What Facebook's Vending Machine Can Teach You About Brainstorming

Are Your Actions Leading Your Employees to Pedestrian Thinking?

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Imagine how busy the IT department at Facebook must be. Thousands of employees mean countless requests for simple everyday items like keyboards, cords and USB drive replacements. And fulfilling these employee needs requires real personnel from Facebook's IT department.

Realizing what a time burden computer accessory distribution is , Facebook's IT department set out to make this better. Facebook engineers brought in a vending machine and reconfigured it to sell computer components and accessories. They reworked the vending machine's payment system to take employee ID cards, so that product could be billed to the proper department. Employees get the parts they need, departments get properly billed and the IT department isn't overly taxed with unnecessary work. The problem was solved with a solution so innovative that it even landed them press on CNN Money.

So here's the big question: If your employees were seen dragging a vending machine into the office tomorrow, how would you react?

Would you embrace it? Or would you question the action and have them "find a more traditional solution"? Your answer is a very clear indication of how well you might embrace true creativity and innovation at your firm.

You can see this scenario playing out in other IT departments across the country, and imagine that the vending machine solution wouldn't likely have been accepted. Many management teams would suggest that the problem be solved with a new form, a new employee or a series of meetings that look at trends, best practices and what other firms across the land are doing. When in reality, a vending machine could really solve the problem.

It's true that real innovation might look like a world away from anything you've ever done before, seen before or experienced before. It's true that brilliant creativity might scare you (and your clients) just a little bit. It's also true that innovation can arrive in the most unexpected places. It's our responsibility as creative leaders to recognize original innovation and give it the fuel that it deserves.

The vending machine solution is relevant to nearly every aspect of our business. Take brainstorms. It's well known that within the first few minutes or hours of a brainstorm, the typical pedestrian solutions arise. These are the ideas that might be the equivalent to new requisition forms or employees in the Facebook IT department, instead of a vending machine. It's only after deeper exploration that the real creative solutions evolve. How we react to bold ideas as agency management is paramount to the success of our agencies and the creative solutions that we come up with.

It's the sideways ideas like an office vending machine that lead to brilliant work, creative breakthroughs and landmark solutions to problems. And it's our responsibility to our clients to fully explore them.

The sad truth is that most firms would have a massive problem allowing employees the level of freedom seen at Facebook. Most firms publicly talk about embracing change and breakthrough creativity -- but there's a limit to the freedom of which their employees would actually be allowed to explore change, or what solutions might ultimately get presented to clients.

If you stop presenting original ideas to clients, your employees will stop coming up with them. The words "they'll never go for that " don't need to be uttered out loud. Actions speak volumes, and they could be oppressing grand conceptual thinking.

Here's an idea: What if we took a week and asked every employee to address a problem at our firms that bothered them, and come up with an outlandish solution to the problem. Then pull everyone together to present and review these challenges. I'll bet that we'll learn a lot about our agencies, our employee's concerns and perceptions, and will perhaps even walk away with a breakthrough solution to a nagging problem. And maybe some office workers will get the opportunity to take apart a vending machine.

Darryl Ohrt is a former punk rocker and chief contributor to the greatest blog in all of the land, BrandFlakesForBreakfast. While his official title is president, his business card says he's "Prime Minister of Awesome" at Humongo, a Source Marketing company. Darryl knows just enough to be dangerous. He's on the internet right now, playing, investigating and exploring. Watch out.
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