It’s got a couple of lopsided circles, a squiggly diagram, looping arrows, a few descriptive words and an oversized exclamation mark! It could change your company. It might even change the world. And it’s right there in your hands… sketched out on a coffee stained napkin made of 100% recycled materials.

It doesn’t really matter where great ideas come from but it absolutely matters that you create the conditions in your company for ideas to emerge. Aside from all the business books that encourage idea generation as a proven business strategy there are some very basic, very compelling reasons why your company should be cultured to breed ideas and structured to bring them to realization.

  • Ideas exponentially build your Intellectual Capital by adding Creative Capital.
  • Ideas put you steps ahead of competitors.
  • Ideas keep you more relevant to your customers.
  • Ideas ensure that your company is future ready.
  • Ideas generate internal buzz.
  • Ideas create more meaningful employee engagement.
  • Ideas make you an employer of choice.
  • Ideas save you money.
  • Ideas produce new revenue.
  • Ideas improve the way you do things.
  • Ideas influence executives to spend some valuable time thinking about “what can be” instead of resigning themselves to only “what is”.
  • Ideas inspire more ideas.

Back to the napkin for a moment.

Since the invention of the disposable dinner napkin, average people have recorded moments of extraordinary brilliance on a piece of absorbent paper originally purposed only to wipe away the personal remnants of your meal; usually off of your face. There are all kinds of stories and myths about companies, inventions, creations and innovations birthed from napkins.

  • Five-foot-three inch tall Terry Campbell sketched his concept of a seat belt adjuster for short drivers on a napkin. The Master Design Seat Belt Adjuster (United States Patent 5201099) has sold more than 10 million units to date.
  • In 1974, Arthur Laffer drew a diagram on a cocktail napkin for Dick Cheney to explain why the economy would falter on planned tax hikes. The Laffer Curve became better known as the Law of Diminishing Returns and continues to guide national economic policy.
  • Legend has it that Southwest Airlines got its start on the back of a napkin. I’ve heard tell that’s not exactly how it happened, but it sure does fit their brand personality.
  • If they were handy at the time I’m sure Einstein would have had his share of scribbled napkins with loose thoughts scattered around his celebrated office. How could one of his “loose thoughts” change the world today? At the very least, how much do you think a crumpled up Einstein napkin would score on eBay?

Napkin thinkers. From the ordinary to the extraordinary. It’s not that napkin thinkers don’t apply rigor to their thinking. It’s just that, well, you never know when a new idea is going to pop into your head or where you will be at the time. Millions of great ideas have been jotted down on napkins, and even though most found their way into the circular file bin, quite a few certainly made the journey to fruition. I know for sure because I’ve had napkin ideas that became a CRM system module, a couple of marketing campaigns, and a strategy to restructure a company’s financing model for accelerated growth. That last one was done on the back of a coffee joint napkin sitting on a comfy chair, enjoying a camomile tea and double chocolate chip cookie. That’s how it happens. What about you? You’re just as likely to be a napkin thinker as the next guy.

To borrow a set-up from Jeff Foxworthy…

If you find yourself ordering your meal with extra napkins and a pen, you might be a napkin thinker.

If patterned napkins without lots of white space for writing piss you off, you could be a napkin thinker.

If you wipe the spaghetti sauce off your mouth with the sleeve of your suit jacket rather than messing up your napkin, you are most definitely a napkin thinker. Or eight years old.

Everyone is a napkin thinker at one time or another. Some of us are just around napkins more often than others. So here’s my idea to harness the creative energy and ingenuity of everyone in your organization, and the napkin it rode in on.

The Idea Napkin

napkin-idea-original-conceptI was waiting for my lunch, looking at this napkin on the table and thought, “What if you could provide each employee with an easy, efficient, engaging, entertaining and inspiring way for them to capture, share and transform ideas into game changing opportunities for your company?” Okay, I didn’t think of all that at once. I just started by writing “idea napkin” in the centre of my napkin. The rest kind of just, exploded from there.

The Idea Napkin is a simple methodology for capturing ideas and keeping them alive long enough to be turned into something really valuable. I will outline how the process works from start to being incorporated into your existing system of idea development. If you don’t have a system to develop ideas yet, you will. For today, let’s begin at the beginning.

