Collaborative ideation isn't always easy because everyone has ideas and opinions. You can’t execute every idea all the time, but need to narrow the list and make sure input is heard and time is respected. So, how do you filter and service only the best ones?
Today’s guest is Sean Ironside, global brand director for EGYM. He describes how to develop a sound process when creativity and ideation are at odds. It just needs to be consistent to work out for everyone and everywhere.
Ben: Welcome to the show Sean.
Sean: Hi, good morning.
Ben: Would you mind taking a moment to just introduce yourself to our audience and explaining what you do at EGYM?
Sean: Yeah, for sure. My name is Sean Ironside. I work for EGYM. EGYM is a fitness technology company. We build smart strength equipment. We can maybe get a little bit into what that means at a later stage. Also, digital solutions and technology with the goal of making the gym work for everyone.
Ben: I imagine that's a good business to be in right now with people looking for remote solutions to all kinds of things right now.
Sean: Yeah, it's a great point, actually, the digital aspect of what we do. EGYM is about a decade old and the digital aspect of what EGYM does has kind of joined us later throughout our journey. For us as a business now, this matters more than ever because we have something to offer right now to our customers, the gym's path to staying connected with your members and your community. Of course, we are also looking forward to gyms starting to reopen again because at the core of what we do is still supplying gym owners, gym operators with the right equipment in their gym to help make their members successful.
Ben: Absolutely. I understand that you're doing some interesting things in your marketing team with collaborative ideation. How would you describe what your marketing ideation process looks like right now?
Sean: Let me maybe take a step back on what the set up is. EGYM is a global company. They’re originally from Munich. They have major offices in Berlin where I'm originally from, in Munich, in Boulder, Colorado which is where I am right now, and several other markets in Europe. My team is completely located remotely. They're in Munich and in Berlin. I'm the only person here in the Boulder office. Many of the key groups I work with in the product teams, in the other marketing teams, are all located all across the world.
That physically disconnected world makes it really important for us to have, (a) a platform on which we can ideate, and (b) a pretty rigid process, because as you can imagine, sitting in a room doing a brainstorming, going through your stickies and exercises is much easier than having a video call and maybe working with a Miro-type of a solution to do some brainstorming and ideation. That's maybe the larger situation we're in.
What we have is we have different countries with local country marketing managers and then we have the global marketing team which is what I am a part of. The global marketing team essentially serves all the local organizations and their marketing needs. There are different needs both from a business maturity perspective. In Germany, for example, we have a very large market share. We’ve been in the market for almost a decade. In the US, we've only been for three years now. Different maturity, different needs, different cultural context, and we have to serve all of those.
For us, it's really important that we have a platform where we can capture briefings as they come in, and then we try to first of all identify, is this a problem that we've already solved before? Sometimes we have something that came up five years ago in Germany, for example, that now is current let's say in France, and we already have a playbook or something that we've done in the past that already helps solve that challenge. Maybe we tweak it, modify it. That's the first step of the ideation, is really seeing do we need to ideate, or is there actually already an existing idea that's worked successfully.
If there's not, then it really depends on the challenge itself. We try to identify who are the subject matter experts that can help to contribute to finding a solution. Maybe it’s product-related and we need a product marketing guy who can help us dive into the features. Maybe it’s more of a visual challenge where we only need the design team on breaking down some pieces of information. Or it could be something that's entirely vendor sales-related.
The next step for us is then identifying the group that will ideate. Once we have the group that will ideate, we bring those people together well, as I explained mostly remotely through video conferencing because we're all over the world. Then, I like to do first more like a knowledge intake. I call it the tree of knowledge. We kind of look at what's been done in the past, what has worked successfully. When we look at the future, what are assumptions and expectations around just kind of a level set, so the entire group has a shared set of facts and stuff we can agree on.
Then we try to work on developing two or three global truths, something that we said is what matters to this specific challenge. Based on those truths, we go into ideation. Ideation process, I use a process called the design dash, not to be mistaken with the design sprint which is something that Google invented.
In the design dash, the idea is really to bring together all kinds of people from different disciplines, and before briefing them on an idea, just saying this is what this is about, and that let everybody churn out as much stuff that they can get out of their brain as quickly as possible, then we onboard them and start adding in information to help shape their knowledge of a specific problem, and then we do that same exercise again.
Sometimes, some of the best ideas come out of the phase where people have no idea what they're talking about, but then as we start to add in knowledge, somebody grabs an idea from that first phase and starts to really turn it into something that is solid gold.
Last but not the least, to identify what solutions we want to follow up on or further develop. We do an advocating phase. The goal is really not to say this is my idea and this is why it's the best. The goal is actually that you pick somebody else's idea that you really like and you have to argue as to why we should follow this specific solution or idea. From there, we go into the actual flushing out of the specifics.
Ben: Cool. It sounds like you have a very well-thought-out, very thorough process for taking an idea from just being like a twinkle in someone's eye all the way to getting that idea ready for execution. I imagine that it probably took a lot of work to get to the point where you're at now where you have a very, as you say, a rigid set of processes for collaboration and for ideation. As a marketing team, as you're building up to the stage that you're at now with those things, what were some of the biggest challenges that you faced and how did you overcome them? How did you implement solutions to those challenges?
