Business Magazine

Start Your Own Think Tank

Posted on the 07 March 2011 by Alanhargreaves @RechargeToday

Working with others

Once a month I have dinner with four friends. We are an odd mix, and there is a 20-year span between the oldest and the youngest in the group. We have one thing in common: we are all interested in business and ideas.

Mostly we just shoot the breeze. But we always finish with one simple process. It has four steps and it doesn’t take long:

  1. we each describe something that went right in the last week.
  2. next, we go around and describe something that went wrong.
  3. then we run through something we want to get right in the coming week.
  4. lastly, we describe how we each see each other getting that thing right.

The results are astounding. I have never left without a new idea or a new perspective. It might be something out of left field, something I just haven’t thought of. Or it might be something I already know but I am just not doing. Suddenly my options open up; my thinking is refreshed; I move onto a positive track. The following week is always more productive.

That's from a chapter on think tanks in my latest book, Recharge. It’s about collaboration; and the huge leverage that comes from working with others and letting thoughts have a free rein.

It’s not about forming a team. That's a more structured exercise. You form teams when you want to manage a project, organise a business, or produce a certain result.

A think tank is different

It is less constrained in both its membership and its outcomes. You don’t need to confine it to the people who are essential to the task. Nor do you need a specific goal. What you do need are people who enjoy the challenge of change and are happy to think outside the square.

Try this experiment

Gather a small group of people. Draw them from any stakeholder group in your life or your business – colleagues, managers, friends, family, customers, suppliers. It doesn’t matter what their background or status is. You can do this at board level, or in the garage on a Saturday afternoon.

The only requirement is the ability to brainstorm. That is, to come up with an array of answers to challenging questions like “what could bring about the collapse of our business in the next two years”.

Use that example and see how many disaster scenarios you can come up with in an hour. You will find it won’t be confined to the obvious ones like “losing your biggest customer”.

Some scenarios will be outrageous, but in amongst the irrelevant or frivolous will be some keen observations as to where the weaknesses are in your business – or your division, or product line, or market outlook, or career path – in areas where you hadn’t thought to look.

The key thing about a weakness is that it can suggest an opportunity. Narrow down to a key issue you have highlighted. Make that the topic for the following week. Examine what opportunities that weakness offers. If there’s a real problem here, brainstorm the solutions; create the alternative scenarios.

Sustainable innovation

You will be surprised how this simple process can generate genuinely creative strategies for any business. Informal think tanks are a source of innovative action.

As with any brainstorming activity, don’t reject any ideas. Even if, say, one suggestion is that the business should be sold immediately, explore it seriously. It wouldn’t be the first time that such a course of action turned out to be a great decision.

There is no shortage of topics to put in the tank

Try any chapter of Recharge. It was published the same week that Borders went into receivership. Many publishers – including mine – stopped supplying one of the biggest chains of bookstores in the country.

My think tank's response: make it available online asap. So I did. You can buy it now by clicking here.

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