July 2015

Begin At The End, For Better Strategy

2017-03-01T11:55:14-04:00 Categories: grow, SandBlog, solve, think|Tags: , , , , , , |

One of the best starting points for a strategy session is at the end of it. Starting by clearly expressing what the end results should be, serves as a clear target for participants to aim for. I’m talking about more than the objective, but what the experience will be for customers and employees.

The sketch below was in my planning notes for a series of sessions I led for Starbucks Coffee some years ago. We were building their annual marketing promotional calendar and each promotional season needed to be thought through.

I needed the team to think through the eyes of the customer. How the customer would be “changed” as a result of each seasonal promotion. What would the customer feel? What would they now know? What should they do? This exercise helps if a team seems to get caught up in what “they” think is neat or cool versus what would be effective and meaningful for the customer.

[pre-meeting sketch]

To be playful, I drew a comic character representing the customer for each promotion. I used ‘word balloons’ as the space where participants would write what the customer should know, feel, and do, as a result of the marketing programs.

Periodically, we would refer to these future visions/end results to gauge whether we were still on target with our ideas.

[Fall Promotion]


[Annual Brewing Sale]



These cartoon “customers” worked well. It made the point without forcing it.

Maybe a collage with images from the internet, newspapers, or magazines will work for you… A demographic mood board. Some companies set an empty chair at their conference table, representing the customer. Some invite real customers in to get real-time feedback.

One way or the other, don’t let them become some abstract “thing.” Find ways to make your customers real when building your plans for them.

June 2015

Brainstorming: Sponge Versus Sieve

2015-06-18T18:51:24-04:00 Categories: SandBlog, solve, think|Tags: , , , |

One of the reasons we find brainstorming intimidating is that some people are better than others in squeezing ideas out of their heads.

These people – while amazing because they seem to have magical powers and some conduit to divine inspiration – make the rest of us feel stupid and doubt our creative ability.

Why can’t I pop out ideas like that? I guess I’m just not creative?

This is what old school brainstorming was about. People sitting in a room squeezing out ideas. Sponge style.

When I hear people say brainstorming is broken or doesn’t work… I know they’re referring to sponge style brainstorming.

New school brainstorming is about working smarter, not harder. Spending less time creating alternatives and more time filtering. Using our brainpower as a sieve to filter and narrow ideas to the fewer, bigger, and better.

For example, say we’re trying to create a new name for your energy drink.

Old school sponge style would have us sitting, staring at a pad of paper… hoping great ideas would pop into our heads.

Why waste brain power when we are surrounded by digital inspiration? At our fingertips and eyeballs are millions of images and words that stimulate thought.

Type “energy” or “power” into any favorite image search engine and you’ll instantly have hundreds of idea starters. Type “energy” or “power” into an online thesaurus, and you’ll be presented with loads of word options.

Save your brain to do the things computers aren’t good at. To filter. To select the gold nuggets from the gravel.

If you have access a good sponge, invite them to your brainstorm session… But, for the rest of us, give us some stimulating content and put us to work as filters and sieves.

January 2014

Top Posts of 2013

2014-01-22T16:52:40-04:00 Categories: SandBlog|Tags: , , , , , , |

Happy New Year!

As we look forward to creating new content in 2014, it’s fun and helpful to look back and see which posts from 2013 you found most interesting.

Check out the top 8 most-read posts below!

1. Branding vs. Marketing: What’s the Difference?

This “Point-Counterpoint” article from our Crackerjack Marketing Series touches on the key differences (and similarities) between marketing and branding.

2. Tips to Drive Sales At Your Location With In-Store Events

One of the best ways to build awareness, excitement and traffic to a new location is through a grand opening event. Check out this article for our top tips on how to succeed.

3. 275 Most Common Marketing & Communication Venues

This extensive list will help you think outside the box in your next strategy and brainstorming meeting. There are more ways to reach people than eMail or an ad in the newspaper!

4. How Valuable Are Loyalty Programs?

If you’re thinking about launching a customer loyalty program this year, this article is a must-read.

5. What Are The Key Components to Include in a Brand Style Guide?

Depending on the size of your business, your Brand Style Guide might be a few pages or heavy textbook. Regardless of the guide’s size, make sure to include these key components!

6. Why is a Brand Style Guide Important?

Amongst other things, a Brand Style Guide ensures that each employee (from the CEO to the new intern) knows the proper way to represent the brand via various communication channels. It’s the “voice” and look and feel of your brand.