Sean: Maybe going back through what we just discussed, the first challenge is the physical challenge. Not being able to assemble that easily is something that we needed to solve while digital infrastructure had some sort of a planning tool platform, the right communication channels, be it Hangouts, or Slack, or Zoom, or whatever that is. Finding out what is the stack that we want to use to bring teams together because of that physical disconnect.
I think the second challenge is kind of the nature of what we do. It's very fast-paced. You sometimes are working on one thing and then pivoting to another. It's really about understanding what is in your pipeline right now and prioritizing it. I think being able to focus on an idea or as I said in the first question, also not losing sight of what has maybe been solved in the past, not just by you, but maybe also predecessors.
Making sure that you're tracking, documenting, archiving things that people have done in the past. That happens a lot in young companies and startups. You have a person, a small company of 20 people, a lot of knowledge centralized around a single figure, and that person leaves, and if you're not offboarding them correctly, or doing the exit interviews, and making sure you're capturing everything that that person had in their brain, you can lose 20% of your intellectual property right there. They just walked out the door.
For us, it's also really important to have what are the challenges was because a growing company also fluctuates staff wise, to make sure that people move on and we support everybody who moves on and does something amazing next, but we also want to make sure that all the great work you did for us is going to stay with us. That’s what I think is the next challenge.
Last but not the least, managing timelines. Specifically, when we're working in a creative process, you want to make sure that you try to box yourself in a little bit because if you don't, people get really lost in space. We love space, but at some point, you have to return to earth and land to create a rocket ship (let's say) and start to colonize the planet with real ideas. For us that's really important. We dedicate ourselves to every phase of ideation, but we also make sure that there's a beginning and an endpoint, so we can move on.
Ben: Let’s say I'm a marketer, I'm listening to this episode, and let's say that my team does not have a clear cut ideation process in place. It’s just not something that we have. What would be the very first thing that you would recommend that marketer do in order to just get started putting some sort of framework or some sort of process into place?
Sean: That’s a good question. I would say the first the most important thing—at least for me personally, it’s probably a different approach for everybody—is understand that creativity is not something that is the reserve or preserve of the creatives in your organization and/or the marketers, and really look to the people that are responsible for the topic you are trying to solve as your source of information, as your source of ideas. Sometimes, it could be a mobile app developer who solved a very specific challenge or a UX designer, or it could be maybe the [...] guy.
The first step for me would be to say, everybody in your organization has ideas, and it's your job to figure out whose ideas matter the most when it comes to the specific problem you're trying to solve. That's kind of totally without a process. That's just something you should sit down with a piece of paper, write down your problem, and think about who in my organization is either working in relationship to that problem or potentially has solved this problem for us. That’s it.
I think the second step is those phases I spoke about. Really set yourself some milestones and say my first objective is to do that situational analysis, to really figure out what is the problem, what do we need to actually solve. Sometimes, something gets verbalized as a problem and it's like can you do this for me? But then, when you dig into it, either the problem gets bigger, or it turns into multiple problems. Really understanding what we are trying to solve right now versus what is another problem that we need to solve another day. That helps you from getting bogged down and keeping you focused.
Challenge number three is don't fall in love with your own solution, and keep yourself open to feedback. Again, going back to those people that I spoke about in the first step. If somebody tears it down who is really close to the customer, or who has really good knowledge of the topic, don't get offended. Take the feedback as to what it is, good feedback. Go back to the drawing board and make your idea or your solution even stronger.
Ben: This is something that I kind of alluded to in the introduction to this episode. In the marketing and advertising worlds, sometimes there's this assumption that creativity is somehow stifled by the process. If it’s not creativity, it might just be speed, productivity, or things that process inhibits rather than enables. I understand where they're coming from because I think that in those cases, the process kind of becomes caught up in this idea of bureaucracy, and bureaucracy as being toxic to creativity and to good marketing. I don't think that reality necessarily bears out the idea that process stifles creativity or stifles creative ideation.
I would argue that creativity is enabled by process and consistency much more than it’s impaired by it. I really think that Sean's advocacy for sticking with what he describes as a rigid process supports that notion. It supports the notion that keeping organized helps facilitate effective ideation and collaboration just in all the ways and for all the reasons that he has described. We’ll continue to outline it in the back half of this episode. Now, back to Sean.
One thing that you touched on that I think can be particularly challenging for yourself, learning how to accept that not all of your ideas are going to get implemented. There may be some things that you feel very strongly about that get shut down for one reason or another. In a lot of cases, those reasons might actually be pretty good.
What would you recommend marketers do if that's something that a marketer struggles with? Just coming to terms with the fact that as part of doing this kind of work, you have to be able to accept creative feedback on your ideas. If that's something that someone is struggling with, how would you recommend that they maybe start to shift their mindset just to deal with that, maybe in a way that’s a little more healthy?
