Mark Zuckerberg Is Time Magazine’s Man of the Year. Why? One simple word explains it, Innovation. No question anyone who can garner 500 million new customers in less than five years is doing something remarkably new.

He represents the face of innovation in America. Has introduced what has been called “disruptive technology”. This means that he has changed the way we do things. This is different from a business that simply replicates existing businesses. If he had founded a new bank that had grown to mega-size proportions to join the top banking firms in the United States, he would not have been on the cover of Time Magazine. Nothing new about that.

As the US economy tries to emerge from a recession and create new jobs it is hard to see a newscast or read a serious article in the media that does not talk about the need for the US to create jobs through innovation. There is a growing awareness that many of the jobs eliminated during this last recession are never coming back. Even the President of the United States has joined the chorus, and Congress has allocated major tax breaks and incentives for startup companies that will provide the majority of the new jobs that need to be created.

So if you’re running a business you now recognize you must innovate to grow. I’m sure the business leaders who created My Space are still in shock after having been overtaken by Facebook.

I suspect you probably wonder if either you or your management team has the creative genius of a Mark Zuckerberg. If you’re feeling the pressure, you can find solace in the fact that major corporations for America are feeling the heat and pressure to innovate as well.

Historically, post-world War II American companies focused on growing great managers that organized a workforce to efficiently produce products. Dev Patnaik, Cofounder and CEO of Jump Associates, based in San Mateo California, told the New York Times that his father was an IBM manager. His greatest strength is being able to bring relevant and current information to the production process. By the early 90s companies like Microsoft and SAP had digitized this task. His major responsibility had just become irrelevant.

Suddenly the job of a manager is now about creativity and new vision. Welcome to the world of the 21st Century.

So let’s focus on some of the tools that Jump Associates, along with other “idea entrepreneurs” now use to drive innovation for their corporate clients. The traditional consulting firms are taking notice of these upstarts and are beginning to feel the pressure. Their competition is helping corporations generate better ideas rather than traditional strategic planning.

If the message from idea entrepreneurs can be summed up according to David Segal of the New York Times in one simple challenge:

“Let us help you frame the questions, so you can answer them yourself”. They coach management teams on how to work collaboratively in doing just that.

Here is one technique suggested by Dev Patnaik of Jump. He suggests that traditional brainstorming can devolve into a kind of competitive idea tennis. You think of one use of a pencil and I counter with one and then you etc. Somehow the unstated goal is winning, however ill-defined that victory might be.

At Jump they prefer a brainstorming technique that David Segal points out is a variation of Improvisation Theater. If you’ve seen it in action you know how it works. One comic offers the first sentence of the story and then the next comic adds to that sentence by saying yes and adds his own humor sentence. In the context of brainstorming, what was once a contest is transformed into a group exercise or group story telling. It has turned into collaboration.

What this technique does is force management team, however big or small, to cohesively build solutions to problems together. So what does it require?

  • Define the problem
  • One participant offers the start of a scenario that would solve the problem and the entire team builds on it.
  • After that’s completed, label that scenario number one and go on to create more scenarios as possible solutions to the agreed-upon problem.

At the end of the session you will be left with a series of new and creative approaches to innovation for your company. Now your team can start testing to determine, in order of priority, whether there will be market acceptance. Focus on the one or two that your customers will go for, known as “proof of concept”.

Let’s face it; the business world was changed forever by the Internet in 1995. We’d love to say that we can be content to grow our business in the way we always have. Sorry, today the world is about change and innovation. We can fight it or learn new approaches to drive change.