7. Take Your Audience On a Hero’s Journey

After reading Nancy Duarte’s Resonate: Present Visual Stories That Transform Audiences, Paul shares his tips on how to make your next presentation more like a great story.

8. 3 Simple Decision-Making Tools

Have some big (or small) decisions to make in the near future? Consider consulting one of our handy dandy decision making tools to make your life a little easier!

In 2014, we’ll continue to provide you with relevant, helpful and interesting articles to help you succeed and stay inspired. Stay tuned!

August 2012

Seth Godin Says: How To Run A Problem-Solving Meeting

2012-08-18T18:10:16-04:00 Categories: SandBlog, solve|Tags: , , , , , |

Here’s a complete rip-off of today’s post from Seth Godin. Great to have Seth playing in my sandbox.

This is a special sort of get together, similar to the meeting where you organize people to figure out the best way to take advantage of an opportunity. In both cases, amateurs usually run the meetings, and the group often fails to do their best work.

Ignore these rules at your peril:

  1. Only the minimum number of people should participate. Don’t invite anyone for political reasons. Don’t invite anyone to socialize them on the solution because they were part of inventing it–people don’t need to be in the kitchen to enjoy the meal at the restaurant.
  2. No one participating by conference call… it changes the tone of the proceedings.
  3. A very structured agenda to prevent conversation creep. You are only here to do one thing.
  4. All the needed data provided to all attendees, in advance, in writing.
    At least one person, perhaps the host, should have a point of view about what the best course is, but anyone who comes should only be invited if they are willing to change their position.
  5. Agree on the structure of a deliverable solution before you start.
  6. Deliver on that structure when you finish.

I agree with Seth when running a problem-solving meeting, save for a few additions:
No. 5 – “Having a point-of-view about the best course” – The best course should be based on goals and constraints identified prior to the beginning of the meeting.

Goals such as: “In today’s meeting we want to conclude with five new potential names for the company.”
Constraints such as: “Names need to be real words. Need to align with our brand. Need to be easy to pronounce, etc…”

When it comes toward the end of the meeting, refer back to these goals and constraints as filters.

April 2012

Compartmentalize: Brainstorm Like a School Lunch Tray

2012-04-26T23:28:01-04:00 Categories: create, SandBlog, solve, think|Tags: , , , |

Most brainstorm sessions start with the meeting lead proclaiming, “Okay guys… think out of the box and remember, there are no bad ideas!”

We say “there are no bad ideas” before we brainstorm the same way we say “bless you” after someone sneezes. No one is sure why anymore, but it is polite.

For sneezing? We used to believe when someone sneezed good spirits left their body. Our quick prayer “God Bless You” put them back.

For brainstorming? Saying “there are no bad ideas” is the reminder to not immediately judge and filter out what you may think is a bad idea.

Our brains are wired for quick categorization and judgement. It goes back to our caveman days when we didn’t have time to assess the large-toothed, giant-clawed creature trotting our way. We needed to instantly categorize “danger” and judge “run fast!” These are our basic reflex and memory systems.

When brainstorming – instead of seeing a new idea as new – we instinctively try to find a category for it. This reflex often delivers two categorized responses:

  • “we already did that” (i.e. it is old, not new), or
  • “we already tried that (i.e. it didn’t work).

Seems all we can come up with are old or failed ideas.

So what?

For starters, kindly asking your team to remember there are no bad ideas is not the solution. You need something more rigorous and shifting than that. A method to force us into separating idea generation from judgement – at least for a brief period.

Okay, we get that people are good a quashing ideas… But, how do you change this habit?

Here are two methods…

1) Edward’s Six Hats

In his book Six Thinking Hats, Edward de Bono offers a method for breaking the thinking process into phases. He suggests six different roles or hats, each with a different perspective. White (facts and figures), Red (emotional), Black (caution/devil’s advocate), Yellow (positive), Green (new ideas), and Blue (organization).

Very simply put, the objective is to have the team wear one hat at a time. Green hat “new ideas” is different from Black hat “caution.” Six Thinking Hats offers you and your team a language and rules to follow for better brainstorming and problem solving.

If different hats aren’t distinct enough “compartments” for your team, perhaps try a method Walt Disney would use.

