Make Your Next Innovation Jam Work

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Alessandro Di Fiore for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, and sign up for a subscription to HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Jamming has become a popular way to unearth innovations — bringing together people of many different backgrounds to creatively brainstorm around a company’s competitive challenges, expressed as “problem statements.” Yet although the process is widely hyped, many companies struggle to make them work.

If your company is one, you may be interested in our experience at the European Center for Strategic Innovation. We’ve been comparing how innovative companies structure and conduct jamming sessions and we’ve identified a set of practices that successful jammers all seem to share.

[Here are the first two.]

1. They work in self-defined, small sub-teams

In a classic experiment, researchers ran a lottery. Half the participants were randomly assigned a number. The others were asked to write down a number. Just before drawing a winning number, the researchers offered to buy back the tickets. Intriguingly they found that they had to pay five times more to people who had chosen their own numbers. It’s dramatic proof that when we choose for ourselves, we are far more committed to the outcome.

How does this apply to jamming?

Well, it turns out that in many companies jamming participants are simply assigned a challenge or a problem to work on. If that’s what you’re doing now, then stop. Let participants choose what they want to work on instead. You’ll see much more creative energy.

And keep the jamming teams small. A big mistake is to think that you need to let everyone get involved, but academic research consistently shows that people tend to prefer working in small teams. In any team, members need to get to know each other and define their norms of working together. If time is tight — as it is with jamming — you want to accelerate this part of the teaming process and you can’t do that with a big team. In general we find that teams of four offer enough diversity and engage quickly with the challenges they select.

2. They define the problem statement clearly

In many of the cases we found that the reason for failure in jamming lay in a weak definition of the problem or challenge a team was addressing. Often, in a desire to get the ball rolling or maybe because of the leadership’s own imperfect understanding of their company’s problems, jamming teams are often given broad, ill-defined problem statements. These are usually jargon-heavy and can be interpreted in different ways, which is sometimes thought useful because it initially helps achieve buy-in.

But for jamming to pay dividends, problems need sharp definition, even if this requires more effort up-front. The business, technological, and other challenges that are encapsulated in a jamming team’s problem statement all need to be clearly understood in the same way by everyone otherwise each team member will end up trying to solve a different problem. Pretty quickly the whole jamming process will break down.

I saw just this dynamic in a jamming session we tracked at a European sportswear company. Here the problem statement was simply “look for growth opportunities.” The result was an existential discussion around the meaning of growth and an identification of all the potential drivers. People never got near to framing a concrete plan for actually growing. Since expectations going into the process had been very high, the sense of disappointment was doubled. Jamming sessions are over for now at this company.

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To read the complete article, please click here.

Alessandro Di Fiore is the CEO of the European Centre for Strategic Innovation, based in Milan. He can be reached at Follow him on twitter @alexdifiore.

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