The Innovation Imperative: Four Things to Foster Innovation in Organizations

This post is an adaptation of remarks given at the International Pet Food Forum at an event hosted by Diana Pet Food

The forces of change surround us and are unrelenting. Back in 1965, Moore predicted that computing power would exponentially increase. Almost 60 years later that still holds true. Fiber optics allow us to move data at amazing speeds and the cost of storage has plummeted from a cool $300K for 1 gig in 1980, to virtually free today. In addition to the accelerating power of the internet, we see an explosion in the speed of change. It may be driven by technology but it touches all that we do.

So we find ourselves in an environment in which disruption is the steady state. All you must do is flip through your smart phone to see the casualties. Go to a movie theater? No just stream it. Buy a video camera? No thanks – I have my phone. Buy a flashlight for an emergency? Nope, just have your phone handy. If you were a flashlight manufacturer not that long ago, would you have guessed that AT&T and Apple were going to be competitive threats?

This it is NOT business as usual.

Examples abound. We know that 88% of the companies on the Fortune 500 list in 1955 no longer exist today: Blockbuster, Kodak, Borders, Sears (Sear’s Tower – the original mail order biz), Blackberry and more. 50 years ago, if you made it onto the Fortune 500 list, you were likely to stay there for 75 years. Now the average duration is 15 years and declining. And the big players today – Google, Uber and Facebook are barely teenagers in a human lifespan, yet they dominate.

The differentiator – an imperative to INNOVATE.

A quick look at Fast Companies Most Innovative Companies of 201list tells the tale.  The most innovative companies are also disproportionately the most profitable, the fastest growing, and the most likely to bump out a longstanding company from the Fortune 500 list. Leading the pack: Apple, followed by Netflix, Square, Amazon, Patagonia, CVS and Spotify. Certainly an interesting mix – with one common denominator: innovation as a core competency.

Today the race is being won by those who can rethink the market, ride these forces of exponential change – and create something nimble, agile, and adaptable. And in today’s world – that equates to sustainability. Blockbuster went bust – but Netflix is killing it. Borders is boarded up- but Amazon, which started as a book seller, now allows anyone to set up a storefront and sell virtually anything. Amazon Web Services, which grew out of the company’s own e-commerce infrastructure needs, has become a $13 billion business.

In the Industrial Era, organizations of the late 1800’s  through the 20th century, bigger was better. Stability was key. Companies competed by sheer size – the goal was to crush their competition. Bureaucracy flourished. Org charts calcified the organization into neat little boxes and standardization, consistency and minimizing disruption were the primary focus.

And now, here we are. In an entirely new world. We are in an age where our industrial era organizations simply don’t work. Where we need new models, new skills and new ways of working. Where small and nimble is a competitive advantage. Where tried and true products are passé. Where speed matters. Where it’s imperative to innovate.

Now, innovation is a HUGE topic – and a deep one. So for this post I’d like to share with you four ways organizations are fostering innovation.

Top performing organizations in the 21st century:

  • Treat innovation as a business process
  • Foster the skill of creativity
  • Connect with their customers
  •  Collaborate

Each of these are big topics, so for the sake of brevity I’ll provide a brief description and some questions to consider for each.

Innovation as a Business Process.

There is a process to innovation, in spite of the belief by some that innovating is a “loosey goosey” thing somebody does in R&D. Just ask IDEO. Smart companies know the process and incorporate it into all the other processes we know so well: Finance, Accounting, HR, Sales…  Innovation is not isolated nor the sole function of the forgotten folks in R&D. It is embedded in the organization, provided resources and a path from innovation to production.

We can no longer afford to sort the world into the “business types” (think rational, linear, predictable) and the “creatives” (think intuitive, edgy, and free flowing). Innovative companies don’t exhort their employees to innovate; they have structures in place, resources identified, and processes to follow. Just as accounting, HR, engineering and operations are defined – so can innovation.

You might ask:

  • Where does innovation happen in your company (if at all)?
  • Are there dedicated resources for innovation?
  • Who is your company is charged to innovate?
  • What was the last innovation your company implemented?
  • What is in your innovation pipeline?


