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A few years back, I was charged with putting together a series of brainstorming sessions for a publishing house that was in serious financial jeopardy. I observed that the participants spoke more enthusiastically about their interactions during coffee breaks than about the sessions they had attended. I thought a little reversal and thought, “Why not ditch the formal brainstorming program and have only coffee breaks?” We then set up what was to become the first of a series of open brainstorming meetings, which we called “Idea Marketplaces,” that the company has held.

The Idea Marketplaces created several “breakthrough” ideas, which saved the publisher. One idea was for the publisher to pay leading authors a flat fee to write short books on socially responsible topics. The publisher paid for the book production by selling advertising space and made its profit by selling reprint rights to paperback houses and foreign publishers. The publisher also started a “customized” publishing service whereby users blend a variety of different kinds of information into a customized textbook for classroom use. The text is also clustered with several videodiscs which enable the instructor to visually present the material in a variety of different ways. The publisher also improved the warehouse operation dramatically by working with the Association of the Blind to hire blind laborers to improve the speed up the packing and shipping of books. This association with the blind also provided tremendous tax benefits and public relations.

Idea Marketplaces are open to all interested employees and are designed to give everyone from janitors to CEOs the opportunity and the motivation to suggest original and novel ideas. The purpose behind the formlessness of an Idea Marketplace is to let ideas take their own shape, undistorted by status or personal politics in a group. The “customized” publishing service was the brainchild of a warehouse fork-lift operator, the idea of selling advertising space in books was suggested by an accountant and the idea of working with the Association of the Blind was suggested by a receptionist.

The marketplace should be held in a large room with no furniture (other than some folding chairs) to distract the participants. Walls should be left bare to pin up notices or ideas. Ideally, several smaller meeting rooms near the larger room should also be available. Participants use these smaller rooms to pursue ideas they are interested in.

One distinguishing feature of an Idea Marketplace is that there is no agenda. Meeting leaders, therefore, are automatically eliminated. If no one is in charge, there is no one to keep rigidly insisting that an agenda be followed (or someone who deviates and sidetracks all over the place). Idea Marketplaces, instead, are governed by a few simple guidelines, a general theme, and very loose time limits.

The marketplace begins when the participants decide it does. This typically is about an hour after everyone has arrived. People stand or sit in one large circle. Someone reads the meeting’s theme aloud e.g. “How can we improve profits?”) and invites everyone to identify a related issue for which they are willing to assume responsibility. When someone suggests an issue (e.g., look for new markets), that person writes it on a large sheet of paper, reads it aloud, and posts it on one of the walls. This process continues until all the issues have been posted.

The next phase is the crux of the Idea Marketplace. During it, everyone is invited to sign up on one of the large “issue” sheets to discuss the issue. Participants can sign up for as many groups as they wish. Sponsors of each issue convene their groups to side rooms, discuss the issue, and record any ideas or other information suggested. The ideas are then harvested and disseminated to the relevant parties in the organization.

Advocates note that the Idea Marketplace exploits a well-known innovation phenomenon that usually is left to chance: Breakthrough ideas in any field come from unexpected sources. These sources often are outside the field of expertise itself. As a result, the Idea Marketplace concept encourages “nonexpert” comments from people who can view business problems with fresh perspectives.

Here are a few simple guidelines to keep in mind for your Idea Marketplace:

a) Whoever comes are the right people. You can only create with the people who are there. Don’t worry about those who aren’t there, as that is a needless distraction.

b) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. Focus your thoughts and efforts on the here and now. This is the only way you can recognize the opportunities that arise. If it didn’t happen or might have happened, it doesn’t matter.

c) Whenever it starts is the right time. You can tell when it’s time to start by getting into the rhythm of the people around you and listening.

d) When it’s over, it’s over. Save your time and agony. When discussions stop, move on with confidence to do something more useful.

Michael Michalko

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