innovation. Some of these ideas might bring simple product evolutions, but others might lead to disruptive innovations. The former can be viewed as a red ocean, and the latter a blue one. In the red ocean, things are done a bit differently, and improvements are sought in an existing market or for the current products. Whereas in that blue one, uncharted waters are explored, new markets and new value are created even as existing ones disrupted. Sometimes, we need more red ocean ideas to improve where excellence is absolutely obligatory; sometimes, we need more blue ocean ones to dramatically change our strategies and pivot our organization in a new direction. It is all about balance.
Qualified ideas can be categorized into different types. Some are more product-based, like the idea of developing a new type of service; some are more process-oriented, such as the idea of changing the way people work; some are more growth-focused, like those aiming at generating revenues; and the rest may be more efficiency-driven, like the ideas targeting at saving costs or doing things faster.
Qualifying ideas in the context of an organization
While ideation in general is a social process, its particular part of selecting or qualifying ideas is even more the case. It requires open conversations between peers to review, challenge, and sometimes criticize the ideas. It also asks supporters to vote or vouch for the ideas.
Ideas have to be contextualized in an organization so as to be qualified or unqualified, for which projections can be used to bring an idea into the specific context of the organization. For example, we can imagine a scenario in which an idea is selected in our organization, and ask questions such as, “What will happen after the idea is implemented?” “What will be changed?” “Will people behave differently?” and “Will it deliver new value to the customer?”
Qualifying ideas in practices
In order to make qualifying ideas a reality, the role of an agile leader is to propose and implement practices that create a healthy idea market where ideas can be seen, examined, discarded, challenged, manipulated, supported, or bought.
The best practices to qualify ideas may be social ones that involve actual conversations and in-person interactions. One typical example is Dragons’ Committee, where someone with an idea presents it to a panel of people, also known as “the dragons,” who will then challenge the idea and score it to decide its priority. Another case in point is Google’s Seven-Buddy System, in which each idea requires seven people’s votes. A great advantage of social practices is that they ensure collective learning and great experiences even when an idea is rejected, which happens frequently — about 9 out 10 times.
There are also practices that are more like tools, for example value hypothesis that involves an educated guess about what and how much value an idea could deliver, in order to prioritize it in an idea portfolio. Sometimes the practice simply requests the value to be expressed in just one sentence, which is quite a challenge but could be extremely practical when done correctly.
Related articles and book:
Collet, B. (2019). Agile leadership. (Online course). https://www.udemy.com/course/agile-leadership/
Agile Leader Academy. (n.d.). The Agile Leader Self-Assessment. https://www.onlineassessmenttool.com/the-agile-leader-self-assessment/assessment-99121