It took me 5 long years to get my MBA at the Krannert School of Management. I spent 14 years in a Fortune 200 company. And at no time in no way did the notion of creating something important in business get much attention. It was not taught, even though it is a process that can be taught. It was not encouraged, measured, or rewarded.

I think that we’d all agree that the many business geniuses are terribly creative – from Henry Ford to Steve Jobs to Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos. Our problem is not embracing creativity at the top. The problem is that we’ve driven creativity out of the middle ranks by such a strong focus on left-brained business management. Management by the numbers and a sole focus on short-term financials. We’re out of balance. We need to find ways to balance the creative with the effective management – and do it quickly.

We need to think of creativity as a business skill needed throughout the organization. Skills that are used every day by everyone, not just at the top. Not just when we are in crisis. Not just the folks in the R&D department. We need to learn the process of creating and create organizational structures that foster creativity. Period.

You might ask:

  • Who is charged to be creative in your organization?
  • Are the skills of creativity seen as a core competency? Taught? Supported?
  • What happens when creative ideas emerge?
  • Are there process in place to:
    • Generate many ideas, rather than a few
    • Test those ideas in the market
    • Vet those ideas thoroughly
    • Move the best ideas into your day-to-day operations
  • Diversity fuels creativity. How are diverse people, ideas, cultures and perspectives encouraged?
  • Creativity requires space, time, and freedom to dream. Is your organization so focused on productivity that there is no time to create?


It seems that the more high tech we become, the more high touch we crave. One size does not fit all any longer. Consumers want personalized. They want to be understood. To be connected with on an emotional level.

In all areas of business today – connecting with those that we provide goods and services to is critical. The creativity needed in today’s business world is not random, not just “edgy” for the sake of “edginess” – but creative innovations that speak to a need. It is not creativity for the sake of creating alone – but creating based on connection with your current customers, your future customers, and perhaps customers you can’t even imagine right now.

Great questions to ask about your ability to connect include:

  • How often do you interact with the people that use your goods and services?
  • Is that time spent merely trying to sell them (or service) what you already have or is it talking and listening and observing what they need?
  • How much do you use human centered design in your organization?
  • To what extent do you focus on your WHY rather than your features and benefits?
  • People connect emotionally. To what extent do you communicate and connect emotionally as well as rationally?
  • How “whole brained” are you? Do you rely on sheer left-brain (logical/rational/linear) or also use right-brained thinking (intuitive/non-linear/emergent).


If you recall, I mentioned that competition was the order of the day in industrial era organizations. As I worked for 13 + years in a Fortune 200 company – collaboration was at best frowned upon, and most often discouraged. It was discouraged both inside and outside the organization for fear of giving up information or ideas, or perhaps enabling someone else to take advantage of us or do better than us. Go to a conference? No way – we have training inside! Invite other departments to help solve a problem? No way – it will signal that we don’t have all the answers. Collaborate with a sister division with a new customer? Unheard of – what if their numbers are better than ours.

Now in hindsight, it seems a bit ridiculous. But it was real. And it IS real. In so many of the organizations I work with, people are tightly bound into their functional “silos”. Unable to see across the company as a bigger picture. Each functional area only out for the benefit of their own. Truly the parts more important than the whole.

21st century organizations know that even if they could be self-sustaining, that doing so would take way too long and would take too many resources. They know that knowledge is growing so quickly that they can’t be an expert in it all – so they find ways to collaborate with the expertise they need.

Emerging Networks

Networks are emerging much like the way we organize ourselves – a bit messier, a lot less linear, and a whole lot more powerful. A great case study is Airbnb, who has taken collaboration to an entirely new level. Tech innovation and the power of networks has propelled Airbnb to surpass the valuation of Hilton and Hyatt COMBINED. That valuation in spite of the fact that Airbnb owns no property or real estate. Airbnb’s valuation is based on its ability to innovate, its network, and its ability to connect with people who either have space to rent or need to rent space.

Questions about Collaboration

Collaboration fuels new ideas and it requires diversity. Collaboration can share the costs and rewards of bringing new products and services to market, yet requires discarding our ego’s desire to know it all and control it all. Collaboration can provide us quick access to resources and as such, shortens the time to do something innovative. But it also requires us to leave behind some of our old thinking about competition, control and certainty.