2) Walt’s Three Rooms

This is sometimes called the Disney Brainstorming Method. (I wrote about it in March of ’12). Walt Disney would often approach idea generation in three phases:

  1. The Dreamer,
  2. The Realist, and
  3. The Spoiler.

The Dreamer would come up with as many ideas as possible. The Realist would assess the ideas to sense which were good, and which should be “plussed” or improved. Finally, the Spoiler would look for potential problems and what could go wrong. (I like to consider the spoiler phase ‘bullet proofing’ an idea).

Moreover, Walt would use three different rooms in his house… one for each thinking phase. For example, the Den for Dreaming, The Dining Room for Realist, and the Kitchen to be the Spoiler. (I made the rooms up, I can’t find documentation which room he used for which).

Changing physical space can be effective as it clearly dilineates where you are in the process. If we’re in the Realist space, we are no longer creating new things. Rather, seeing how we can make the new ideas better. (Of course, capture new ideas if they DO come up in any stage – you don’t want to lose them. However, the focus of Realist is plussing and building).

In the Spoiler stage, we’re looking for flaws, not new ideas or even solutions. (Once you finish the Spoiler stage, I recommend you return to the Dreamer space with the newly broken ideas that still seem promising and think-up fixes or new versions of those ideas.

Walt’s idea is appealing to workspace or home. You can equip and theme each room with artifacts and stimuli that help with that particular process. Paint a blue sky ceiling in the Dreaming room. Fill the spoiler room with scales and devices of measurement. Also, once you get into the habit of using the rooms for each purpose, if you simply need to critique and idea… head to the spoiler room. Want to plus something? Pop into the Realist space for 30-minutes.

Similar to school lunch trays, each item has its own defined, compartmentalized space. Idea-meisters will be happy there is a place for their fresh thoughts. Builders will have their time. Spoilers can relax, confident their pessimistic view will have their space.

Experienced challenges with your team (or personally) allowing free flow of new ideas without judgement and filtering? Try one of these two approaches.

What other methods have you tried that have worked for you?

Drive Innovation: Suggest Ideas, Don’t Propose Them

2012-04-15T12:30:35-04:00 Categories: create, SandBlog, think|Tags: , , , , , |

How something is presented has an effect on how it is received.

Rocket science!? No, it is common sense. Yet, we sometimes neglect the subtleties of presentation and persuasion… especially when we are excited about an idea or innovation.

So many innovative ideas get quashed early – never making it off the whiteboard. Not because the ideas were bad, but due to the way they were presented.

Psychologists have found that the more assertively you express an idea, the more likely it is the person hearing it will resist it.

Wait… higher assertiveness = higher resistance?

Wow! That’s really important insight!

Experiments were conducted in which an idea was presented to someone in one of two ways: either as a proposal or as a suggestion.

  • As a proposal, the idea was given as a statement: “What you should do is…”
  • As a suggestion, the same idea was expressed as a question or reflection: “I wonder if…?”

When an idea was proposed, almost half of the recipients received it skeptically and challenged the idea. (Sound familiar?)

When the same idea was suggested, only 1 out of five recipients stated difficulties.

Telling people what to do can make them defensive, push back, and shut ideas down. Putting forward a suggestion makes it impersonal – allowing the idea to be adopted instead of forced in the mind.

[figure 1]
As indicated in [figure 1] if you suggest ideas, they are more likely to be adopted and developed than if you propose them.

When presenting new ideas – especially in situations where you expect others to be defensive – avoid phrases that begin with:

  • What you should do is…
  • I think you ought to…
  • The best idea would be to…
  • If I were you I would…

Instead, offer your ideas as suggestions. Take out references to “you.” Try these:

  • I wonder if it would be possible to…
  • Has anyone ever thought of…
  • I don’t suppose we could…
  • What if it were…

That same persuasion we use to woo customers should also be considered when we’re trying to develop innovative ideas within our organizations. Next time you have a “crazy idea that just might work,” don’t propose, suggest it.

I learned this technique from the the book Out Of The Box: 101 Ideas For Thinking Creatively by Rob Eastaway. The study was mentioned in the book Improve Your People Skills by Peter Honey.

This article was originally published on the MarketingProf’s DailyFix blog.

June 2011

Brainstorming Isn’t Broken, Our Approach Is

2011-06-14T08:53:13-04:00 Categories: SandBlog, solve|Tags: |

I recently read a blog article that all but declared brainstorming broken and worthless.

And, in the comments that followed, a few people disagreed… a few people agreed. One of the comments even explained ‘fifty years of research shows brainstorming kills ideas‘.

Many brainstorming sessions are awful. They’re run so poorly they waste time and money. Nevertheless, declaring brainstorming broken or worthless because a lot of people are bad at it is like declaring the game of golf broken and worthless.

