Crazy ideas and innovation

Aug. 1, 2006
I'm a big believer in brainstorming. Sometimes that means encouraging people to come up with crazy ideas at an everything-goes session where you entertain

I'm a big believer in brainstorming. Sometimes that means encouraging people to come up with crazy ideas at an everything-goes session where you entertain “outside-the-box” concepts.

What often happens in such sessions is that the most “far out in left field” concepts are often too “out there” to work, but they might give rise to a great idea that's not so extreme. For example, somebody suggests sending free catered filet mignon dinners to 100 best clients every month. The consensus is that it's too expensive, but how about bringing free pizzas to a dozen clients once a month? That's affordable and effective, so you go with that!

It's important to set a tone where unusual and different ideas are encouraged. Maybe hold these meetings in different places, beyond the four walls of your usual meeting room.

If you read our cover story last month on Equipment Depot, you read about CEO Don Moes' use of books (If you don't have the article, log on to and go to the July issue). He got his staff reading an out-of-print book called “How to Drive Your Competition Crazy.” He scours eBay and other sources for copies and holds workshops in groups of 21 at a branch, led by a facilitator who works for the company. Each participant is asked to come up with three new ideas and the groups of 21 are divided into smaller groups to decide on the best ones. A number of the ideas have been adopted successfully by Equipment Depot.

Another concept Moes embraces is giving people freedom to try things and make mistakes. Fear of an experiment not working shouldn't be part of Equipment Depot's culture, Moes strongly believes, although, of course, if a mistake is made, it should be fixable and not serious enough to severely damage the company.

It all comes down to how one views mistakes or failures. There's an old story I read years back about a young manager making a mistake that cost his company $10,000. When the CEO called him in to tell him what he'd done wrong, the young manager said, fearfully, “I guess that means I'm fired?” “Hell, no,” the boss roared, “I just invested $10,000 in your education!”

A big believer in the importance of failure and learning from mistakes is E. Neville Isdell, CEO of Coca-Cola Co. In his view, if you analyze a failure, you'll figure out how to succeed the next time. One might argue that Coca-Cola can afford to make mistakes, but, another way of looking at it is that Coke became wildly successful because it hasn't been afraid to take risks and fail.

But mistakes only have value if you take the time to analyze them, so as not to repeat them. Figure out why a mistake occurred and use it as an opportunity to teach those involved. Mistakes often reveal inefficiencies in processes. If it is swept under the rug and forgotten, the opportunity to rise to the next level might be missed. Mistakes and failures often lead to the most surprising and successful innovations.

It's a dramatic time in the rental industry, with the acquisition of NationsRent by Sunbelt Rentals occupying center stage at the moment, the purchase of NES Rentals by a private equity firm finalized, and probably the largest acquisition in rental industry history — of RSC Equipment Rental — an imminent occurrence, it appears.

But, as I've said before, some of the most interesting and innovative developments in the industry occur far from the radar screen, as innovative companies come up with better ways of doing business. Innovation will be a major theme in RER this fall. In addition to the annual Innovative Products Award, announced in our December issue, we'll be taking a look at rental innovation in our November issue.

We want to salute the most innovative ideas rental companies have come up with over the past year, from the smallest rental companies to the largest. The innovation can be in any area from accounting or IT procedures, to dispatch and delivery, to yard procedures, to marketing and sales, to counter procedures, to addition of unusual product categories, to anything! Innovation comes in many different shapes and sizes. We'll present innovation awards to the best ideas and write about them in RER.

If you think you have an innovative idea send me an e-mail at [email protected] and sum it up. I'll be expecting to hear from you.