How to build a company culture that fosters creativity and sustains innovation

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 #1”. Learning from the Japanese use of “quality circles,” 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.

How to Build a Company Culture that Fosters Creativity and Sustains Innovation 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 met 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). 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. Here are 4 techniques to unleash and nurture creativity in your company culture:

  • Ask questions to challenge assumptions (Why? What? When? Where? How often? Who? How?)
  • Stop the action and use the R’s: 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, Brain-writing and Edge Storming; 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 creativity 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.

In traditional companies most good ideas come from the top down; the value is defined by the “box” they sit in rather than the value of the insights. Here are a few examples of Rite-Solutions’ tips to develop innovation in your company culture:

  • A welcome wagon delivers flowers and fruit baskets to new employees’ families
  • Each new employee completes a “birth certificate” describing hobbies, nicknames, pets and other personal information
  • Most interesting is their stock market of ideas; any employee 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-us”) and begins trading at $10.
  • Employees signal their enthusiasm for an 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 in the corporate setting and helps for the company culture to become more diverse and sustainable. Many companies resist change and perceive the innovator as a “deviant”. 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. Great strategic leadership should aid innovation and creativity in the company culture by:

  • Creating a supportive culture (openness to challenges, trust, playfulness, humor, freed)
  • Nurturing creativity
  • Providing time and resources to convert ideas into potential innovations
  • Valuing risk-taking with “failure as noble”
  • Championing the project outside the group
  • Protecting the team with “air cover”
  • Distributing rewards and recognition

Excellent books addressing leadership challenges for growing 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 systems to encourage creativity on difficult issues? Could your company benefit from leaders who embrace a peer-advisory approach to creative problem-solving and decision-making? What systems exist to nurture innovations? How are leaders trained to foster the process? The Vistage Research Center is a great place to share experiences and best practices!  Let’s begin!

Category: Leadership

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About the Author: Jerry Cahn

Jerry Cahn, Ph.D. J.D.  chairs Vistage CEO and Trusted Advisor groups in New York, is a Vistage Workshop Speaker on a number of topics, including a new one for Vistage groups and corporate clients called “Job #1: Build a Culture that Unleash…

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  1. Julianna Graham

    September 11, 2013 at 11:11 am

    How can I contact the author?

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