When it comes to developing and using innovation and creativity tools, Gerald Haman has no equal. In this interview with InnovationTools founder Chuck Frey, Gerald shares his insights on innovation challenges, creativity tools and creative work environments.

Gerald “Solutionman” Haman is the founding partner of SolutionPeople, developer of the Thinkubator creative space in Chicago, and serves as an adjunct professor of innovation at Northwestern University. Since launching SolutionPeople in 1989, his firm has helped clients generate more than 3 million ideas valued at over 3 billion dollars. When it comes to developing and using innovation and creativity tools, Gerald has no equal. In this interview with InnovationTools founder Chuck Frey, Gerald shares his insights on innovation challenges, creativity tools and creative work environments.


Frey: Many companies find it hard to implement innovation. Why do you think that is?

Haman: After nearly 20 years of being in the innovation business, I could share a list of dozens of reasons why innovation is not implemented in organizations. I have found that if the commitment to change isn’t truly embraced on all levels the organizational impact is diluted. A key obstacle to innovation implementation is improper formulation. Organizations need to “formulate to innovate” by blending the right combination of essential innovation ingredients that fit their current culture and lay the foundation for the desired culture.

Some people in large companies view innovation as another new “flavor of the month” initiative that will be replaced by a new flavor focus next month. However, the leaders who sustain a competitive advantage realize that innovation is the most important “flavor” that will enhance the success of all aspects of a business or organization.

Some of the commonly cited reasons or excuses I hear for not implementing innovation, such as risk aversion, leadership culture, technology, environment, etc. However, one important reason is that innovation initiatives are not integrated with activities throughout the entire organization. In short, organizations need to “integrate” to innovate.

Frey: You mentioned in a recent presentation that many large companies don’t have a shared definition of innovation. What problems does that cause?

Haman: The most innovative organizations understand how to communicate to innovate. I’ve studied innovation through the unique lens of communications. After working at P&G and Arthur Andersen, I got a Masters degree in Organizational Communications and then started in the innovation and creativity business. Since then, I have often worked with internal corporate communicators and external communication professionals to design and integrate communication messages that inspire innovation.

If your organization does not have a shared definition of innovation, it’s very difficult for employees to talk about it. I have been very surprised by the number of different definitions of innovation I’ve collected during the past decade – I have several hundred of them. Many of them are too complex and lengthy. Some definitions confuse innovation with creativity. The communication confusion makes it difficult for employees to talk about what innovation is and how innovation can help.

A shared vision helps leadership and everyone in an organization communicate to innovate. If a vision for innovation is not communicated, then it may be difficult for people to be motivated. Having everyone in an organization on the same page is always the key to success with any innovation initiative.

Frey: What do you wish that companies understood about innovation?

Haman: Organizations need to know how to blend the proper amount of the right ingredients that fit their vision for the future. Innovation needs to be unique to the organization and is determined by examining the culture and desired outcomes. You asked a great question and my answers are reflected in the comprehensive training curriculum we have developed during the past decade. The fundamental information people should understand is covered in our Accelerated Innovation training held monthly at our Chicago Thinkubator. However, there is so much people can learn about innovation and creativity. My learning wishes are highlighted in SolutionPeople’s webinars and include a menu of over 40 topics.

Many organizations are able to innovate once or for a short time, however, the key is sustain a culture that “continuously innovates” and it is not just another initiative or flavor of the month. We have found that organizations that continuously innovate are the ones who attract and retain talent who can do six things very well: (1) investigate needs, (2) create ideas, (3) evaluate solutions, (4) activate plans, (5) celebrate results, and (6) replicate success. These six steps are the basis for my company’s Continuous Innovation model.

Questions: Key to creativity

Frey: You’re a big believer in developing and using Question Banks. How do you create them? In what formats?

Haman: SolutionPeople’s Question Banking method consists of: (1) identifying question sources, (2) collecting questions, (3) organizing questions and (4) applying questions, which I call “questionating.”  Questions are collected from a wide variety of sources including materials and people. They are captured in databases that could be in Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Word or a customized data management system.

Since I started this company almost 20 years ago, we have developed Question Banks of over 10,000 questions and consequently we were able to help our clients generate over 3 million ideas that created an ROI of over $3 billion dollars. I am certain that Question Banking and Questionation contributed to part of that success.

Frey: How do your clients use Question Banks? Can you give me a few examples?

Haman: During the past decade we have developed Question Banks for over 50 Fortune 500 firms and people in 10 countries. The Questions Banks are used in our Questionation process that includes developing a Question Bank before facilitations, applying Question Banks during innovation meetings, facilitations or training, reporting results by sharing the number and percentage of questions answered and ideas generated and re-using and improving Question Banks for future or other groups or innovation activities.

