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Software // Information Management

Practical Tools for New Ideas

Innovation is the wellspring of prosperity. This second part of a series looks at products that help spur new ideas - and prevent them from dying on the vine.

Creative Thinking

The "sparking" process I outlined in part 1 of this series depends on an organizational culture that values systematic creative thinking initiatives, which in turn can benefit from software designed to support specific activities such as brainstorming and mind mapping. It's also important to remember that capturing the results of creative thinking is as much dependent on hardware as on software, and the whole process can benefit from the provision of the right kind of creative space.

No creative thinking session should be without an interactive whiteboard like the Smart Board from Smart Technologies Inc. or a whiteboard enhancer such as Mimio from Virtual Ink Corp. (See "Interactive Whiteboard" in Resources.) And if you don't want to lose your latest business or product idea scribbled on a napkin, then a digital pen like the LogiTech IO from Logitech Inc. might help. Or, better still, use your palmtop or Tablet PC to capture your doodles.

Providing access to this kind of hardware in a space designed for interactive working is also likely to pay dividends. Stanford University is one academic institution that is studying the kind of interactive workspaces that can assist with creative thinking (see Resources). The university has created a prototype "iRoom" that it uses to experiment with new ways of creatively working together.

One kind of brainstorming software is provided by ParaMind Software. ParaMind takes your input in the form of a block of text and generates a mass of alternative versions of that text from which some new perspective might be gained. This approach helps to uncover possibilities but is rather limited in terms of taking them further.

Alternatively, IdeaFisher from IdeaFisher Systems Inc. uses a "stream of consciousness" technique in which you type in a word or phrase or answer a question posed by the software. You then explore the associations provided, record the results, and loop back to the beginning, using a new word generated by IdeaFisher. This iterative looping helps create forward momentum in the brainstorming process.

Other approaches are the "flash card" and "concept scrambler" offered by IdeaCue (a division of Macroworks). IdeaCue is particularly suited to "new-old" innovation: improvements and enhancements to existing products. An electronic flash card displays random improvement ideas, one after the other. The concept scrambler combines multiple ideas; you determine if a particular combination sticks. All these approaches — respectively categorized as explosive, iterative, or combinational — have their place in terms of jump-starting or maintaining the momentum of a brainstorming effort.

These kinds of products are great for individual brainstorming and face-to-face meetings, but what about virtual brainstorming with groups collaborating over the Internet? That's where online services such as Facilitate.com come in. These services let remote participants brainstorm together via their Web browsers using functions such as electronic flipcharts to collect, categorize, and prioritize topics. Plus, they support online voting, surveys, and chat rooms to help you further focus and develop the topics raised. You could also leverage more generic Web conferencing, video conferencing, and online meeting services such as WebEx or even a Microsoft SharePoint portal to achieve similar results. Broadband connectivity and restrictions on corporate travel make these kinds of products more realistic and valuable alternatives to the traditional brainstorming session.

But creative thinking isn't just about language and text. It also benefits from visualization. There are a number of brainstorming tools, including those focused on Tony Buzan's Mind Map techniques, that can help with visualization. Some of these tools, such as SmartDraw, simply offer collections of symbols and connectors that help you create various types of mapping diagrams using a drag-and-drop paradigm. More specialized tools, such as Mindjet's MindManager or SimTech Systems Inc.'s MindMapper, enable you to create, display, and convert root-and-branch type mind maps to better visualize ideas and plans that you can easily update or reorganize to reflect changing realities or priorities. Creating mind maps is also an ideal application for use on the latest generation of tablet PCs.

There's no doubt that brainstorming and mind-mapping software are more likely to generate a broader and deeper range of innovation possibilities than simply a room full of people and a blank flip chart. And most of this software is very inexpensive.

Idea Management

In the preceding sections I covered some technology that helps automate the "upstream" end of the innovation cycle. Now let's look at idea management, which automates at the downstream end of the cycle by developing ideas so that they can eventually be "monetized" as Mark Turrell, CEO of Imaginatik so vividly put it.

Imaginatik is one of the pioneers of idea management, which might be described as the business process of making money from ideas. Once environmental scanning has uncovered opportunities or threats and the activities of road mapping and creative thinking have generated some interesting innovation possibilities in the form of ideas, you then have the raw material for idea management.

Idea management encompasses much more than online employee suggestion boxes, Web-site frequently asked question (FAQs), and other kinds of online feedback systems — although all of these should be considered as potential input sources for an idea management process. Imaginatik's Idea Central and Idea Chain products are representative of the new generation of idea management applications that go beyond these limited point solutions.

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