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University of Massachusetts Amherst

Family Business Center

Unlocking the Keys to Creativity

by Shel Horowitz

What if you could get the best ideas from every single employee, no matter how shy-and each building on the work of all the others?

Attenders at the Family Business Center's December 8th meeting at the Delaney House came away with that tool-called "635 rainwriting"-and several others from Michael Brassard's program, "The Seven Creativity Tool Boxes."

Brassard has been working with family businesses since 1978, and doing creativity work for the past six or seven years. Creativity, he says, is "not about wearing sandals and wild shirts. Not how old you are, not about your politics."

Brassard's approach is to systematize creativity by creating and implementing specific methods of capturing ideas. 635 brainwriting, to name one, is an expansion and improvement over traditional brainstorming-and automatically leaves behind a comprehensive written record of the results. It's quick and easy, yet very powerful.

Everyone participating starts with a sheet of paper that has six rows of three columns. Once the central issue is stated, each person spends five minutes writing three ideas in the top row. When the time is up, everyone passes their papers to the next person in the circle, and fills in the second row-but rather than placing random ideas, the person writing in row two has to build on the ideas in the first row.

The process continues until all eighteen boxes on each form are full. Thus, each person in the group has contributed three rough ideas to solve the problem, and all the others have fleshed these ideas out. The 635 process makes a very good trust-builder, Brassard says, and thus can open the door to activities that might involve more risk. Another way to build trust: "A creative leader is willing to look dumb in front of subordinates. The one resource we have is the level of thinking we bring to our business. It's an operational, not theoretical thing; if we want to involve other people, you have to create the process." And if the climate is already very risk-aversive and afraid, bring in an outside facilitator to break the logjam.

Another piece of Brassard's tool kit is the pattern breaker. Phrase a problem as a question, with a subject and a goal, For instance, "How can we hire good people?"

Now, brainstorm in small groups and switch one element. The group I was in chose "How can you marry good people?" Needless to say, this generated quite a bit of laughter-but the purpose was deeper: to solve a problem by looking way outside the box. Brassard said the laughter was important: "If you're not laughing during this, I'd be concerned; you're thinking about the real problem" instead of the imaginary one. "Humor is a reflection of surprise; you can't tickle yourself because you know it's coming. Introduce intentional surprises" and then create unusual connections.

Our group even examined the plural there, thinking of a number of ways to marry more than one person.

The next step is to go back to the original problem and look at whether any of the solutions to the imaginary problem can apply. In our group, from the idea of living together to make sure you and your intended are compatible, we came back with the idea of a trial period to make sure employees work out before putting them permanently on the payroll. This was just one of Brassard's methods of moving away from, and then back to, the central problem. Others included looking at pictures and a strategy he calls "morphology": Writing down various parts of a problem that a successful solution must address, building a matrix of possible solutions, and then picking one from each level and connecting the dots.

Family businesses hold out some unique challenges in generating fresh ideas, Brassard says. A history of several generations, complete with old history, assumptions, and unfulfilled expectations, and issues around authority across multiple generations create a great deal of "webbing" that may interfere with fresh thinking. Brassard calls these the "PYTHONS: Problems You THink abOut but Never Solve."

Participants identified several of their own PYTHONS: cash flow, hiring good help, getting rid of bad help, understanding market direction, keeping a step ahead of competitors, staying on top of technological changes, dealing with low morale, and facing consolidation and mergers.

Still, these can be overcome. He suggests looking at your own most creative times, even if they happen at 3 a.m. or were most noticeable in early childhood-and looking for ways to replicate that inspiration and energy.

"Biotechnique" is another in Brassard's bag of tricks. Examine the structure of something in nature, and see if any lessons apply. For example, could looking at pictures of dolphins or models of birds in flight have any application in the aerodynamic design of moving vehicles?

"Collaborative culture is a huge change for most organizations," Brassard points out. Nonetheless, make the effort and make it sincerely. Create space for everyone to participate, and use the structures to build bridges across seemingly unrelated ideas.

And what if you foster such a climate, your employees come back at you with all sorts of plans-and you HATE what they come up with? Don't say yes or no right away; rather, tell them you need some time to think about the suggestions. Then find the pieces that would be acceptable to you, come back ready to implement them.

Sincere openness to the ideas is key. "Any method is risky if you're not sincere about it. Broken trust is very hard to reestablish. But one trustworthy action is worth a hundred memos.

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