The Innovation Engine
Get Ideas Flowing with a Job Swap
Let Mike explain.
"The teachers could not possibly create a game a hundred kids could play, so they divided the gym into quadrants and set up four games that were all coached by a different instructor. At the beginning of class, each coach would describe his game, the challenge, and the rules. Then each kid was assigned the game that they would begin playing. In one corner, kids would be playing kickball, and in the other, they'd be playing volleyball—you get the idea.
"After 15 or so minutes, a whistle would blow and the head coach would yell, 'Rotate!,' which would be the signal for each team to go to the next game.
"We all got to play four different games, which kept the class interesting and taught us new skills, and it allowed kids to show off their different talents in each new game."
This same, simple technique will work wonders inside your company. Formalizing ways for different departments and work teams to "rotate" to focus on different challenges will create renewed energy, help them learn new skills, and will result in big new ideas.
Here are three ways you can use the same idea to keep people fresh and new ideas flowing:
Junior to Senior Grab a very junior person in your company. The perfect candidate is someone who is smart, creative, and too naive to worry about failing. Take your toughest challenge and ask your junior associate to generate as many ideas and questions about the challenge as possible. Tell them they are going to get points for quality and quantity.
While they are working on their project for you, have someone work on their project. Ask them what their toughest challenge is. Your job is also to generate as many questions and ideas as you can. Give yourself a few hours and then get together to discuss your ideas. You may be surprised at how much you learn. You'll also build empathy and a new friendship.
Department Switch Try the same exercise with people from opposite departments. It's enlightening to see how the folks from operations handle the biggest marketing challenges and visa versa.
From our experience, this exercise makes the operations people appreciate the many ways a problem may be solved—they often feel as though they have already determined best practices—while the marketing people are often stunned at how much more efficiently they could get to solutions. Questions such as "how do you measure this" and "why do you do it that way?" are quite revealing if delivered with respect and honest curiosity. Again, your teams will benefit from new ideas and new empathy.
Boss/Industry Swap Here's the best one of all: Switch leadership roles. Doing this inside your company is bound to set off fireworks because of the big egos involved. And if you want to have a whole bunch of fun and learn way more, find a company in an unrelated industry and do a job swap. What would a senior marketer from retail see in your manufacturing company? What would a COO from a service company see in your software company? What would happen if you actually gave these people some authority to make changes?
This is more than a reality TV show waiting to happen, it is a "rotate" technique that heightens the possibility of revolutionary change.
One thing is for sure: Without the burden of friendship, loyalty, and rationalization, these new experts that you have just rotated into new positions will be able to see weak links and the opportunities in the room clearly.
We use the job/task swapping approach all the time. For example, Mike is currently writing a book and wanted to make sure the concepts would resonate with business people at all levels of an organization. He turned the problem over to one of our interns who came back with 12 pages of suggestions including the use of cartoons and some supporting science he hadn't even considered putting in the book.
In turn, Mike helped the intern solve a huge problem she was having: how to have the right types of people following your Tweeter postings. One solution: Don't try to attract them. Become an expert and focus on an incredibly narrow niche, and the world will seek you out.
It is difficult for anyone to do the same things day after day and remain enthusiastic about them. Rotating exercises, be they formal or spontaneous, keep people fresh and on their toes.
From a practical standpoint, the ideas that result from this can be a differentiating competitive advantage. Consultants are not any smarter than you. They simply have the advantage of objectivity and experience on their side. They can look at your challenge without being encumbered by fatigue, politics, or any of the paradigms you have developed over the years. Rotating produces the same result.
So, the next time you feel a lack of energy or ideas within your teams, yell "Rotate!" and watch the magic happen.