How to create a hundred ideas

Monday, 31 March 2008

As I have blogged about previously, in a knowldege economy your value is dependent on the quality of your thinking and the quality of your decisions. One component of that is coming up with lots of different ideas and that seems to be something many people really struggle with. So here is my 7-step guide to creating a hundred ideas for any given problem.

1) Get the right environment

By far the worst place you can generate good ideas is sat round a table, during work hours, in your work clothes and with no music. Yet this is where people spend hours every week in meetings. The 3 places that most people are most creative are the 3 Bs:

  • In Bed
  • In the Bath
  • In the Bar
These are the most creative environments you can be in and these are excellent environments for generating new ideas. Bed and bath tend to be best for free-idea-association and letting your mind wander and play with ideas. Bars are best for bouncing ideas around with other people, preferably with good music and good alcohol involved. It is no coincidence that most business ideas are generated over lunch or evening drinks.

In order of priority, from worst to best, this is where I would convene a group if I wanted to generate lot of good ideas:
  • The office at work
  • Workplace meeting room
  • A meeting venue outside your organisation
  • A cafe or coffee bar
  • A stimulating creative environment (such as an art gallery)
2) Get the right group

If everyone in the group is the same gender, the same race, the same age and with similar academic background, then you will get very similar suggestions and ideas. As well as going for diversity in age, gender and age, it is useful to get people from different professional backgrounds and a good mix of introverts and extroverts. This will pay dividends in the diversity of ideas and suggestions.

3) Clearing the idea constipation

The first 10 ideas you will have will usually be approaches that have been used in the past or "standard responses" to a problem. So if there is a financial crisis in a hospital, you will often hear vacancy freezes, stop agency nurse spending, stop training spending, bed closures, mergers, etc and these ideas are always the worst.

There is a kind of idea constipation which occurs and you need to clear the initial blockage before the good ideas flow freely. That is why it is worth aiming for 20, 50 or a 100 ideas because your first 10 will very often be the poorest ideas. Typically when I am working with a group and they begin evaluating all the ideas, it is often the ones at the end of the process which are considered the best.

4) Mindmapping and brainstorming

The real advantage of mindmapping and brainstorming is that it promotes non-linear thinking. Our brains are designed to connect disparate ideas and work in a non-linear way and mindmapping and brainstorming are processes that closely mimic the way our brains work.

5) Spark don't judge

One of the real dangers is that you begin evaluating the options early on, whether it is a quick evaluation (i.e. "that won't work" or "we've tried that") or a longer evaluation (where you begin earnestly debating a single option). Both of these processes will slow down and potentially stop the flow of ideas and will mean you are stuck with your earlier (and worse) ideas rather than the later (and best) ideas.

6) Go for the crazy

Often crazy and zany suggestions will make your brain come up with several other ideas and suggestions. They can also start new trains of ideas, such as "if this problem was an animal, what would it be" or "which superhero could solve the problem". Humour can work really well here, as can using visual images, toys, etc.

7) Keeping an idea journal

As you get better at idea generation, you will find your brain will naturally generate more and more ideas. I keep an idea journal which contains every creative idea that I have had over the last 7 years. I am now up to 1,080 ideas and they include such thoughts as:

Who in your life is allowed to interrupted you whenever they want - the larger the number of people who have that power, the lower your happiness and your quality of life?

Why do we give hundreds of pounds worth of our time away without thought when we would never give money in the same?

What if an off-licence was run as a social enterprise?

Is your career in the hands of someone else? Can someone make your work life miserable on a whim? Do the people who make decisions about your future and your life really care about you? Do you think these people are idiots?

Periodically I review these ideas and often they spark new ideas, new presentations or I find links with other projects I am involved in.

So I hope this helps you come up with lots more ideas and get the most out of groups and meetings. If all else fails, at the next meeting you have to go to, take some vodka and an iPod player and (assuming you still have a job the next day) you might be surprised just how much creativity is around and inside you.


