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A Time to Think Differently
by Glen Ludwig

The current “new territory” agribusiness environment should be a real motivator to think differently. “The way we've always done it” seems to be a darn poor fit for many current situations.

Thus comments like, “We need to completely rethink how we approach our business!" and “How we've been doing it in the past just isn’t working!" are quite prevalent in most agribusinesses I've visited in the last six months.

Faced with complex, open-ended, ever-changing challenges, organizations realize that constant, ongoing innovation is critical if they want to stay ahead of the competition. This is why we need to be on the lookout for new ideas that can drive positive creative change in our organizations.

It's why the ability to think differently, generate new ideas, and spark creativity within a team becomes an important skill. And don’t overlook the reference to TEAM in the above. In the current environment a team approach can be more effective, particularly if your team includes some younger and less experienced team members. Fresh talent that is not biased by the burden of “we've always done it this way” is an asset to tap in the current agribusiness environment.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that good ideas just happen. Or worse still, get caught in the mind trap of believing that creativity is an aptitude: some people have it, others don't. Anyone can come up with fresh, radical ideas - you just need to learn to open your mind and think differently.

How to Generate New Ideas

Standard idea-generation techniques concentrate on combining or adapting existing ideas. This can certainly generate results. But here, our focus is on equipping you to leap onto a totally different plane. These approaches push your mind to forge new connections, think differently, and consider new perspectives.

A word of caution - while these techniques are effective, they will only succeed if they are backed by rich knowledge of the area you're working on. This means that if you don't have enough information about the issue, you are unlikely to come up with a great idea, even by using the techniques suggested in this article. .

Breaking Thought Patterns

Any of us can get stuck in established thinking patterns. To get unstuck, you need to break out of these, if you're going to have any chance of generating fresh, new ideas. There are several techniques you can use to do this:

Challenge assumptions: For every situation, you have a set of key assumptions. Challenging these assumptions gives you a whole new spin on possibilities.

You want to invest in a faster grain receiving leg and pit, but assume you can't since both you and your lender fee feel your long term debt is about maxed out. Challenge the assumption. Sure, you don't have the ability to handle the entire project with additional long term debt. Should you finally admit that with your current refined fuels volume and feed sales you are really never going to be a player in either business in the long term? Would a commitment to selling off, and/or closing down these two marginal business provide some cash flow and both you and your lender the confidence to move forward with the grain project? Suddenly the picture starts looking brighter.

Reword the problem: Stating the problem differently often leads to different ideas. To reword the problem look at the issue from different angles. "Why do we need to solve the problem?", "What's the roadblock here?", "What will happen if we don't solve the problem?"

In the mid 1950s, shipping companies were losing money on freighters. They decided they needed to focus on building faster and more efficient ships. However, the problem persisted. Then one consultant defined the problem differently. He said the problem the industry should consider was "how can we reduce cost?" The new problem statement generated new ideas. All aspects of shipping, including storage of cargo and loading time, were considered. The outcome of this shift in focus resulted in the container ship and the roll-on/roll-off freighter.

Think in Reverse: If you feel you cannot think of anything new, try turning things upside-down. Instead of focusing on how you could solve an operational problem, reduce marketing risks, or enhance margins – consider instead how you might create the problem or worsen the situation. The reverse ideas will likely easily surface. Consider these ideas – once you've reversed them again - as possible solutions for the original challenge.

Express your ideas in a different media: We all have multiple ways to think and express our selves. For example, we all individually mull over ideas in our head. Some prefer to talk over ideas with others on an individual or group basis. Others (and this happens to work for me) find that thinking on paper works. The process of committing the issues and alternatives to paper can provide the structure and focus to better find the best idea. The key is break away from your traditional idea generation approach when your really need an innovative solution.

Shift Perspective

Over the years we all build a certain type of perspective and this perspective yields a certain type of idea. If you want different ideas, you have to shift your perspective. To do so:

Get someone else's input: Ask different people what they would do if faced with your challenge. You could approach friends engaged in different kinds of work, your spouse, a 15 year old youth, customers, suppliers, senior citizens, someone from a different culture; in essence, anyone who might see things differently.

Play the "If I were" game: Ask yourself "If I were ……… how would I address this challenge?" You could be anyone: Orion Samuelson, Patricia A. Woertz, (Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President of ADM), or anyone else who you might respect or admire

The idea is the person you decide to be has certain identifiable traits. And you have to use these traits to address the challenge. For instance, if you decide to be Orion you bring traits such as broad based agricultural experience and a communication perspective to the consideration. With Patricia Woertz, you could be tapping into a big corporate level accounting and strategic focus resource set of perspectives.

Employ Enablers

Enablers are activities and actions that assist with, rather than directly provoke, idea generation. They create a positive atmosphere. Some of the enablers that can help you get your creative juices flowing are:

Belief in yourself: Believe that you are creative, believe that ideas will come to you; positive reinforcement helps you perform better.

Creative loafing time: Take a nap, go for a long walk, listen to music, and take a break from formal idea-generating. Your mind needs the rest, and will often come up with connections precisely when you are not trying to make them.

Change of environment: Sometimes changing the setting changes your thought process. Go to Starbucks, Panera Bread or a local diner for coffee.

Meet at a new Location: Take your staff meeting outside the office or have your discussion while walking around a local park or fishing a local lake.

Shutting out distractions: Keep your thinking space both literally and mentally clutter-free. Shut off the Blackberry, close the door, divert your phone calls and then think.

Fun and humor: Have some – it’s an essential ingredient, especially in team settings.

Key Points

The ability to generate new ideas is an essential work skill today. You can acquire this skill by consciously practicing techniques that force your mind to forge new connections, break old thought patterns and consider new perspectives. Along with practicing these techniques, you need to adopt enabling strategies too. These enabling strategies help in creating a positive atmosphere that boosts creativity.

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