Some questions to ponder about collaboration:

  • Are employees in your organization encouraged to interact and collaborate across functions?
  • To what extent are employees encouraged to get outside the walls of the business and forge relationships with those outside?
  • Are there strategic partners you collaborate with?
  • How much internal competition exists? Within departments? Across departments and functional units?
  • How is collaboration nurtured? Supported? Encouraged?

Responding to today’s environment requires us to think about business in a different light. Where innovation exists alongside optimization. Where business skills and thinking are a blend of left and right brained activity. Where we get comfortable with the joy of creating, the emotion of connecting, and the powerful output of networks and collaborations.

These forces of change are not abating any time soon, so we are faced with the imperative choice to innovate or to stagnate. To change or die.

I know what side I’m on!

Why Embracing Failure is the Wrong Message

Face it: Failure stinks. No one I know likes it. And even the most successful and creative people I know, don’t celebrate things that turned out poorly.

Yet a mantra that has emerged in the last five years is to “celebrate” failure. Really? Celebrate?

While I get, on some level, the reasoning to encourage people to take a risk and actually “do something” or to even possibly do “something big” – the notion of celebrating failure is not, what I believe, is in anyone’s best interest.

Working in and with organizations, I fully recognize the great extents to which people will take to avoid looking “less than” or “foolish” or “incapable”. I also fully recognize the games that are played (some with intention and some unconsciously) to garner the coveted raise or promotion and at times, survive the latest reorganization.

Anything “less than” often is hidden, buried, ignored or rationalized away. I’ve seen multi-million projects that were abject failures be allowed to linger on, all to avoid embarrassment. I’ve seen amazing amounts of money, time and effort be put into a failing project in an attempt to prop it enough to get it over the finish line, only to declare “done” and then allow it to wither away.

And so celebrating failure can then become one more excuse. One more “I only did what you were encouraging me to do” lament as performance is reviewed.

I totally understand that vibrant organizations need innovation and creativity more than ever, and that innovation and new ideas are inherent with risk. Some will make it. Most will not.

Removing Detrimental Organizational Behaviors

Given that, there are certain behaviors that are detrimental to organizational sustainability today. These include:

  • The inability to see or seek new opportunities
  • Playing it safe individual behaviors that undermine the whole
  • Only taking on small, safe, or incremental projects
  • Failing to learn quickly with feedback from initial attempts
  • Avoiding solid analysis of the results of a “less than” effort due to embarrassment

Adding Healthy Organizational Behaviors

Rather than celebrating failure, I suspect what is truly needed is a host of healthy behaviors that include:

  • Contributing new ideas, which are by design, unpolished, unproven and risky
  • The willingness to step outside comfort zones and try new things
  • The deep understanding that innovation is experimental – and that each small failure brings you closer to a success
  • Persistence in the face of obstacles
  • Transparency about what worked and what didn’t
  • Meaningful and deep learning from current misses that enables faster and better attempts in the future
  • Comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty

And so, let’s celebrate creativity and contributing new ideas. Let’s celebrate experimentation, observation and rapid learning. Let’s celebrate bold steps forward into the ambiguous unknown future. Let’s celebrate persistence and pivots and progress.

And when we fail, we celebrate picking ourselves up, reflecting on what happened, and starting anew – smarter, more resilient and more likely to succeed this time around.

Creative Organizations Do These 3 Things Well

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:

  1. A creativity nurturing culture
  2. Leaders who encourage creativity
  3. 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.

Creative Cultures

  1. Experiment often

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.

  1. 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.

  1. Reframe failure

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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

  1. 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!

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Creative Employees

  1. 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.

  1. Goof around.

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?

  1. 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?

  1. People watch

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

  1. Persist

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


Five Mistaken Assumptions Business People Have about Creativity and Innovation

Continuing on with my exploration of creativity and innovation in the “workplace”, let me share some common myths I encounter as I talk about creativity in the business world and the role of leaders as creators. The notion clearly is dissonant to many who hold the prevailing belief that work is work and creativity is play or at best only for the arts. As I peel back what underlies this notion that creativity and business are integrated rather than disparate.

Here are some of the common beliefs that block creativity from business that are well worth a critical examination.

