Monday, December 29, 2008

We just aren't very creative

There are some lies we tell ourselves that eventually we come to believe or hold as truths. An example of these is that my clothes keep shrinking, rather than I am gaining weight. Or that I was a better athlete in high school or college than I really was.

When we join corporations, we instinctively seek out and adopt the mistruths that the organization holds about itself. In many cases we know these "truths" aren't really true, but we grasp them anyway, because like the emperor with no clothes, it's easier to hold on to the lie than to buck the system.

In reality, in just about any firm there are a vast number of people who have great ideas about how to change the status quo, how to implement new processes and services, how to create great new products. The problem is that they've been told that their focus is on the quarterly result, and not on introducing new risk or new changes to the organization. Then, after a few years the management team slaps itself on the head and exclaims that no one in the organization is innovative or creative, since there have been no new or interesting ideas presented. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even the people who have great ideas are unwilling to risk presenting them, and then they get branded for a lack of contribution!

People don't lack creativity, corporations and corporate cultures do. Most organizations create significant roadblocks to creativity and innovation, and stop most change in its tracks. After a while, any employee could be forgiven for thinking that they aren't creative or innovative, since those capabilities aren't valued and are rarely if ever used. However, that does not mean that a firm and its employees aren't creative. When properly unleashed, any firm can be creative. Need proof? Let's look at accounting, one of the most conservative industries. There were a number of innovative and creative accounting techniques used by Arthur Andersen and Enron. Obviously this is an example that did not play out well for those two firms, but it demonstrates that innovation can happen in very conservative, regulated industries, as well as those we generally think of like Apple or Google.

So, the next time someone in your firm says that the folks in the firm just aren't very innovative or creative, tell them that's not true and demonstrate how creative you can be, when allowed to be. Your teams may need training and tools to fully exercise that creativity, but I can assure you there are many more ideas, and much more creativity, in any firm than is currently being exploited. It's the expectation and the culture that are holding creativity down, not the lack of capability in the people.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:41 PM 2 comments

Monday, December 22, 2008

Strength in numbers

Unless you have a thick skin, doing risky, uncertain things like innovation in an environment where change and innovation are unusual can be very difficult, especially if you are the only person who seems interested. It's difficult to innovate on your own, and difficult to buck the "status quo" of your organization.

That's why we are such enthusiastic supporters of an innovation community. In any organization, there are rule breakers, people who are constantly trying to determine how to do things differently, or how to stop doing things altogether. In any one business unit or business function, this may be no more than one or two people - across an organization, however, you may find a small, but critical mass of innovators. If you can build the structures that allow these individuals to interact, to share ideas and help each other, then you will build a team that can help your organization innovate.

Let's face it - no one wants to be the "odd duck" or the lone innovator, so often good ideas are left by the wayside because the innovators don't want to carry the burden and resist the nay-sayers by themselves. Reinforced with other like minded supporters, however, they may find it easier to push back. Additionally, they'll find other support and infrastructure - relationships they were unaware of or information and data they did not know about. They will also gain other friendships and colleagues that will support their work, and who know the right questions.

A thriving innovation community is one that has the same innovation language and culture, that meets regularly and exchanges ideas, provides a means for any participant to submit ideas or target opportunities for the rest to brainstorm and has a "location" - online if not physical - where people can meet.

Once the community starts interacting, it will be surprising how easy innovation can be. Surrounded by like-minded colleagues, an innovator may find it easier to generate and manage ideas, and his or her colleagues can help evaluate the ideas. There's no better way to get different perspectives from people you trust who share your desire for greater inspiration.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 11:13 AM 1 comments

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Communicating your innovation goals

Innovation, as we all know, is risky and creates change, hopefully for the better, in most organizations. Given that most people are knowledge workers and can apply their skills to the most pressing needs of the business, it would seem obvious that when a firm embarks on a plan to become more innovative, and to put good ideas into action on a more consistent basis, that the firm would tell its employees why innovation is important and what the firm intends to do. Working in the face of corporate cultural inertia, fear of change and increasing risks of innovation, telling people what the goals are and how they'll be accomplished seems like a logical approach. Logic be damned.

Most firms I work with do a poor job communicating their regular strategic goals to their employees, and do a spectacularly poor job of communicating the purpose and intent of innovation. What you face on one hand is the need to get people behind something that looks difficult and risky, and pulls them away from their "regular" jobs, and the lack of interest or willingness to tell people why they are innovating and to what purpose.

As a firm, we harp on consistent communication, before, during and after any innovation campaign or event. As I've noted above, innovation is already difficult because it introduces so much change - different methods of thinking, different applications of risk profiles, different roles and responsibilities - so we have to "empower" people to act in ways that are different from what is normally expected. Now, is this behavior something that is tolerated for a short time, or a long term expectation? What should people who aren't involved in the innovation team think about this new behavior? Should they cooperate with what may seem different or disruptive, or should they ignore it and assume the individuals will eventually revert to "normal" behavior?

Asking for innovation and change without developing the expectations in your organization is like asking for volunteers for a firing squad. Everyone understands the difficulty inherent in an innovation program in a larger organization, and if the management team isn't willing to commit to a consistent communication effort to set expectations and publicly support an innovation program, then innovation won't succeed, since none of the individuals on the team will stick their necks out any further than they believe is safe within the existing culture. No risk, no change equals little to no innovation.

If your management team wants real innovation, then when you build your team ask for a resource to help with consistent communication about your effort, your goals and the change necessary. Ask the senior management to sponsor the communication throughout the organization and keep up a regular drumbeat of communication about your progress and your goals. This has the possibility to change the culture and set appropriate expectations. Anything else means working against existing corporate culture and without clear goals and priorities.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 4:59 AM 1 comments