Job #1: Create a Culture that Unleashes People’s Creativity & Sustains Corporate Innovation

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Over the past few years, almost every study of business leaders has found that the key to corporate growth, out-competing others in your industry, and keeping America out-front in this increasingly flat, complex and highly competitive world, is innovation.  Yet, there’s often a disconnect with these macro-picture attitudes and the micro-picture realities: few C-level leaders actually declare that Job #1 for them is unleashing greater creativity by employees and institutionalizing a sustainable system for harnessing it for new product, service, process and other innovations.

Years ago, Ford Motors recognized that its quality ratings were slipping – and impacting sales. They adopted a total commitment: “Quality Is Job #1â€. Learning from the Japanese use of “quality circlesâ€, they also formed them so people at all levels of the organization would meet regularly to discuss what Ford could do to improve the quality of those aspects of car and truck production – which meant changing mind-sets, skills-sets and system enablers. The company made its commitment public: Quality is Job #1, was their advertisement campaign. With a total commitment, the company succeeded.

When was the last time your company engaged employees and/or strategic partners in workshops to experiment with the many techniques available to stimulate creativity – and find those that best meet your situation? Ever invited to participate in an “Innovation circle� Like quality circles they would take the creative ideas and convert them into service, product and process innovations for the company.  Unfortunately, for most companies the commitment to creativity and innovation isn’t very deep. Companies like Google and 3M stand out for their commitment to encourage creativity-innovation (i.e., employees can take 15-20% of their time to work on approved projects.)But most (smaller) companies lack sustainable systems that encourage employees to harness their creativity and channel ideas into a sustainable stream of innovations.

This has been an area of interest for me for over a decade, which I share with both corporate clients (through consulting) and my college students (in their CUNY Business Policy Laboratory (Strategy) course).  For years, we’ve been offering webinars on how to stimulate creativity and then champion and sustain innovation in companies. (Now, we help people nurture creativity through interactive workshops, and help companies adopt systems to promote innovation as consultants.)

Here are some techniques to unleash and nurture creativity:

  • Ask questions to challenge assumptions (Why? What? When? Where? How often? Who? How?)
  • Stop the action and use the Rs: Rethink, Reconfigure, Resequence, Relocate, Reduce, Reassign, and Retool.
  • Vary your daily routine; read/listen to a variety of material that is outside work.
  • Engage in activities designed to unleash creativity, such as:  Brainstorming, Brainwriting and EdgeStorming; Mind-mapping; storyboarding, Imagination engineering; Forced associations, visualizations, Morphological analysis and SCAMPER, Alex Osborn’s mnemonic  used to transform products/services (Substitute, Combine Adapt, Magnify or Modify, Put to other use, Eliminate, Rearrange or Reverse).

Recent books addressing these issues include Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity by Josh Linkner, Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip and Dan Heath, Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results by Drew Boyd and Jacob Goldberg., and  The Laws of Subtraction by Matthew May.

When it comes to building sustainable innovation, one of my favorite books is Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself by William C. Taylor. It includes the story of Rite-Solutions, a company that develops serious command-and-control systems for submarines, combat-systems performance prediction tools and simulation & training systems for Homeland defenders and first responders. Recognizing that in traditional companies most good ideas from the top down, that value is defined by the “box†they sit in rather than the value of the insights, and that many programmers are introverts who won’t spend time talking about their ideas, they created a very humane culture. A welcome wagon delivers flowers and fruit baskets to new employee families; each new employee completes a “birth certificate†describing hobbies, nicknames, pets and other personal stuff, which each employee can see to better know new people on their teams. Most interesting is their stock market of ideas, Any member can propose an idea to acquire or develop a technology, enter a new line of business, or improve efficiencies. Each proposal becomes a stock with a detailed description (“expect-usâ€) and begins trading at $10.  Employees signal their enthusiasm for the idea by investing in the stock and even volunteering to work on it. The market regularly updates the top 20 stocks. (The market includes penny stocks, “crazy ideas†shared with no expectation of investment.) Top stocks actually get funded (time and money) to convert ideas into innovations, and the “stock owners†get to share in the profits. This system has generated a wide assortment of innovative products, processes and services for the company.

Leadership is key to innovation within the corporate setting. So many companies resist change and perceive the innovator as a “deviantâ€. Indeed, the very concept of “skunkworks†– having the innovative team work separately from everyone else – shows the extreme effort some companies have had to use to allow innovative ideas to survive. It is the hallmark of great strategic leadership to:

  • Create a supportive culture (openness to challenges, trust, playfulness, humor, freed)
  • Nurture the creativity
  • Provide time and resources to convert ideas into potential innovations,
  • Value  risk-taking with “failure as nobleâ€
  • Champion the project outside the group,
  • Protect the team with “air coverâ€
  • Distribute rewards and recognition.

Excellent books addressing the leadership challenges in fostering innovation include: Creativity, Inc. by J. Mazur and R. Harriman, A New Breed of Leader by Sheila Murray Bethel, The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work by Teresa Amabile and Leading on the Creative Edge by Roger Firestien, The Wide Lens by Ron Adner.

Where does your company stand on the spectrum of unleashing creativity and institutionalizing the process of developing innovations? Do you have a culture with system to encourage creativity on difficult issues? What systems exist to nurture innovations? How are leaders trained to foster the process and build a sustainable culture?  Share your experiences and best practices!