Presenting for funding

Thursday, 6 March 2008

I am not going to write about generic presentation skills here but presentations that are specifically designed to get someone to give you money. That could be a contract, a sale, a loan, venture capital, a grant, etc. The one thing all of these types of presentation have in common is that at the end, you want someone to give you money. Applause is nice, laughter can be good, even warm appreciating smiles can make you feel successful but unless you walk out of the room with a big wodge of cash, your presentation failed. The purpose of these presentations is to get money and whether you get money at the end is the only outcome in town.

I don’t know when I first got really interested in the science and art of presenting but it has been something I have been passionate about for at least a decade. I suppose that is how I fell into teaching other people presentation skills and so I have seen hundreds of people present at conferences, workshops and when they are bidding for contracts. There seems to be some sort of implicit assumption that presentations for contracts or funding are essentially the same as presenting at conferences, workshops, seminars, etc and I think this is completely wrong.

So before I give you a few pointers, let me talk about the 5 worst mistakes that people make when they are presenting for funding. I have seen all these mistakes in action as a commissioner, member of judging panels and as outside observer and they always make my heart sink.

The 5 worst howlers:

1) Presenting too much information

This is the most common mistake and one of the most deadly. Dave’s law on presentation skills states that “THE LONGER YOU WORK ON YOU’RE YOUR PRESENTATION, THE WORSE IT WILL BE”. After seeing literally hundreds of presentations over the last few years, I have seen very very few exceptions to this rule. The reasons are quite simple - the longer you have to work on a presentation, the more stuff you will try and put into it. My heart sinks when I see slide after slide full of bullet points and text. What people don’t realise is that the only important thing in a presentation is what people can remember an hour or two later (usually when they are deciding what to fund). They will remember 4 or 5 things about your presentation at best, so if you presented 30 ideas using 400 words, they will forget 80-90% of what you told them. All those words and ideas have ended up in a psychic bin - if it isn’t in their memory, it was a complete waste of air.

Now if you turn that on it’s head and think I want them to remember 5 things and these are the 5 things, then you can present those 5 things really well. Tell a story. Use some really big graphics. Do a presentation with only 5 sentences or even better 5 words. Merlyn Mann (One of my productivity heroes) has a style of presenting based on Guy Kawasaki’s approach where you use large images and a few words. He coined the famous 10-20-30 rule, in that a presentation should have a maximum of 10 slides, last a maximum of 20 minutes and all the fonts should be at least 30pt. Blow them away with your 5 really well-made impact-filled points or ideas and leave them wanting more information (not wondering how many more slides they have to sit through).

2) Not understanding the people you are presenting too

What do they people you are presenting to REALLY want? Not what you think they want but what really drives them? What do they get excited by? What are their biggest problems? What have they spent their professional lives working for?

If you see the people you are presenting as simply “managers” and think that all they are in interested in is money, your presentation is very likely to fail. Recently I sat through a presentation as a panel member when someone tried to present to me what social enterprises really are and how we really didn’t understand their needs. 30 seconds on Google will have told him that I have spent the last 5 years running social enterprises and that that is not a great presentation tack to take with me.

If you don’t know who the panel are, what drives them, what the biggest problems they face and what they want from you then you shouldn’t even be standing in front of them. If you do know these things then what you can do is present your proposal as a SOLUTION TO THEIR PROBLEMS, using stories that you will know they are interested in and as a way of making their lives easier and making them look impressive to their bosses and peers.

3) Leaving what you want till last

This is a subtler mistake and is where presentations for money differ dramatically from “teaching” presentations. If you are trying to teach someone something, then you usually start with a background or context, then build up a narrative and end with a conclusion. If you are presenting for money, you need to tell them what you want FIRST.

Have you ever had one of those cold-callers at home in the evening that starts off asking how you are and how your day was? If your brain is anything like mine, you are thinking all the time “what do you want”? Until I realise what it is they want, I am going to frame everything the say from the viewpoint of trying to find out what they want.

A typical presentation often goes like this:

Hello, I am here to talk to you about Glossophobia (look it up on Wikipedia). The panel think “how much money do you want”?
We have been working in the field of Glossophobia for 17 years (“how much money do you want”?)
Our track record is ……. (“how much money do you want”?)
Our proposal is …… (“how much money do you want”?)
In conclusion, we want £30,000 for this project.
The panel members now think “£30,000 to address Glossophobia - that sounds reasonable”. Now what is the idea again?

