What's the big idea?

In a series of audits for the East of England's 'Space for Ideas' campaign, the management author Robert Heller has investigated what turns ideas into cashflow. Here, he presents his findings
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The Independent Online

Where do ideas spring from in your company? Do they burst into life or go down the drain?

Where do ideas spring from in your company? Do they burst into life or go down the drain?

You can't accomplish any task, large or small, without using old ideas and forming new ones. Yet anybody styled an "ideas person" is singled out as an exception. Some companies are thought to be uniquely excellent at generating wonderful ideas - notably ICT and its gee-whiz practitioners. The rest, by implication, are relative plodders. Even if they try, they needn't expect great results. And that is nonsense.

Any company in any business can work towards superior thinking and planning - becoming a true "ideas company" with a competitive edge as sharp as any technological lead. The future will be won by such companies. They marry the discipline of effective management thinking with a continuous search for and application of the new ideas which will take the business onwards and upwards - not only by small incremental gains, but by great leaps forward. In both small gains and large, success hinges on thinking skills.

The East of England is currently aiming to cement a reputation as the UK's ideas region, bristling with innovative, hi-tech companies, always ready to feed off university research and thinking. But what will this matter if ideas hit a brick wall of internal mismanagement and suspicion? The series of "ideas audits" planned for the region aim to test the reality of what it means to be an ideas company.

Without new ideas, Charles Wells, an old-established family brewer from Bedford, would have been swept away by the winds of change in the industry - like many other independents in an age of huge amalgamations. Instead, Wells has emerged as the foremost independent, with £96m of sales in 2003.

As a private business, Charles Wells has financed expansion through ploughed-back profits and debt, and keeps a beady eye on expenditure. It's symptomatic of the culture, though, that Dave Ludlam's technical support operation (which provides and services the cellar installations that deliver the beer in perfect condition) budgets for research and development. It's also symptomatic that this spending is broad in scope - like recent efforts in "self-dispense" systems. The promising idea was to enable customers to serve their own drinks at their table, paying via credit cards. The expensive system, while very difficult technically, worked, but never caught on. Newer self-dispense ideas involving smart cards are much cheaper, but may suffer the same fate. This won't unduly distress the management. Managing director Paul Wells accepts the need to give "permission to fail, otherwise people won't try".

At first glance, HFL looks an unlikely candidate for a high position in the innovation and ideas company stakes. This radical company, based near Newmarket, is owned by an inherently conservative quango - the Horserace Betting Levy Board (HBLB). HFL enjoys a steady stream of income from a rigorous foundation activity: the monitoring of racehorses (and greyhounds) to ensure that their performance has not been artificially affected by illegal substances. That base is being used, however, as a springboard for imaginative expansion in enterprises and geographies.

HFL has two highly significant bodies, the Creativity Club and the Innovation Club, which are drivers of key strategic elements. Some of the HR bonding initiatives are informal - like the coffee-and-cake gatherings on Monday mornings. Informal, certainly, but carefully designed to accomplish an important end: getting people to mix across boundaries and functions. The several informal features, moreover, are combined with many formal and quasi-formal approaches, like a mythical "Uncle Bernard", who will very practically address any e-mailed questions that staff members care to ask. Formally, Dave Hall gives a "state of the union" address to the 120 staff, assembled in his preferred small groups, every six months.

David Butler, the Quality Manager who controls the Strategy Map with Anne Stringer, believes that it should have a clear connection with all activities. The two managers are also involved in BIG - the Business Intelligence Group, established to develop better knowledge of the outside world (including bench-marking). Over the last six months, BIG has been subjected to some continuous improvement and is now much tighter: everybody who sees or hears anything outside the company is debriefed, and any ideas are passed on to the relevant user. You could call this process "creative swiping".

More information on Ideas Audits and the Space for Ideas campaign can be found at www.spaceforideas.uk.com

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