Creativity does not just “happen” in innovative organizations. Creative organizations have a very different culture than their less creative peers. In these organizations, creative teams focus on different things than their non-creative counterparts. And on those teams, creative people cultivate and practice the skill of innovation and creativity.
Creative organizations are a culmination of the right actions at these three levels:
- A creativity nurturing culture
- Leaders who encourage creativity
- Individuals with the skill and the will to create.
In today’s post, I’m going to share some actions you can take at all three levels to encourage, support and reap the rewards of creativity in their organizations.
While I’ll paint with a broad brush, what I hope to leave you with is the notion that creative organizations are the result of the interplay of a supporting culture, focused leaders and individuals with the skills to create. Remove one of these elements and your chances of reaping the rewards of creativity are diminished.
Betting the farm on one BIG innovation is a risky strategy. Having a number of ideas in cultivation and then carefully weeding them out has a higher chance of yielding something of import. These experiments start small with the goal of learning fast. Those with promise move to the next stage. Those that don’t are abandoned in methodical ways, without fanfare or angst. And more take their place.
For example: a national retailer in big malls requires each store to conduct an “experiment” each month by dedicating a certain amount of display space to new merchandise. Sales are tracked and customer reaction quantified. Promising new ideas are pursued; less promising experiments are abandoned.
By the time something is launched nationally, it is tested and proven. And every month, thousands of new experiments are happening – all in the course of day to day business.
Buffer those experiments
By its nature, innovation has none of the conditions it needs to flourish in most production environments. The demands of the current customers will always divert focus on what future customers might want. So innovation savvy organizations often create a buffer between the “day to day operations” and the “build the future” operations (or experiments).
As described in The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen, organizations often create separate divisions or operating units to bring new products and services to market. Even without a separate area, cultures of innovation recognize that experimenting is NOT efficient, predictable or a failsafe endeavor. That knowledge enables them to create different conditions for experimentation.
For many in large organizations, a failure is seen as a lacking on the part of the individual. Not enough smarts, analysis, leadership, or execution ability. In innovative organizations, failure is seen as a necessary step in getting to something big and a grand opportunity to learn.
Rather than sweeping failures under the rug or continuing to prop up products or services that are not working merely to save face, cultures that nurture creativity extract the learning and move on. They know that the individual experiencing the failure is much better positioned to succeed the next time. That is why tech CEOs with a failure in their portfolio are hot commodities. Here is how reframing failure helped Spanx CEO Sara Blakely take two years of rejection into a billion dollar business.
Obsolete products and services by design
It is easy, but dangerous, to fall asleep at the wheel – to focus on the here and now without regard to forces that can quickly disrupt your market and customer base. The reality of today’s marketplace is that disruptive forces can come quickly and stealthily and from totally unexpected places.
So the process of intentionally obsoleting your products forces a company to continually coming up with the next iteration. In 10 years, we’ve had multiple versions of the iPhone. Some are smaller leaps than others. Yet this strategy has enabled Apple to grow sales year after year while at the same time continuing to innovate.
Separate creating from commercializing
Innovating products and services is a much different game than taking them to market. Once commercialized, an organization’s focus shifts to scaling, efficiency, increasing margins and sales. Innovators are in search of a market, a workable business model and a viable prototype. Once they have proven they have all three – innovative organizations move the production, marketing, and scaling to parts of the organization that do that best.
Leaders who Foster Creativity
Tap ideas at all levels
These leaders know that new ideas require new thinking. And, that new thinking may come from a customer, a new employee, an intern, a peer, someone in a totally different department or division or an outsider. For it is these individuals that have fresh eyes and a different perspective.
These leaders encourage and embrace discourse across functions that welcomes input and feedback. They want to know what is happening in another area that might work here. They ask about what these new eyes see that we, with jaded eyes, are missing. They know how different vantage points can be an advantage to coming up with new and better processes, services and offerings. Importantly, they are not threatened if a great idea comes from a subordinate or someone outside their span of control. In fact, they are delighted!
Be a bureaucracy barrier buster
Innovative ideas often are not the most welcome in the organization. In fact, many organizations have carefully crafted policies, procedures and protocols designed for the express purpose of protecting the organization from disruption and ensuring consistency.
Leaders must discern which of these internal defense mechanisms is a valid checkpoint and help the innovator comply. The more difficult work is to determine which of these practices is a barrier to be removed, which can be worked around and at times, which must be sidestepped. Leaders who foster innovation develop skills in navigating the internal politics and procedures, exhibit the courage to step outside the established norms and provide innovators “air cover” to focus on the their work.
Open the organization to diverse perspectives
These leaders encourage their people to “get out of the building” and to experience things well beyond their company or their industry. They support people joining groups, going to conferences, being in the community in meaningful ways to interact with people outside their normal day to day.
A simple example: the head of a manufacturing plant in my community is an avid supporter of the leadership development program we facilitate that brings emerging leaders across the community for an eight month experience. He knows the value of establishing relationships across diverse organizations and the ideas that can get sparked from getting outside your day to day in meaningful venues.
These leaders also bring the outside in. They invite speakers from a variety of disciplines. They encourage reading and exploring in broad topics.
Understand and adapt to the phases of a creative project
Innovation has stages and phases – and what it takes to lead during the ideation phase is different than what it takes to lead in the executing phase. I outlined these phases in this previous blog. Here is a simple list of where leaders focus in each stage:
For more ideas on how leaders can encourage innovation, you’ll want to read this Harvard Business Review article.
Cultivate curiosity and the ideation muscle
Innovation is a skill that can be improved with practice. Its origin is in curiosity but it materializes in ideas and new ways of approaching a situation, solving a problem or creating a product. Creative people exercise their mind just as athletes exercise their body. They keep lists of new ideas. They stretch themselves to list 100 new ways to do something. They connect divergent ideas to see what happens. They school themselves in the ways that foster creativity and develop a habit of creative thinking.
At least that’s how it appears to those with a strict Puritan work ethic. They day dream. They play. They tinker. They wander. They think. All of which does not seem like “work” by the strictest definition. But it is indeed the work of a creative mind. For when the mind is relaxed and playful is exactly when inspiration strikes. Remember Newton sitting under the apple tree?
Ask big questions
Innovative people are great at asking big questions. Provocative questions. What if questions. Questions open us to possibility. They cause us to reach deep for our thoughts and can reframe situations. So my question to you is this: What is the biggest idea you’ve had in the last two days?
If you are wanting to create new products or services for people, you must know people. There is no better way to know them than to observe them. For what people say is different than what they do, so if you are creating a new way to help people exercise – keenly observe the people you are designing for. In their natural element. At the gym and on the couch. Begin to see what motivates them. How they go about it. What gets in their way.
This IBM article on design thinking describes it well. In their words: Observing is immersing yourself in the real world in order to know users, uncover needs, understand context and listen for feedback
Innovation is just plain hard work (except perhaps for the goofing around part). Once that creative idea gets ahold of you and you feel the compulsion to move from idea to execution – you face a long and arduous journey.
There will be false starts. You’ll fail again and again. A few might love your idea but many more will not. This is truly the hero’s journey – for there will be much wandering in the wilderness. As much as we’d like to believe the fairy tale of instant success, the non-fiction version of innovation is messier, harder, longer, and more work than you ever imagined.
For more ideas on how to be more individually creative, you can read this article from the Huffington Post.
A reminder of the key point – creative and innovative organizations don’t “just happen”. They are a result of the interplay and conscious nurturing of culture, leadership and individual capability. When all three work in concert, innovation thrives.
Want to learn more about bringing leadership and creativity to you organization? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.