  1. Creative types are different than business types.

Stereotypes abound. On all fronts.

We stereotype innovators with beliefs like: Creators are free spirits and undisciplined. They only work when they feel like it. They are only in the arts, like musicians, artists and authors.

We also have stereotypes about business types: They are Type A. They are only analytical and never intuitive. They are focused solely on productivity and work hard. Creativity is not important for them.

Here is the reality.

  • Innovators have an amazing amount of discipline and focus.
  • Some of the best business people are extraordinary innovators (think Jobs, Disney, Bezos, Musk)
  • Innovators balance creativity and focused execution. So do the best business people I know.
  1. Innovation requires a really big idea that dramatically changes everything.

We tend to be captivated by the exceptional. And yes, every once in a while there is someone with a really big and new idea. And much more often, there are many who innovate incrementally. Making something just a bit better. Who find a way to provide better customer service, enhance an existing product or service, find a way to add value in new ways or to streamline an internal process.

Incremental innovation lowers the bar in which it makes creativity accessible to us mere mortals. It mimics evolution – small changes over time. Incremental innovation has taken us from land lines to smart phones. It has taken us from bicycles to Teslas. It requires only that we find one way to improve or a way in which we can combine two disparate ideas into a new one. I can do that, you can do that. In fact, we do that all the time in business and call it continuous improvement.

  1. Creative people bat 1000.

My father had an apt observation. He would often say that the difference between an amateur photographer and a professional is that the amateur takes one picture and expects it to be excellent while the professional takes 100 and hopes there is one good one. Innovators and creators know that it takes two things: practice and production. No one gets good at anything without years of practice and along that path there are plenty of failed or less than stellar attempts. And even when proficient; innovators know that most of their ideas will come to nothing. But they know that it is from the process of producing many that the valuable one emerges.

The lesson for business is to find space for experimentation. Where the best output of an effort is getting smarter. Where progress, not perfection is the aim.

  1. You can create at will.

You can’t. Inspiration comes and inspiration goes. However, that does not mean that you don’t keep at the task at hand. I’ve studied the habits of the innovators I admire and they share a commonality – a strong work ethic. No matter if they are feeling particularly inspired or not, they show up and do the work. Hour after hour. Day after day. Some days are magic. Others are not. None the less, they continue on.

That being said, there are some things we know about fostering creativity and innovation. Our brains and bodies are most creative when we are well rested. Innovative ideas tend to surface when are minds are relaxed. Putting ourselves in certain environments often spark new connections and ideas. These include:

  • Places of reflection (think nature)
  • Places of beauty (think art museums or beautiful gardens)
  • Places that are unfamiliar (think travel)
  • Places of play (think time with a 5 year old)
  1. Getting the idea is the hard part; after that it’s easy.

Ideation is only the first step of the creative process. And for some it is very hard. And for others it is very easy. Either way, it is only the first step. A critical one, no doubt, as there are great ideas and there are not so great ideas. Some are lower risk; other higher. Some have marketability; others don’t. Some come at just the right time; others miss altogether.

Innovation is actually a multiple step process. Six by my count:

  1. Ideation
  2. Exploration & Testing
  3. Prototyping
  4. Executing
  5. Refining
  6. Completion

Each step along the way has its joys and its challenges.

  • It’s great fun to share your idea and it stinks to have it shot down by others
  • Putting together an implementation plan feels good, but it is easy to be overwhelmed at all it will take to make the idea a reality
  • Executing and doing the work moves your idea forward, but is just old plain hard work. And work that, in this moment, is fraught with uncertainty.
  • And after all that hard work, your innovation hits the intended audience. And guaranteed that changes will be in order. Back to the drawing board!
  • As surprising as it may seem, completion may indeed be the hardest step. For you must let go of improving, of adding, of tweaking. You must overcome your vulnerability to share your creation with the world. You must implement the process, ship the product or offer the new service – all without totally knowing if you have a hit or a miss.

I hope that I’ve not deterred you from the path of integrating more creativity and innovation in business. For without it, your organization’s sustainability is at risk. It is not an easy path, but one that can yield great results for the effort.