Sean: That’s a really good question. It’s something that I personally dealt with or struggled with, maybe even still today a little bit, because you get really passionate about the stuff that you do and you put a lot of work into it, and then you have to go into that present your idea meeting, and then there are people who might be a little bit snap judgment type of people which is totally fine because often when you're presenting something let's say to an executive, or to a lead, or somebody who maybe doesn't have enough time and just looking at not just 1 idea from you, but 10 ideas from 10 different areas. They need to make decisions fast.
The first way to maybe avoid that in the first place or insulate yourself against unqualified criticism or feedback is, come prepared to present your idea properly. You may have the idea in your head and it may be the best idea ever, but if you can't convey that idea in a way that speaks to the truth of what it really is, then challenge you will face is that somebody will recognize it to be something different and maybe criticized feedback or shoot it down for reasons that maybe are not valid, and then you might get personally, I won’t say insulted, but you might have personal feelings about why did this idea not get accepted? Why was this not taken the way I meant it to be? It's probably because you didn't take the time to present it in a way that resonates with that audience.
That's my job. I'm a global brand director. My job is translating between business objectives and creative objectives. To be able to do that transfer or translation between what is a business looking to achieve and how can somebody who is a business stakeholder understand the value of a creative idea, that's truly a skill that I would recommend to anybody who's looking to get ahead with their ideas in life, to really try and figure out, how can I format something into a language that resonates with the person I'm speaking to?
Ben: I think the other side of that same coin, and I would imagine especially for someone like yourself who is in a director role, there are also going to be times where you have to offer feedback on someone else's idea. There's always a need to be able to do that in a way that was very direct, and very honest, and not disingenuous for the sake of sparing someone's feelings, but is also not going to leave someone in tears because of this idea that they kind of felt to be their baby.
Sean: Alluding to what you just said, I already said I'm German-American. I was born just outside of Frankfurt in Germany, but I was raised partially in the US, partially in Germany. There's obviously large cultural differences. It's interesting because we are a global organization, how that also impacts our company culture. One thing that people say about Germans and I would say that is pretty true about myself as well is, they're very direct, they're very to the point.
When I moved back to the States in early 2019 for this job with EGYM, it was interesting because I still have a lot of daily contact with my colleagues back in Germany which for me is a very cultural situation I'm very used to. Then with a lot of my American colleagues, there's a lot more, ‘I really appreciate your idea, but…’ kind of thing. There's a lot more fluffiness often. I think in a way, what's really great is that both parties benefit.
The Germans have learned that sometimes it makes sense to empathize with the person who's bringing the idea to you and recognizing the hard work and time they have put in, putting thought into what is our shared mission, and then on the other side, there's also the need to make the most of our time. Let's strip this down to what it is and then let's get the feedback that we need to make the next step.
For me sitting between the chairs, I've learned so much just being back in the States that for me, I think I'm combining it into something alluding to the first part of what we said, being able to take feedback but also give feedback in a way that is empathetic, respectful, yet to the point, and concise. Talking around is also actually not appreciating the idea. I really think it's important when you're evaluating something, to show authentic interest in what the person is bringing to you. If you're just kind of beating around the bush, well, then you're not really willing to deal with what that person has brought to the table, and you're not taking them seriously, which I personally think is the biggest offense.
Ben: Yeah, absolutely. The last question that I have for you before I let you go this morning. Sometimes, you can have the best process for ideation, and for collaboration, and just general problem-solving, but sometimes if you're just feeling creatively blocked, or if you're faced with a problem that you just feel like you can't immediately fathom a solution for, I think even like the most creative people amongst us can start to feel stuck. If a marketer is really struggling to find an effective idea or solution for a problem, or if they're tasked with something that they just can't be on the spot creative with when they need to be, what would you recommend they do?
Sean: I think walking away from the problem is good sometimes. You can just walk away from problems, but I think you can walk away from something temporarily. Maybe deal with another project that you have, to get your mind off of it. It could even be (for me maybe) is to go out into the Rockies and take a hike, just do something completely different, and then really come back at it with a fresh perspective. That's kind of on the personal side.
Write down some of the things you think about the problem right now. For me, note keeping is a big process of what I do. I'm a pretty dedicated note-taker and diary writer. I use my Slack. I DM myself on Slack, I just send myself stuff all the time. That enables you to walk away without forgetting, which is really important, so you can walk away. You're not avoiding, because if you just walk away and delete the hard drive, then you have a problem when you return to the problem.
The second one is, use your peers and your leads. It can work in all directions. Really pass something on to somebody else and say, hey, look, I've been really struggling with this, maybe you can spend a couple of hours on it and just come back to me with some of your thoughts on it. That will sometimes take you down a different path. That path could all of a sudden unblock that that big thing that’s stuck in your head. An hour later, you're done. You got that blog post out, you got that landing page published, you got that white paper written up, whatever that is.
I think those are two major things. Unblock yourself and be willing to walk away from a problem and two, leverage your colleagues and team as resources to spin the challenge into a different direction that might open up a path that you're currently not seeing.
Ben Sailer is the Inbound Marketing Director at Automattic. His specialties include content strategy, SEO, copywriting, and more. When he's not hard at work helping people do better marketing, he can be found cross-country skiing with his wife and their dog.