For each client we develop a proprietary set of questions that relate to their unique topics. We recently facilitated a team that identified future trends that would require innovation and their questions related to trend topics. Other topics have been product/service development, sales, marketing, and event planning.

A technology client recently had a meeting with over 150 of their smartest and most innovative people and we used Question Banks to guide large group innovation facilitations that will eventually yield dozens of patents. A marketing client used a Question Bank to plan a multi billion dollar advertising and branding campaign. A sales client used a Question Bank to generate over 18,000 ideas in a three hour meeting with 600 people and the result was a significant increase in sales. My world record-setting Thinkathon™ brainstorming event with 8,000 people at the Singapore stadium used a 100-question bank that inspired 454,000 ideas in an hour.

Question Banks are incorporated into nearly every product or service delivered by SolutionPeople. One handout for our Accelerated Innovation training consists of a unique “Recordion” tool that contains 50 questions. Our large group Know Your Brain Game “Data Recorder” handout with eight questions was recently used by 1,000 people at client innovation meeting in Las Vegas. The client felt the Question Bank helped them learn more in one hour than other meetings addressed during a full day.

Creativity Tools

Frey: Creativity tools are very important to you. Why?

Haman: Tools are important to EVERYONE. My research found that a main block to innovative and creative thinking is “lack of tools” while another block is “lack of time”. Therefore, it makes sense to equip people with a tool kit of “time saving” tools. The tools and techniques that we use all share a common purpose: to help people think better and faster, more efficiently and more productively, while keeping focused goals, challenges and problems. Tools can speed up the process to progress, profits and successful results.

I make a distinction between tools and techniques. The dictionary definition of tools indicate that tools have physical properties that mean you can touch it or hold it (like a hammer) and I define techniques as the “applications” of tools. For example, brainstorming is a “technique” while our Idea Exchange worksheet is a “tool” that allows people to quickly and efficiently generate a high volume of ideas. Naturally the KnowBrainer is a tool that has dozens of techniques built into it.

Frey: How did the KnowBrainer (Gerald’s award-winning hand-held ideation tool) evolve into what it is today?

Haman: The story of the KnowBrainer is an example of my desire to create “the ultimate innovation tool” — a tool that runs on people’s brains instead of computers. While working at P&G and Arthur Anderson in the 1980s I found that people really did not want another gigantic training binder or book filled with hundreds of pages that collected dust and were never used.

In 1989, I released what Fortune magazine called the world’s first innovation and creativity tool. The tool was called the Pocket Innovator and it earned a Bronze medal at the Minnesota Inventors Congress. My first order for 2,000 tools was from DEC (Digital Equipment Corp.) and then dozens of news publications gave it favorable reviews. I then followed up with the Pocket Persuader (an innovative tool for selling ideas) that was very popular at firms like Lucent Technologies and Abbott Laboratories.

My experiences with the Pocket Innovator and Pocket Persuader lead to my desire to create the “mother of all tools” that would combine the best of the Pocket Innovator and Pocket Persuader. My goal was to design at tool that contained a process for “generating” and “selling” ideas and the result was the KnowBrainer tool. The original Pocket Innovator had a 7-step process and the Pocket Persuader had a 6-step process. The process from both of those tools evolved into a whole-brain-based, 4-step process called the Accelerated Innovation Process. Ten years after the Pocket Innovator was released, the KnowBrainer 1.0 was released with a better process and, for the first time, questions.

I had been using the Question Banking Process and Questionation Method for over a decade and realized the full power of incorporating the “questions” into the tools. Each generation of the KnowBrainer tool improved with better questions, better nouns, better verbs, better images, better quotes and better directions. I studied color research to guide the selection of colors and I investigated ergonomics to determine the shape and size of the hand tool

The improvements were evident when a group of students at Northwestern University and Wayne State University both found that the KnowBrainer increased the volume of ideas by over 500% versus traditional brainstorming.

Over 100,000 people around the globe have used my innovation tools and techniques and I continually collect feedback on the content and user experience. That feedback has been incorporated into the software version of the tool called the FlashBrainer and a new eTool for the iPod called the PodBrainer.

We have also created customized “topical” innovation tools for companies like Kraft Foods and Motorola. By using the KnowBrainer “process” tool with “topical tools” Kraft and Motorola have found some innovative ways to help people accelerate to innovate.

Frey: What are some of your all-time favorite tools, in addition to those you have created?

