Finding Your Bright Ideas for These Dark Times

November 17th, 2008

Let’s face it, Great Depression’s have the habit of taking all the fun out of innovation. It’s really just human nature. It’s hard to come up with exciting creative ideas (and sell them) when the world is falling all around us. The fact is, great ideas are more important in a recession than any other time. Some of our greatest market innovations (including brainstorming itself) were conceived or launched in America’s darkest times.

Take my kid’s iPod. Please! People don’t realize that this iconic product was launched six weeks after one of America’s darkest hours – 9/11. October 23, 2001 – markets tanking, bubbles bursting – arguably a terrible time for a launch. What Jobs knew, and still knows, is that market needs are more discernable, not less in dark times.

Go back to another October – 1929: The big crash. With unemployment at 25%, corporate profits less than zero, and more than 15,000 failed banks, Henry R. Luce launched a cockamamie idea for a business magazine called “Fortune”. I can easily hear the arguments of the detractors of his day. “The last thing we need right now,” they’d say, “is a new periodical of business! Henry, aren’t you reading the papers?” He was. But, what Luce saw, others could not. The business press of that era was black and white (literally) with tables upon facts of life-less business data. To be different, Luce didn’t hire MBAs or experienced economists to write his copy; he recruited young literary talent. Archibald MacLeish, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Alfred Kazin filled the pages of Fortune with flowing human interest articles that were brash, irreverent, and critical.

Innovation is not simply a luxury of good times. It is a business fundamental that becomes more essential, and quite frankly, easier and more efficient when times are tough. In fact brainstorming itself was invented in the shadow the Great Depression. In the early 1930’s a young ad exec, Alex Osborn , who would go on to be the “O” in BBDO, invented the technique for what he called a team creative process. It was designed to encourage original and spontaneous thinking among his employees and to produce the maximum number of new ideas.

Osborn’s original rules provide the basic foundation for brainstorming such as holding all criticism, encouraging wild ideas, and combining and improving concepts of others.

But experience shows that while being completely accurate, Osborn’s rules are hard to remember. Think of the last “brainstorm” you were involved in. Let me guess how it went. Manager A decides the company needs some new ideas. About nine people are invited to brainstorm. It is scheduled to follow the ops meeting that leaves everyone tired and cranky. The word INNOVATION is written in all caps on the white board next to a drawing of a light bulb. After some niceties, the group starts complaining about service gaps, revenue projections and information hurdles. One or two people suggest some new ways of doing things. The manager placates them urging them to explore those ideas further, but not to take their eyes of the ball. The meeting ends 35 minutes later in a discussion about holiday time off. Sound familiar?

It doesn’t need to be so hard. As a public service in these dark-ish times, we have recast Osborn’s ideas into an easy-to-remember acronym – I.D.E.A.S.

I – Invent out loud

D – Defer all judgment

E – Expand others’ concepts

A – Accept no boundaries

S – Show every idea.

Innovation does not always require a hefty R&D budget. It does require a budget of time. When business is off, time becomes cheaper and more plentiful. Why not use unused business time as an asset rather than a write-off? Consider all the ways you can put creative time to work for you – improving your service experience, gaining more competitive insights, connecting with more of your customers, or exploring new offerings in new markets. Most of these require minimal capital costs, but maxim creative costs.

It also requires a heft dose of optimism. But that’s also cheap. Consider the positive energy of Adolph Ochs , publisher of the New York Times in 1929. With ad revenues in the toilet and readership falling, Ochs decided to push on, without any cuts in staff or editorial quality. He issued a memo to staff: “We must set an example of optimism. Please urge every department to go ahead as if we thought the best year in the world was ahead of us.”

The paper retained its physical and symbolic weight and muscled its way through one of the toughest years on record. In December, when the time to select the most important story of the year, Ochs chose Admiral Byrd’s discovery of the Antarctic ()over the stock market crash – an optimistic choice. The picture of the adventurer in his snowy parka and determined grimace stood in stark contrast to the photos of men hunched in overcoats standing in breadlines.

So in these dark times, you have to ask yourself: Are you waiting in the breadline for things to get better, or setting off on an adventure of new ideas?

Posted Under: Crisis Communications, Innovation & Technology
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