Why A Napkin?

There is something very liberating about writing on a napkin. Sure it tears easily and ink bleeds through. Big deal. It’s a small trade off for just enough space to get an idea out of your head without the distraction of keyboards, widgets, colours, shapes, clip art, animation, audio and Starship Enterprise tools that drag you into the mire of designing a presentation instead of focusing on your brainwave. An idea, simply described. Potentially a diamond in the rough. At worst, a thought starter for another idea.

By the way, don’t use actual napkins. They tear easily and the ink bleeds through. Instead, apply the attributes of what makes napkins a handy tool for ideas.

  • Napkins have no lines, punch holes, logos or spiral binding. Nothing gets in the way of a good idea.
  • Napkins aren’t tied down. You can pass a napkin with your idea onto your friend. Notebooks are full of ideas that never get shared and therefore never have a chance of being developed. Eventually it’s time to toss out all those old, dusty notebooks. Treasure lost.
  • Napkins are non-judgemental. If your idea was on a Word document or worse, PowerPoint slides, you’d want to put much more into it on your own before you feel comfortable sharing it. What happens? You just forget about it.
  • Napkins are there exactly when you need them. Spontaneous thoughts? No problem. Grab for the napkin and you’re ready without the fuss of starting up your laptop.
  • Napkins are agnostic. Write. Print. Draw. Doodle. Doesn’t matter. Napkins accept whatever you want to put on them in whatever way gets your idea across.

For your Idea Napkins, use white sheets of paper. Cheap paper. Made of 100% recycled materials. It has to be cheap, recycled paper because people have to feel that the sheets are basically worthless and available in abundance. Something you can write on without thinking about the cost. You never want to hear, “I don’t want to waste a page”. That’s death. But here’s the secret… those worthless, abundant sheets of cheap, recycled paper may be worth a fortune with the right idea scribbled on it; turning nothing into something. Something real special.

I know what you’re going to say. “We’re trying to eliminate paper from our workplace, not introduce more of it.” You’re right. Absolutely. Except for one thing. You can’t. Not yet. Not for a long time. Flexible LCD screens, E-Ink and OLED’s (Organic Light Emitting Diodes) are years and years away from being an inexpensive ubiquitous alternative to paper. It’ll be nice when the technology is here but for now, paper still rules. Put forms, templates, memos, reports online. They’re just cold information and don’t have to be on paper to do their jobs. Ideas, on the other hand, need a fertile, warm place to sprout. For now, that’s paper. Don’t worry, you’re not going to cause more trees to be cut down. The paper’s recycled. Nor will you be throwing out more paper. I’ll explain in a moment.

Guillotine 8.5 x 14 sheets in half. More square then rectangle. Take these sheets of paper – let’s officially call them Idea Napkins from this point on if that’s alright with you – and put them in cheap and cheerful napkin holders you buy at the Dollar Store. Seriously. Don’t get fancy holders specially made. This needs an authentically cheap and abundant feel to it. Rest a basic ball point pen in the holder. Step back and marvel at the idea capture device you’ve created.

Now construct a bunch more and place them in strategic spots around your company where people gather, relax and work:

  • Meeting rooms
  • Near the coffee machine
  • Cafeteria tables
  • Lounge areas
  • Waiting area
  • Reception
  • Board rooms

If you want to send a strong message to your people; one that says “dream, imagine, create, think…because your ideas will drive the future success of our business”, put an Idea Napkin Holder on every desk.

Recognition and Reward

Two things to remember. Ideas come from your people. Recognize their contributions and reward any ideas that get implemented. Five hundred dollars as a standard prize is a small investment for an idea that could be worth millions in the future. Of course, for certain ideas you may choose to up the ante, such as those that land a big new contract. Second thing to remember: incentives work.

Using Idea Napkins Is Easynapkin-idea-flow

Simpler than the instructions on a match book. Whenever and wherever a light bulb goes on in your head just reach out for the Idea Napkin and write, jot, scribble, list, draw; whatever works to describe your idea. It might be a full scale diagram or a few words. That part doesn’t matter. What does matter is that when you look at your Idea Napkin, you see the idea.

