In a recent SalesGlobe survey, 81% of sales organizations said it was “extremely important” for a sales person to be creative when developing customer solutions. But, according to the same survey, 71% of sales people only offer new ideas when they feel it’s safe to do so. That indicates an awareness of the importance of innovative thinking, but a reluctance to create the environment or practices to allow real creativity to happen.
When I was in art school, I suffered through a process called a critique many times. Think of a critique as brainstorming with teeth, but, a major rule is that the critiquer must not simply criticize: he must also offer a positive suggestion which makes the presenter’s idea better.
The critique is like a game of sales-innovation poker. The opening bet is a quality comment. Then, to stay in the game, each player must up the ante by offering constructive criticism that helps develop the idea.
Brainstorming today can – ironically – be pretty stale. The idea of brainstorming has become so ordinary it’s almost ineffective. It usually disappoints for one of two reasons: either it’s too structured and seeks narrow answers. (This was the case of one executive who told me he only wanted ideas which had already worked in the past. So much for new thinking.) Or it’s not structured enough and its output unpredictable and, in the worst cases, completely useless.
One former executive of Comcast Communications described how they used a process similar to a critique to inject some life into their brainstorming sessions. “Our sales leadership team comes together frequently to look at new ideas for programs like sales process design, sales goals, and incentive programs. While the organization is very disciplined in how we work in our day jobs, when we get together for brainstorming sessions, we’re all over the map. It’s tough to make these meetings productive.
“But the brainstorming sessions are important enough that we started to look at some different ways to work together,” she said. “So we structured them like a game with some basic rules. We start with a beginning statement of the problem and then play it around the table. Each person can take a shot at an alternative way to define the problem or an alternative question that might get to the root of the problem. If they don’t have anything, they can pass. We play subsequent rounds, this time refining an idea. Each team member either suggests an alternative or a builds upon a prior idea without criticism. It keeps the conversation open and risk-free, but it helps us make progress rather than having a total free-for-all, and we can apply the approach to just about any sales program challenge.”
How do you structure your environment to encourage innovative thinking?
Last week I discussed the people of sales innovation. Contact me at mark.donnolo@with any questions.