Why Innovation Matters to Organizations

I often quip that back in 2006 the makers of flashlights were highly unlikely to be discussing their response to the competitive threat that the phone company was to their business. Who would have thought that in a few years just about everyone would have a flashlight with them almost every moment of every day?

Funny, but true. A quick scroll through your phone and the list of casualties wrought by smart phones is amazing. In a few short years, smart phones and apps have been a major disruption (if not a death knell) to photography (still and video), books, games, movies, big box stores, restaurants, newspapers, computers, and music. Smart phones have changed how we sell, how we buy, how we connect, how we collaborate and how we do business.

And the smart phone is only one of the disruptive forces businesses face today. Add to the list the increase in computing power, the dramatic drop on the cost of storage, the advent of big data, increasingly faster data transmission speeds, the internet of things and the connection of people across the globe via the World Wide Web.

Clearly it is not business as usual. Nor will things be more stable, more predictable or easier to anticipate, respond to, or manage any time soon.

Innovation in Organizations

In the not so distant past, organizations had the luxury of having most of their workforce focused on the core business and a few odd balls tinkering around in R&D. The CEO and perhaps a few in C suite would the external scanners, discerning both threats and opportunities.


I suspect that those of us who have worked in a large, stable, successful company have hit the wall when suggesting an innovation, for there are many internal processes designed to protect the status quo and to successfully fend off new ideas or ways of doing things.

Today’s environment requires more. More outside intelligence. More ideas. More innovation. More speed. More willingness to try new approaches.

A quick look at Fast Companies Most Innovative Companies of 2017 list tells the tale.  The most innovative companies are also disproportionately the most profitable, the fastest growing and the most likely to bump out a longstanding company from the Fortune 500 list. Only 12% of the companies that were in the top 500 in 1955 still remained on the list in 2016. And these were the behemoths – to “too big to fail” kind of companies.

Tech innovation and the power of networks has propelled Airbnb to surpass the valuation of Hilton and Hyatt COMBINED. That valuation in spite of the fact that Airbnb owns no property or real estate. What they do have is a network, technology and the ability to innovate in a space that has been dominated with a very different business model.

In an age where your longstanding business can be disrupted by a novel way to approach the market with a new business model and tech start up – innovation must be cultivated and embraced on the inside. Having more people who can rethink the business, the market, your produces and services, your delivery channels, and your internal processes is a competitive advantage. In fact, it may be a survival strategy.

As such, I’m going to do a series of posts on the creative process INSIDE organizations. Stay tuned!

I’m hoping you’ll share your thoughts and insights as I do. For one of the hallmarks of innovation is the importance of many voices and multiple viewpoints!

10 Ways to Flex and Grow Your Innovation Potential      

Are you an innovator? Chances are, you’ll reply NO quickly and emphatically. Innovators, you think, invent complicated things – like iPhones or driverless cars or drones. Or they toil for years to find that next big breakthrough in science, finding that previously unknown virus or a cure for a disease. Or you think innovation is about inventing things – rather than ideas, processes, and social advancement. And you probably think big: Madame Curie, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Jeff Bezos, and the like.

But I think each of us, as a member of the human species, has the potential to innovate. To find novel solutions to current problems. To find new ways to skin a cat (although I have no earthly idea why anyone would want to skin a cat).

microwaveThe person that figured out how to fit two things into a small microwave is an innovator.

iphone speakerAs is the person who figured out how to use a toilet paper roll to make an iPhone speaker.


In their book and HBR articles on The Innovator’s DNA, Jeffrey Dyer, Hal Gregersen and Clayton Christensen list five “discovery” skills that innovative entrepreneurs have. They include:

  1. Associating: putting together disparate ideas – like toilet paper rolls, iPhones and speakers. Or, asking “How is thing #1 like thing #2?”,  even though they seem to have absolutely nothing in common. Or how can we apply what we know about this phenomenon to a totally new setting?
  2. Questioning: asking provocative, interesting questions that open our thinking (rather than judge or close our minds). Questions like “What if?” or “If there were no limitations, what might we do?” or “What would it look like if…” or “Why not?”
  3. Observing: careful watching of humans and their behaviors, often at the micro-level. How do 6-year olds think about this? How do our eyes track across a screen? What shortcuts are others taking – and how might we capitalize on that? What problems are others encountering and how might we solve them?
  4. Experimenting: rather than science labs and white coats – think of tinkering, playing around, getting out of your comfort zone, trying new things – just to see what works, what doesn’t and what you learn.
  5. Networking: not with folks like you, but with folks NOT like you. At conferences, TED talks, universities, church, school, your neighborhood, other countries, other places.