You know the saying, “There are no dumb ideas”? One hundred percent true. But not everyone feels confident enough to take the chance. No worries. We have an idea to solve that problem, too. Codes. Every employee gets their personal Idea Code to write on their Idea Napkin. Only HR knows who’s who. That way, no reason to ever hesitate sharing your ideas. The only thing you might want to do is make a copy for yourself in case you get the urge to flesh it out a bit.

Whether you make a copy or not, never, never, never…throw out your Idea Napkin or tuck it in your notebook where it will get lost forever. Give it a chance for life. Put it in the Idea Bin! It’s more rewarding then recycling and might even end up being better then sliced bread.

Idea Bins are cosy little boxes from, you guessed it, the local Dollar Store. Set a few around the office, warehouse, factory; wherever you find Idea Napkin Holders.

Idea Bins (Not Suggestion Boxes)

Suggestions get no respect. Ideas, well, they should be treated like the life blood of your company. They may be incremental or transformational. Who knows? The important thing from a corporate perspective is that they represent your company’s Creative Capital, exponentially increasing the value of your Intellectual Capital. The Idea Bin is the first step towards shaping ideas into full-fledged, fully implemented solutions. In other words, they’re part of the process:

  1. Capture idea on Idea Napkin
  2. Drop Idea Napkin into bin
  3. Get decision-makers to consider idea
  4. If it’s a possibility, establish idea as a project
  5. Develop and test idea
  6. Implement and measure

From Thought To Action

napkin-idea-stepsIdeas are thoughts. Transforming them into something tangible requires more thought. Idea Curators and Captains help ideas make the transition.

Curators are responsible people. They take great care of the artifacts that have been entrusted to them. In this case, we’re talking about precious gems, gold nuggets and a few diamonds that might be lying around your office. Each week, Idea Curators collect the contents of Idea Napkin Bins. Respectfully, thoughtfully, Curators decipher each idea without editing. They sort the Idea Napkins into a few categories, such as functional areas of your company.

  • Operations/Admin/Finance
  • Marketing/Sales
  • Products/Services
  • Customer Service/Customer Relations
  • ?

Yes, that last one is a question mark, not a typo or “etc”. It’s a category reserved for ideas that are unclassifiable. These might not only be the most entertaining to read, they could very well be the ones to change your future.

The Idea Curator, attentively places each pile into category folders and expeditiously delivers them to the designated Idea Captains.

Each category has an Idea Captain. For ? ideas, decide who is the most open-minded senior level thinker at your organization to take on that portfolio. Maybe, it’s your CEO? Idea Captains must be senior executives. Sorry. No disrespect intended to anyone but it’s critical to have decision-makers make the first decisions. They’re the only ones who know what’s going on behind the scenes. We hope. By the way, their decision is always, yes.

Yes, the idea gets tabled “Now”; or
Yes, the idea gets tabled, but “Later”. File these Idea Napkins in the Idea Bank folder.

For Idea Napkins that get tabled now, the forum is the monthly Idea Share attended by Idea Captains, including the CEO even if he or she isn’t an Idea Captain. Imagine…senior executives getting together for about an hour once a month to talk about nothing else but ideas to help make the company better, faster, healthier, greener, more competitive, more relevant, more profitable. What could possibly happen? Anything. Everything! These are the people who make things happen. Unfortunately, most of their time is spent dealing with what is already happening and very, very little time is invested on a regular, formal basis dream about future possibilities. Idea Share creates the conditions for this group to change the game from within.

The agenda is uncomplicated. Each Idea Captain presents Idea Napkins designated “Now”. Captains discuss the merits. Then they make a decision, and by the way, their decision is always, yes. Again.

Yes, the idea proceeds to development “Now”; or
Yes, the idea gets tabled again, but “Later”. Add them to the Idea Bank.

If it’s a “Now” Idea, the Idea Captain is charged with assembling a small Idea Development Team. Initially, the team may only be comprised of two people, including perhaps, the employee who thought of the idea in the first place. Their job is to flesh out the idea. This is where your existing development process comes into play. A robust idea development process, including online tools, gating techniques and measurement criteria gets sophisticated very fast. If you don’t have one it place, keep things simple. Outline a high level action plan with immediate next steps, potential milestones, due dates and update meetings. This will quickly get things moving in the right direction. If the idea flies, congrats to all. If not, great experience and learning for another day.

