Jamming has become a popular way to unearth innovations — bringing together people of many different backgrounds to creatively brainstorm around a company's competitive challenges, expressed as "problem statements." Yet although the process is widely hyped, many companies struggle to make them work.
If your company is one, you may be interested in our experience at the European Center for Strategic Innovation. We've been comparing how innovative companies structure and conduct jamming sessions and we've identified a set of practices that successful jammers all seem to share:
1. They work in self-defined, small sub-teams
In a classic experiment, researchers ran a lottery. Half the participants were randomly assigned a number. The others were asked to write down a number. Just before drawing a winning number, the researchers offered to buy back the tickets. Intriguingly they found that they had to pay five times more to people who had chosen their own numbers. It's dramatic proof that when we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome.
How does this apply to jamming?
Well, it turns out that in many companies jamming participants are simply assigned a challenge or a problem to work on. If that's what you're doing now, then stop. Let participants choose what they want to work on instead. You'll see much more creative energy.
And keep the jamming teams small. A big mistake is to think that you need to let everyone get involved, but academic research consistently shows that people tend to prefer working in small teams. In any team, members need to get to know each other and define their norms of working together. If time is tight — as it is with jamming — you want to accelerate this part of the teaming process and you can't do that with a big team. In general we find that teams of four offer enough diversity and engage quickly with the challenges they select.
2. They define the problem statement clearly
In many of the cases we found that the reason for failure in jamming lay in a weak definition of the problem or challenge a team was addressing. Often, in a desire to get the ball rolling or maybe because of the leadership's own imperfect understanding of their company's problems, jamming teams are often given broad, ill-defined problem statements. These are usually jargon-heavy and can be interpreted in different ways, which is sometimes thought useful because it initially helps achieve buy-in.
But for jamming to pay dividends, problems need sharp definition, even if this requires more effort up-front. The business, technological, and other challenges that are encapsulated in a jamming team's problem statement all need to be clearly understood in the same way by everyone otherwise each team member will end up trying to solve a different problem. Pretty quickly the whole jamming process will break down.
I saw just this dynamic in a jamming session we tracked at a European sportswear company. Here the problem statement was simply "look for growth opportunities." The result was an existential discussion around the meaning of growth and an identification of all the potential drivers. People never got near to framing a concrete plan for actually growing. Since expectations going into the process had been very high, the sense of disappointment was doubled. Jamming sessions are over for now at this company.
3. They train, train, train
Just like competitive swimmers train both in the pool (to be good at the actual swimming) and in the gym (to improve stamina and muscle tone), jammers need to practice not only problem definition and brainstorming but also spend time engaging with creative thinking tools that they can apply in their ideation processes.
For example, SIGG, a Swiss producer of aluminum bottles, used a "random words" exercise in a jamming session. This involves selecting two or three words or pictures out of a hat and then looking for analogies, associations, and other links to the problem statement. At first, jammers are usually skeptical. How does the word "flower" or its image relate to the brand positioning of an aluminum bottle. But then an association to colors and colorful life come out, which led to the idea of a new product line of colored bottles..
In addition to the pure creativity tools, we also found that the training in the use of strategic innovation frameworks — Blue Ocean Strategy, for example — dramatically improves the business relevance of team outputs.
4. They are ready to play
Many scholars have argued persuasively that more fun makes a better, more creative workplace. Fun and creativity go together. If your office is not a fun place, therefore, you need to think about protecting your jamming from the company's culture. Take it off-site to someplace that feels different enough for participants to be ready to risk a bit of playfulness. And when you're there, factor in some time for pure play (play needs practice too): bring in a conjuror or a clown to make people laugh and break down their reserve.
A global German chemicals company, for example, once brought a divisional team off-site for a Jamming session. Problem statements were focused on the theme of sustainability, so they picked a hotel with one of the best carbon footprints in the country. The meeting room was decorated with colorful drawings and objects. At one point the facilitator made the group take a 15-minute break to practice juggling with three balls. The mood carried over into the rest of the sessions as participants "juggled" their business ideas.
Note the role of the facilitator here as a master of ceremonies. He or she needs to be smart about how to play that role. One that pokes fun rather at others makes people afraid to play. And of course, you can have too much of a good thing; at the end of the day the team is there to work. A wise facilitator knows when to move from play back to the business in hand.
Companies that struggle with jamming tend to give up on it after just one or two attempts. That's a pity, because when you get the process right jamming can be a great source of new ideas and its effectiveness grows exponentially the more you use it. So before you give it up, try it one more time — but try it our way instead.