Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Can you "can" innovation?

In one of the most poorly worded but insightful statements I've seen in quite a while, the CEO of 3M was recently recorded as saying

Everybody wants to find out how to can creativity. You can't. Creativity comes from freedom, not control. We let all the people in the R&D community spend 15% of their time researching whatever they like

As we've discussed here before, there are a number of things you can do to make innovation more process-driven, understandable and predictable.  But there are also portions of the process that are simply based on insights, creativity, connecting seemingly different concepts and just pure accidental insight that can't be dictated or managed.  He's right, a firm can't "can" creativity, but can create the space for creativity to happen.  This is the difference between "managing" innovation and "managing for innovation".

Firms that attempt to "manage" innovation or creativity create very specific goals and treat the entire activity as if it can be a well-planned event.  Tuesdays, we have sudden flashes of insight.  Wednesdays, we ideate.  Thursdays, we prototype.  If only it were that simple.  No, just as the rest of his quote implies, we need to create the space and opportunity for insights and creativity to happen, then provide a mechanism to move those insights quickly through an innovation process.

Creativity comes from "freedom not control".  Absolutely.  You can see that in almost any activity in human endeavor, whether the focus is on governments - not much creativity and innovation in, say, Myanmar, for example as compared to Finland, or new product development.  The more control we place on creativity, the more we try to contain it, direct it and place it in a box, the less creativity we get.

What this means for most firms that seek innovation is that we have to be tolerant of the aspects of life that promote creativity.  This means we need to create opportunities for our teams to have different experiences - to interact with customers or to become a customer.  To try to eliminate our product entirely, or as the article suggests, find ways to quadruple production or make the product at one-tenth its cost.  We need to promote interaction with academics and business partners.  We need to encourage networking and the combination of products and services with our own that most people within the firm would reject.

In other words, creativity and insights are more likely to happen in situations that are exactly the opposite of what most businesses reinforce and expect.  And then they wonder why it is so hard to generate really interesting new ideas.

Yes, there's a risk with all this new freedom.  Some people will take advantage of the freedom and use the time to goof off, rather than put the time to creating connections and networks.  On the other hand, many people will blossom with this freedom and create new concepts that become new products and services.  If your systems and management is too rigid, finding people who will follow orders and execute efficiently won't be a problem, but innovating will be.  Striking the right balance between executional excellence and creative freedom is vitally important for successful innovators.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:54 AM


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