Finding Your Company's Great Thinkers

If you get a little creative, you'll uncover the inventive minds that are already in your midst. Just give them a chance to show themselves

"The people on the front lines are right, until proven otherwise."

—Colin Powell

As we mentioned previously, the best, most innovative, companies (, 4/10/08) are discovering the incredible return on investment that comes from using outside experts in their internal innovation process.

It just makes sense to tap the intelligence of people who offer a product that shares certain characteristics with yours. You sell your product through insurance agents? Great. Talk to people in travel, publishing, Hollywood, real estate, and everyone else who uses agents. You'll discover they have solved many of your challenges in ways you haven't considered.

Enlisting the Best and Brightest

As fast as the world is changing, it's hard to argue with the premise that a company's capacity to create industry-changing products and services is directly tied to its ability to forge connections efficiently among big brains around the world and throughout your company.

In our last column we talked about how to forge external relationships. Today, let's look inward: How do you identify and enlist your company's best and brightest in the innovation process, even if they are not usually part of your company's marketing efforts? It's easier than you may think.

1. Encourage Fun and Games. Your first challenge is to attract the "ideators," the people who traditionally come up with the biggest ideas, regardless of the topic.

Great ideators tend to be a bit competitive. Tap into that. Post challenges—through your intranet, bulletin board, or e-mail system—on behalf of clients, and offer prizes for anyone who can come up with the answer within a set period of time. Competitive, inventive people will respond with novel ideas that you can adopt. The prize can be simple: a free lunch or sports tickets. If you have cash in the budget, even better.

And if you don't have a current client project in need of solving, you can make one up. For example, if vacuum cleaners did not exist, how would you clean floors? The question isn't as important as the answers. The responses you get will give you a great list of innovative thinkers.

Not only will you have a great technique for solving many of your most daunting challenges, you will also have the makings of an innovation roundtable to draw from in the future.

2. Encourage Graffiti. Want a simple way to foster a culture of innovation and find out who has hidden strengths? Allow people to draw on the walls.

One thing that works particularly well for our firm when we are looking for new insights, or ways to tweak a product or service offering, is to paper the walls of a room with flip chart sheets. We write thought-starters and headlines that relate directly to the challenge at hand. For a vacuum project, we might post headlines like "things that pick stuff up," or "the cleanest surfaces in your house."

Then we ask everyone—no matter where they are in the organization, or what their title—to drop by the room a few times and have some fun. Build on others' ideas. Cut out pictures. Draw. Make connections.

Once the walls are filled, schedule mini-meetings where you moderate a discussion among small groups of participants to take the ideas further.

Here's the best part. You won't have to sell this idea. The room becomes a magnet. You will quickly get new ideas and you'll see who has the ability to connect, build, and reinvent. This costs nothing but time, and often results in astoundingly fresh thinking.

3. Raise Your Profile. The great thing about taking either or both of these approaches is that not only does the company benefit but it also gives those who would like to be seen as experts opportunities to raise their hands in a nonthreatening atmosphere.

If you're one of those people who is looking to raise your profile, participate in these exercises every chance you get. That will get you noticed. You will be seen as an idea catalyst, someone whose ideas, enthusiasm, and energy causes others to be more energetic and engaged.

People who help organizations identify and engage great thinkers are prized. And so are the great thinkers.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.