Until you tell them how much you want and they make a mental calculation of whether or not that is even sensible, they will take in almost no other information. So start with it. Your opening slide should be “We want £30,000 to address Glossophobia”. Assuming that the panel think this is reasonable, they will now be intently interested in what your solution is and actually paying attention.

4) Trying to sound the way you think business people should

This is a particularly common issue with nurses for some strange reason. It is almost as if they have an image in their head of what business managers should sound like and then try and do a really bad impression. When they start using management jargon and business-speak they often sound very unconvincing. Some of the most powerful presentations I have ever seen (and which won contracts) often focused on patient stories and community anecdotes that brought the idea and the proposal to life.

The people you are presenting to won’t know the community or group you are working with as well as you, or understand clinical care as well as you, so bring it to life for them. Let them see it through your eyes and try and express your passion to them. It is an area where you know much much more than they do and you can communicate that with real passion and sparkle.

5) Not knowing your finance

My son won’t watch Dragon’s Den with me in the room anymore because he is sick of me yelling at the telly (and scaring the puppy). Everytime I see a budding entrepreneur who doesn’t know their turnover, or doesn’t know their last year’s profit or their sales target for next year, I really get cross. I have never met a serious entrepreneur (social or otherwise) who didn’t know last year’s turnover and profit and have a pretty good idea what this year’s would be.

If you are bidding for funding, you need to know the financials in your proposal and they have to be realistic. I can spot a padded bid a mile off and so can most funders. If the project costs £15,000 then ask for £15,000 and defend your costs. Don’t try and bump it up to £50,000 because that is how much money they have or you will look ridiculous (or worse a liar). I tell people this all the time and they still present costings you can drive a coach and horses through.

I can guarantee that if I am offering £25,000 then nearly all the bids will be for about £25,000. If I was offering a £100,000 then EXACTLY THE SAME BIDS would come in for £100,000. So two quick pointers:

A) forget the bid amount and work out what you actually need to do your project. If you pitch for exactly that (especially if it is a lot less than they are offering), you stand a really good chance of being funded and you will stand out from the crowd.

B) Any cost with three zeros at the end looks suspicious and any with four zeros at the end is made up. Nothing costs £10,000. If you don’t know what it really costs and think it is around ten thousand then at least put some random numbers in it. Say 3 …. errr …. 7 ….. errr 4. So now I am going to ask for £9,374. It just sounds believable. If you ask for £10,000 they will think your pitching and will try and knock you down to say £9,000. If you say it will cost £9,374 (equally made up figure) they will assume that you have very detailed and precise costings.

So in summary:

1) Present 4 or 5 ideas and present them well
2) Don’t overprepare the presentation
3) Tell them what you want first
4) Sound authentic and talk about what you know and what you are passionate about
5) Find out what they want, what their problems are and who they really are
6) Know your costings


Firestarter Podcast 8 - Community Interest Companies part 2

This is the Firestarter Podcast which is the world's first podcast for social enterprises in health.

This week's podcast features an interview with Adrian Ashton looking at the pros and cons of Community Interest Companies (CICs). This is part 2 of the interview and was recorded at Cafe 72 in Todmorden - the most child-friendly cafe we have ever seen :)

This podcast covers:

  • If you need to raise funding in the early stages, being limited by shares is extremely useful
  • The legal structure you will need to be in the NHS pension scheme
  • Why CICs are being pushed .... sometimes inappropriately
  • CICs cannot be established for political activity or for campaigning
Main cons of being a CIC - part 2 
  • The power the regulator has to remove directors, appoint directors and dissolve the CIC without any consultation
  • The regulator can overule the wishes of the CIC's own community
  • The power the regulator has to restrict your trading activity
  • The power the regulator has to instigate civil proceedings (i.e. sue people) on your behalf without your consent
  • The asset lock restricts the level of interest payments to an outside investor or institution
More from Adrian at

Podcast 8 - This can be downloaded here (19 Mb)

The music is "Fire Dance" by djbouly and is brought to you under a creative commons licence.


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