Unlock the genius in your head

With training, we can all conjure up winning ideas
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The Independent Online
BUSINESS is constantly being urged to be innovative to achieve growth at a time of low inflation and general uncertainty.

The problem is this is a mantra more easily recited than acted upon. Many managers are highly skilled at processes and at keeping operations within budget. But they tend to be less practised at coming up with fresh ideas.

Indeed, to many innovation is something associated only with high-tech companies, which rely on coming up with a steady stream of new products. They do not seem to realise that innovation can come in different guises and can spark great changes.

Take retail. It is little different now from how it was when Napoleon labelled Britain "a nation of shopkeepers"; somebody sets out goods and somehow entices people to buy them. But, within this remit, much has changed.

According to John Taylor, head of the Hewlett Packard's Bristol laboratories, self-service is arguably the key invention of the 20th century. And nowhere has that concept been more powerful than in retail, particularly supermarkets, where some companies are now tinkering with the idea of customers scanning their own purchases. Similarly, banking and financial services are in the midst of a revolution that is bringing changes to the ways in which pensions and insurance are offered.

Such developments come about through organisations refusing to accept that there is a set way of doing things. Some people have a natural ability to come up with exciting ideas. But there is a growing belief that people can be coached to be more effective.

The latest contribution comes from John O'Keeffe, who as a senior executive with Procter & Gamble should know something about sustaining growth at a large organisation. He describes Business Beyond the Box: Applying Your Mind for Breakthrough Results (Nicholas Brealey, pounds 16.99) as "a user manual for every personal cranial computer". But really it is a guide to creating a flow of ideas that will bring about significant improvements in results.

He argues that most people do not know how to operate "the brilliant personal cranial computer" that is their mind. "Indeed, other than using their mind to plough through analytical thinking, most people don't have a clue what to do with it. The only other strategy that gets used is brainstorming, which often ends up as some sideshow frivolity that is rarely practical when it comes down to it."

Business beyond the Box provides "eight proven, everyday thinking strategies" that act as "software programs for your cranial computer", he says. The strategies, ranging from picturing step changes to thinking with the whole rather than the more usual half brain, are designed to form an "arrow of breakthrough" - or "triangular thinking" - and enable organisations to break out of the "box of incrementalism". This policy of aiming only for minor improvements on past performance is, says O'Keeffe, "formed by satisfaction with the status quo, by self-imposed limitations you hardly realise are there, and by a habit of seeking only modest changes".

This will not do because today's business environment is more competitive. As he writes: "It's like being faced with a galeforce wind. If you aim to take a small step forward you will probably end up by going backwards. You need to take a big step into the teeth of the gale merely to hold your position."

Mr O'Keeffe throws down a challenge. "You don't have to wait for the organisation to "convert" - whoever you are, at whatever level, you can reap rewards by "applying these strategies within your sphere of influence".