Bad meetings are the result of bad leadership… rarely poor participants.

Leading a brainstorm session is like coaching a sport. While the game has rules, there is no fixed approach. Strategy and approach varies with the players, the situation, and the challenge.

How can you blanketly declare “thinking up ideas doesn’t work?”

If brainstorming is broken, blame the players, not the game.

March 2011

Brainstorm Brief For Better Meetings

2017-08-21T17:05:13-04:00 Categories: create, Sand for Your Inbox, SandBlog, solve, think|Tags: , , , , , , , |

How would you like your brainstorm and strategy meetings to be more productive and efficient?

I got to thinking… we use a Creative Brief to provide background and clearly outline deliverables surrounding design projects… There should be a Brainstorm Brief to serve the same purpose for strategy and brainstorming meetings! So I created one.

The link below will let you download a Brainstorm Brief template. Use it as a pre-planner for your meetings. It will help you define the objectives, understand who to invite, identify what success looks like and how to measure it.

Brainstorm Brief
Brainstorm Brief Template

Give it a try. Let me know how it works for you. If you have additional elements to add, please let me know!

February 2011

Idea Sandbox: Think Tank – 20,000 Leagues Under DC

2018-05-14T23:06:50-04:00 Categories: create, Destination, grow, solve, think|Tags: , , , |

Happy Birthday Jules Verne!

Thank goodness Jules pursued his passion for writing instead of law (for which he attended university). And, had a good publisher friend in Pierre-Jules Hetzel – who helped improve Verne’s writing.

My impressions of Jules Verne have come via Walt Disney, specifically the 1954 movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the Submarine Voyage ride at Walt Disney World in Florida.

In my desire to build a the perfect space to brainstorm, “think tank” came to mind. And, if you’re going to build a think tank, what better location but a submarine.

Brainstorming 20,000 Leagues Under DC

[Click for Larger View]

The secret to brainstorming and strategy-building is a combination of gathering the right people, using the right process, in the right place.

The Idea Sandbox: Think Tank will be the right place. This is one of four spaces, designed – using art and science – for the sole purpose of creative thinking and strategy building.

Aboard Think Tank, is as far away as possible as you can get from the corporate board bored room and tan hotel conference rooms.

In this “right place” I will help you bring the right people, and will lead you through the right process… with the sum greater than the parts – the perfect brainstorms will take place.

This article provides a preview of Idea Sandbox (the place) I’m designing and plan to build in Alexandria, Virginia – just outside Washington, DC.

Idea Sandbox is the antidote to boring, uninspiring, and ineffective meeting spaces.

Idea Sandbox turns brains into idea machines!

The above image was completed today and will be included in my investor pitch materials. After all, without the image – asking someone to invest in a space where brainstorm in a submarine, tropical hideaway, genius lab, or explorer’s library may sound crazy!

January 2011

Making Meetings More Expensive, Might Make Them Cost Less

2011-01-04T11:10:04-04:00 Categories: create, grow, SandBlog, solve, think|Tags: , , |

While I wouldn’t brand myself a meeting fairie, per se… Seth does a great job in his post today describing what Idea Sandbox does.

So if you need a meeting fairie, gimme a call!

Seth Godin, wrote today

What would happen if your organization hired a meeting fairie?

The fairie’s job would be to ensure that meetings were short, efficient and effective. He would focus on:

  • Getting precisely the right people invited, but no others.
  • Making the meeting start right on time.
  • Scheduling meetings so that they don’t end when Outlook says they should, but so that they end when they need to.
  • Ensuring that every meeting has a clearly defined purpose, and accomplishes that purpose, then ends.
  • Welcoming guests appropriately. If you are hosting someone, the fairie makes sure the guest has adequate directions, a place to productively wait before the meeting starts, access to the internet, something to drink, biographies of who else will be in the room and a clear understanding of the goals of the meeting.
  • Managing the flow of information, including agendas and Powerpoints. This includes eliminating the last minute running around looking for a VGA cable or a monitor that works. The fairie would make sure that everyone left with a copy of whatever they needed.
  • Issuing a follow up memo to everyone who attended the meeting, clearly delineating who came and what was decided.

If you do all this, every time you call a meeting it’s going to cost more to organize. Which means you’ll call fewer meetings, those meetings will be shorter and more efficient. And in the long run, you’ll waste less time and get more done.

Thanks, Seth!