I hope you can see the amplification effect of these elements. If you are networking with someone outside your normal circle and asking good questions and observing – you have ratcheted up your innovation potential. Ask great questions that force associations and then test them and observe what happens – VIOLA – a thought breakthrough.

If you’d like to grow and flex your innovation muscles, you might consider doing one or more of the following:

  1. Join a new group or association.
  2. Sponsor a foreign exchange student.
  3. Travel somewhere new.
  4. Sit in a public place (mall, park, airport) and just observe.
  5. Go to where your customers are and observe them use your product or service.
  6. Create a bank of good questions and ask one a day. (for a jumpstart go here)
  7. Learn a new skill.
  8. Create list of frustrations in your daily world and find 3 solutions for each. They don’t have to be doable or possible – just solutions.
  9. Start an idea journal – jot down ideas, thoughts and “what ifs.”
  10. Hang out with kids. Read kid’s books – like Suess and Shel Silverstein. Laugh. Giggle. Play.

I’d love to get our list to 50! What do you do to spark creativity and innovation?

The Problem with Problem Solving

My husband Dan is the penultimate problem solver. A mechanical engineer by trade, he can fix just about anything. He reads the manuals. Studies the problem carefully. Troubleshoots thoroughly. Is persistent beyond belief.

I, on the other hand, am a creator. I see possibilities. I am infuriatingly curious. I ask interesting questions. I look at things in new ways. I propose more silly suggestions than practical ones, but out of the mass of ideas usually comes the one that is just what is needed.

Together we make a pretty good pair. As standalones – we don’t. I get frustrated and give up on problems that have a solution. He gets frustrated and begins to swear at problems that require creativity.

Our western society values, shapes, and rewards lots of people to think like Dan. Our organizations are filled with technicians, with folks who are really good at using the left side of their brain. As such, we have deep talent in planning, troubleshooting and problem solving.

There is far less emphasis on that other side of our brain – the creative, holistic, innovative, integrated side. And as such, we have less talent, focus, or training in how to create or innovate. We see art and science as two dramatically different things. We hero-worship creativity in the entertainment industry but squelch it in business and industry. We covet math and science teachers, and cut the arts.

Make no mistake, problem solving has a valuable place in the world. We fall in the trap, however, of not being aware of when problem solving won’t solve our problems. And even if we do recognize that we need something different, we are disinclined and ill-equipped to move to using that “other side” of our brain.

Problem solving works great if there is a solution. Is awesome for technical problems. Is wonderful if what you had before needs a tune-up and not an overhaul. However, it does not work at all for situations which have no immediate fix, for which there is not a known solution and that requires new fresh thinking.

The problem is that today, we are facing situations that have no known solutions. That are complex beyond belief. That beg for new approaches. Bob Johansen, from the Institute for the Future and collaborator with the Center for Creative Leadership, has a word for today’s world of disruptive change: VUCA. We live in a world filled with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. This is exactly the type of environment that requires creating rather than problem solving.

Problem solving is looking back; creating is looking forward. Problem solving is fixing; creating is building. Problem solving tends to marginally improve the status quo, creating has the potential to create a dramatically new and better reality. Steve Jobs and the Apple products are great examples of not merely improving a known commodity – but of radically creating a new product and experience. Walt Disney did the same with family entertainment.

I’m not advocating that we abandon problem solving. But I am certain that we need to get better at learning how to create, and knowing when we need to use those skills – in lieu of problem solving.

Problem Solve When: Create / Innovate When:
• You have a technical issues with a known solution • You face complex, ambiguous and new situations
• It has worked in the past and that you want to continue to have work in the future • What has worked in the past clearly no longer fits the current situation and you want something different>/td>
• You are dealing with mechanical or process problems • You are dealing with groups of people or interdependent systems
• Your goal is to patch and repair • Your goal is to envision and build
• You want to manage what was working • You want to lead to a new and better place
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