Haman: I prefer tools that synthesize a lot of complex information into something simple, small and portable. At our Chicago Thinkubator (creative meeting space and home to SolutionPeople’s office), I may have one of the world’s largest collections of tools and many of them are decks of cards. I recently got a collection of “Mem-Cards” from Michael Altshuler. Mem-Cards synthesize best-selling business books into 28 cards that can be used to stimulate ideas and questions that inspire innovation. He’s created an extensive library of cards. My favorite tool is actually an antique tool called the ThinkTank that looks like a plastic alien capsule. It’s about 12 inches tall and is filled with hundreds of words that can be viewed through a small window that looks like a clothes dryer. A crank on the side tumbles the words that can stimulate ideas.

Frey: If you could create the ultimate, ideal thinking tool, what would it look like? What would it be able to do?

Haman: This is one of my favorite questions as I’ve been working on creating the “ideal tool.” Fifteen years ago, I used to carry around what was then the world’s smallest portable hard drive and it was filled with dozens of innovative software programs. It was about the size of a small book and held only one gigabyte of data – but that seemed like enough at the time.

I am planning to develop the TUIT (The Ultimate Innovation Tool) and naturally it includes a fully-functioning computer. I am currently testing a new Samsung Q1 Ultra Mobile PC. I think it’s the word’s smallest fully-functional PC that runs on Windows XP. It’s very portable and any software I put on my computer will run on the Q1. Its touch sensitive screen works very well with our FlashBrainer software. We have also been testing it on mobile devices such as Motorola’s Q and the Treo.

I think the hardware and software now finally exists for the TUIT to become reality. I’m currently testing some applications that could be the “headware” or “brainware” that can bring the TUIT to fruition. I look forward to equipping everyone who comes to our Thinkubator and innovation events with The Ultimate Innovation Tool.

Creative Work Environments

Frey: Why are creative work/brainstorming environments so important to innovation?

Haman: If you want people to think outside of the box, then you should not put their brains in a box. Since 1992, I’ve had creative facilities like our Chicago Thinkubator and I’ve found that what goes on “outside of people’s heads” influences what goes on “inside their brains.” We’ve helped dozens of organizations create Thinkubator-like environments and creative spaces that help their people overcome what I call “cubicle creativity”. Cubicle creativity occurs when people work in small cubicles, where the size of people’s ideas is influenced by the amount of space in which they feel they have to think.

Frey: What advice do you have for companies who want to make their work environments more creative?

Haman: Focus on the 4 Ps of highly innovative spaces: (1) Public space should communicate the history of innovation in the company and their vision for future innovation. (2) Partnership space should help teams collaborate to innovate, (3) Personal space should inspire people to think creatively and innovatively when they are alone, and (4) PC space refers to the software applications on personal computers.

Technology and ideas

Frey: You believe that technology can actually be a facilitator of innovation, rather than hindering it. Why?

Haman: Technology can speed up or accelerate innovative thinking. That’s based on my personal experience with it. I’ve been an early adopter of computers and software for over 20 years. If people understand their own “headware” or ‘brainware” – the way their own brain works – then the hardware and software become very valuable. I have almost 20 software programs on my laptop that inspire creativity and innovation.

Frey: You help companies generate many creative ideas. How do you recommend that companies manage those ideas once they have generated them?

Haman: I’ve seen too many companies waste millions of dollars on building a knowledge or idea management system that people seldom used, because the developers did not understand the “headware” or “brainware” of the users. I’ve found one of the most effective ways to increase use of idea management system is to have the eventual users contribute to the design before it is developed and rolled out. Under ideal circumstances, companies would have an innovation facilitation, whereby they bring a diverse team of developers and users together and have them apply an innovation process to develop the idea management system. At a minimum, every organization should use technology to manage Question Banks, Idea Banks, Innovation Archives of past successes and failures.

Frey: In the “Know Your Brain” game, you help groups of people to discover and learn to respect their different thinking styles. Why is diversity of thinking so important? How can companies encourage it?

Haman: I have learned a lot after having over 50,000 people from 26 countries experience our version of the Know Your Brain Game. Many companies have “diversity” or “inclusion” imitative that focus on ethic, sex, and religious backgrounds. I have found that the real value of diverse groups is that you get more diverse thinking, more innovative solutions and more ownership of the follow-through actions.

I’ve concluded that everyone needs to “get their head examined” and understand their own brain’s strengths and needs. Leaders and team members should understand how they like to think, how other people think and that whole brain teams yield more and faster innovation. The Know Your Brain Game introduces people to our 4Brain Innovation model that reveals how the brain has more than just two hemispheres (right and left) but actually has 4 quadrants (upper, lower, right and left). The quadrants profile people as Investigators, Creators, Evaluators and Activators. We help people to learn the value of looking at goals, challenges and problems from different perspectives and points of view.