Keeping Dreams Alive

Every six months, Idea Captains get together for an Idea Revival Session. Depending on how many ideas you have in play and in the bank, this might take a half day to a full day. All ideas in development are discussed. Mini presentations updating the group are made. Input provided. A bit of navigation. Again, this session should dovetail with your internal idea development process. It’s all good but here’s the part with sparks – Opening The Idea Bank.

All those “Later” ideas are pulled out and reviewed to determine if there are any whose time has come. There will be ideas whose time never comes. That’s okay. They’re used to stimulate new ideas. For this session, I recommend a facilitated format so you can creatively explore new possibilities. A good starting point is a Mind Map. Write “Idea Bank” in the centre of your white board. Take each “Later” idea from the bank and one by one, ask how can you use these ideas today? What might they mean for you tomorrow? How can they embellish other ideas? What new ideas do they inspire? Ideas that become “Now” are put into process. “Later” Ideas are placed back into the Idea Bank for discussion in another six months.

It’s essential that senior executives exercise their creativity as a team. Too much of their time is spent trudging through the daily, weekly, monthly and yearly routine. Collective idea generation creates the conditions for closer ties, greater trust, revitalized focus and new thinking that leads your company into the future.

Refuelling Your Organization With Good News

Ideas fuel your opportunities and the energy of your employees. Keep them in the loop with the bi-annual Idea Napkin News. It helps everyone in your company remain fully engaged in the idea process. Your local Idea Napkin News should include:

  • Highlights from the CEO talking about the process, significant contributions and implications for the organization.
  • Idea Captain Updates outlining their list of ideas in play and progress made to date. For ideas that are secret, meaning that it wouldn’t be smart to reveal too much before implementation, refer to them by code names. It makes them even cooler and gets your people talking, in a positive way, about all the things that are driving your organization forward.
  • When appropriate, and with permission, identify employees responsible for Idea Napkins.
  • List employees whose ideas have been implemented and have received their rewards. Show the total paid to date. It creates more incentive.
  • Eventually, you’ll have a large section devoted to Ideas Implemented. Treat them like mini-case studies. Explain how they’ve made an impact. Include photos of the actual Idea Napkins. Use these case studies for PR. Reporters love to profile business stories with a human interest angle.

Idea Napkins Change Your Game

Be brave and declare to your employees, “our future is driven by your ideas.” The Idea Napkin is a simple, easy system to implement. Cheap to set up and maintain. Fun. Engaging. Involves everyone in your organization in a way that creates forward thinking momentum and great internal buzz. It efficiently captures all kinds of ideas. At the very least, incremental benefits that help your company operate and perform better. Potentially, ideas that change your fortunes. All you have to do is create the conditions for it to happen. And it all started on the back of a napkin.

Creating The Conditions To Become An Idea Generating Company

  • An idea, simply described is the best way to get the ball rolling. Don’t complicate the mechanism with lots of steps for people to complete before an idea can be considered or they won’t bother following through.
  • Enable your employees to freely, easily capture ideas whenever and wherever they pop into their heads. Provide Idea Napkins in convenient places. If possible, put an Idea Napkin Holder on every desk.
  • Keep things cheap, cheerful and recycled. The authentically abundant feeling makes it emotionally easier to use up Idea Napkins. You don’t want to prevent a potentially breakthrough idea from being shared because your employees are worried about wasting the paper.
  • Incorporate recognition and rewards into the program to help stimulate more participation and share success to inspire others.
  • Provide a coding system for employees to submit their ideas without fear of embarrassment. They’ll be more comfortable with the process.
  • Appoint a reliable Idea Curator and senior managements as Idea Captains. They’ll be the ones who truly understand the importance of their roles and have the authority to help usher ideas through development to implementation.
  • Make monthly Idea Shares and bi-annual Idea Bank Reviews high-priority-do-not-miss sessions where executives can focus on working toward “what can be”, not stuck in “what is”.
  • Integrate Idea Napkins into your idea development process. If you don’t already have one in place, put a simple process together by managing them like projects.
  • Communicate. Keep everyone in the loop and celebrate accomplishments. Together, you will create a perpetual idea generation machine that changes your company, and your world, for the better.