Many professional service firms have innovation as a key strategic theme. At the front-end of most innovation processes, is the step of generating fresh, creative, out-of-the-box ideas. In marketing-speak, this is called the “ideation” stage.
Conventional ideation methods include brainstorming workshops, shark tank competitions, market studies and voice-of-the-client programs. While each of these have merit, I’d like to suggest the trusted sparring partner* as an alternative approach. Put simply, this method involves setting up pairs of people to work together to come up with some fresh innovative ideas. In the sparring process, ideas get suggested, expanded, challenged, expanded again, refined, explored, split, elaborated, and then captured.
Why does it work so well in professional services?
According to Dr Larry Richard‘s research, many professionals are  trained sceptics, and  insecure overachievers. Put a group of these types into a brainstorming workshop and you have a pretty low probability of generating anything fresh. The sceptics will dismiss unconventional ideas as unworkable, the insecures will stay quiet or back down to protect their ego, and the dominant (hiding-something) overachievers, well you’ve heard all their good ideas 20 times before.
In a group of two…
- there’s nowhere to hide,
- there’s greater safety to explore,
- it’s really uncomfortable to say nothing, and
- it’s easier for the discussion to go on and on, if it needs to.
By the by, there’s also a growing body of research that dismisses the idea of the lone genius driving all breakthrough thinking. This partially explains why client interviews are helpful for service feedback, but often not great for fresh insights and ideas.
Putting it in practice
Ideally, the pairs should be set up so that there’s some diversity of experience and background. Don’t put two people who hate each other together, but no BFF’s either. The idea is to create safe trusting dyads that can spar and spark off each other. Diversity can also come from pairing up one internal person with a key client or a referrer. Mixing up disciplines eg. a technologist with human behaviour expert, might also be fun.
Assuming you wish to have a short and sharp ideation process, I’d recommend giving the pair a limited time to work, say two to three weeks, and a semi-structured brief to orientate their discussions. This brief may, for example, focus on new products and services, alternative business models, ideas for cost-reduction, client experience enhancements, better staff engagement, and or smarter use of the firm’s balance sheet. You may elect a much wider brief such as “ideas to improve the firm’s competitiveness”, but beware, some people can drown if the ocean is too big.
At the beginning you may limit the duration of their discussions and narrow their task, however, if the pair flourish, there’s no reason to limit their energy and creativity by stopping it.
Call to action
The world has benefited hugely from trusted sparring partners: Lennon and McCartney, Jobs and Wozniak, Laurel and Hardy, Gilbert and Sullivan, Sturridge and Suarez, Batman and Robyn, Gates and Allen, Mork and Mindy, Simon and Garfunkel… Wouldn’t it be great if you could enable your very own Rolls and Royce to emerge in your firm? Really easy to try…
* This idea of sparring partners comes from a 2016 HBR article by Roberto Verganti, The Innovative Power of Criticism.