Tips on creating, capturing and developing good business ideas.

Good business ideas don't grow on trees. They're conceived, incubated and birthed by common, everyday folks like you and me. Don't underestimate the fecund nature of a contractor's imagination. Trade professionals produce patents, marketing ideas and tools, and it's not uncommon to find a poet or two among our ranks. The question is - how do we harness our idea factory? How do we come up with an idea to solve a specific challenge or take advantage of an emerging opportunity?

Define The Objective

First, define your objective. It's not always what it seems to be. For example, let's say you're having trouble getting your people to show up on time. No doubt, you'll spend some time considering how to improve punctuality. Should I reward people for being on time? How? Should I punish people for being late? How? Is it important enough to fire someone if they refuse to comply? What happens if I sack someone for being tardy?

When defining your objective, don't succumb to tunnel vision. Ask questions about all aspects of the situation. In our punctuality question you might ask: Why 7:30 a.m.? Does everyone need to be here at the same time? Why? How does this affect company performance? How does this affect customer service? In other words, you may think that punctuality is the objective when the bigger picture is that you need a different schedule.

Out Of Which Box?

You've probably heard the term “thinking outside the box.” The phrase refers to a mind puzzle where there are nine dots that need to be connected with four straight lines. The solution involves “thinking outside the box.” It's a good exercise but not exactly accurate. We'll always be thinking inside of a box.

Here's an example: A truly “outside the box” idea would be to ask your employees to forgo one paycheck this month so you can buy a new service truck for cash. What a novel way to save operating expenses! A new truck with no exorbitant interest, lower insurance costs and the tax advantages of depreciation makes it a “no-brainer.” As proof, expect to hear someone mutter, “Whose brainless idea was this?” (You know, the more I think about it, it just might work!)

You must stay within some sort of box or you'll be in trouble, but who says you can't explore other boxes? Does the fact that you're a plumbing contractor mean you can't explore how real estate agents generate leads? Does the fact that you provide radiant heating mean you can't explore automobile dealers for sales and management ideas? Their ideas may be old news for their industry but a break-through in ours.

Measurable Results

When you're looking for ideas, be sure you can quantify the results. Let's say you have a big idea to sell more toilets. What is “more”? Are you selling five per week now? Five per month? Use your current performance as a benchmark, then you'll know how effective your new program will be. Look at your current performance and see what's being done to achieve that performance. Then, let your ideas build upon that data.

Capturing Random Ideas

You may be pondering a problem for weeks, then suddenly awaken with an ingenious solution. The awakening may occur at night or perhaps in the middle of a long-winded sermon. The idea may have been germinating for days, then suddenly all your neurons fired at once and out pops the idea.

Don't underestimate the value of capturing the idea immediately. Once you have the kernel of the idea documented, you are free to think about other things, such as that traffic light in front of you that just turned red. Grab a pen and a scrap of paper. Even a $20 bill or a store receipt can be used in a pinch.

Regardless of the media you choose, record that idea right away. If you scribble your thought on the back of a business card, scribble on the front side, too, so you'll be less likely to give your idea away by accident. Consider carrying a folded piece of paper in your wallet or purse just for this blessed event. I carry a pocket digital recorder wherever I go so I can catch the idea even while driving. (Recorders are easier to use than pen and pad when driving down the road with your cell phone, jelly donut, coffee and the latest PM magazine.)

Farming Ideas

You may be a fountain flowing with free thought but if you go it alone, you're at risk of stagnation. Think outside of your box by getting together with people from other boxes.

Host an idea exchange, either at your office or at a restaurant meeting room. Invite four or five business people from your chamber of commerce or other networking group to share ideas and solve problems. Here are the rules: Set a time limit for the whole process - maybe 1 1/2 hours maximum, since everyone has business to take care of. Each participant gets 15-20 minutes for his idea session. During that time, he or she will explain his or her challenge or opportunity and gather ideas from the group.

To document the ideas, use a recorder (if everyone agrees) and an easel pad. When someone tosses out an idea, write it on the pad. Don't spend a lot of time discussing the merits of each idea, just write them down. You can pan for the gold later. At the end of the session, each participant takes their sheet(s) of ideas away for further rumination and study.

Use a similar method to glean ideas from your own employees. Your employees have more customer contact than you. They also have more contact with the tools, equipment, vehicles, schedules and processes, so they can be of particular help when you're looking for ways to improve morale, customer service, compensation or efficiency. As the ideas start flowing, there may be a tendency to descend into a gripe session. This may be the time for it - they need to unload sometimes - but you should steer toward positive feedback.

To stay on track, be specific and tactful when spelling out your objective. “What are some ways we can improve the efficiency of our fleet?” sounds much better than “What is it going to take to get you guys to quit wasting gas?” To promote a more positive environment, and to show your employees that you value their time, offer a drawing for a door prize or simply give each employee a gift for participating. At the end of the session, you might have the employees vote for the best idea.

Once your employees open up and give you their ideas, they expect you to do something with them. You may not be able to implement most, if any at all, but that doesn't get you off the hook for showing some action on each idea. If an idea crashes and burns, get with the employee who produced it, thank him or her for the idea and explain why it didn't pass muster.

This exchange accomplishes several tasks. First of all, you're showing respect for the individual. Secondly, you're having a conversation about something other than work performance or the next job. You're also finding out how this employee thinks so you can consider him or her for other positions in your company.

Been There, Done That

Sometimes fellow contractors are excellent idea resources. At your next trade group meeting, have the members divide into groups of four or five and have an idea exchange. You may have the whole organization focus on a specific challenge or you may leave the topic up to each individual group. Don't let the groups turn into a hen session where there's a lot of clucking and scratching but not many ideas being hatched. Chances are, someone among your fellow contractors has encountered the challenge you need to solve.

If you're a member of Service Roundtable, you know how true this is. Seldom does someone toss out a question without getting a flurry of responses from helpful contractors who have been there, done that and have the T-shirt to prove it.

Nothing New Under The Sun

Don't dismiss an idea just because it wasn't your original thought. Certainly you wouldn't want to infringe on copyrights, patents or trademarks, but there are plenty of “free range” ideas to go around. To avoid another version of this pitfall, don't be married to an idea just because you thought of it. Be willing to accept the cold hard truth if a fatal flaw turns up in your favorite idea.

Now that you're creating, capturing and developing so many ideas, perhaps you can figure out how to get those nine dots connected. I still don't have it figured out.

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