A culture of creativity

A culture of creativity

Most executives will tell you they admire innovative companies, and yet many organisations do so much to stifle creativity.

It would be unusual to find a C-level executive who does not have at least a glancing admiration for companies such as Apple, Google, Amazon or Intel. All are highly successful and known for their innovative cultures. However, many organisations often act unwittingly in extinguishing the flame of creativity. Despite this, even in organisations better known as followers than leaders, it is possible for individual managers to create a fertile ideas factory within their sphere of influence. Ideas are like seeds that need fertile soil, ultra-violet light and sufficient irrigation to permit germination. Good ideas won't thrive in a hostile environment. Yet the culture in many organisations repudiates good ideas:

"Group think" operates and ideas that aren't condoned by, or haven't originated from a ruling oligarchy, have little chance of succeeding.

Immediate results are expected – yet many good ideas take time to germinate.

Tradition-steeped values preclude contribution of new ideas, for example, "We've always done it that way."

How is it possible to create an environment in which new ideas flourish? The key is establishing conditions in which people feel inspired, have certainty in knowing their ideas won't be ridiculed and confidence that some of their ideas will be implemented.

An extreme example of this philosophy is cited in the book Switch . Brasilata is a Brazilian firm specialising in steel can production. In 1985, it decided to adopt Japanese-style methods in which workers were expected to contribute ideas on improving design and production methods. This approach continues today. Employees are regarded as "inventors" and new employees sign an "innovation contract". In 2009, 165,545 ideas were received, representing an average of 181.9 ideas per employee. Ground-breaking innovations have ensued, resulting in worldwide recognition.

Consumer-oriented companies have al¬ways used market research and qualitative methods, such as focus groups, to assess products and services. Progressive organisations are now taking the democratisation of ideas a step further using Web 2.0 to seek ideas on new products. Procter & Gamble uses this approach internationally, as does Woolworths locally.

Once an idea-receptive environment is created, many techniques are available to generate ideas: brainstorming, facilitated problem-solving, innovation challenges and so on. Also, creativity-fostering software programs are available to help generate ideas.

The main emphasis in the book Getting to Innovation concerns framing the right questions to achieve appropriate outcomes. Arthur VanGundy cites an assignment in which he was challenged: "Generate some new ideas for floor-cleaning products." This was an open-ended request in which much creative energy could have been expended for little return. When the challenge is decomposed and framed around questions such as: "What do people dislike about floor-cleaning?" and, "In what ways are current floor-cleaning products ineffective?" the discovery of new ideas is made possible. Once a problem is effectively framed, group interaction provides a fast means of generating an initial set of ideas. This activity can be carried out in face-to-face meetings or online. Just as Procter & Gamble has leveraged Web 2.0 with customers, it has done the same with staff through a Facebook-like program, PeopleConnect. Accessible to 138,000 staff inter¬nationally, PeopleConnect brings together staff who may rarely, if ever, meet physically, providing professional profiles, activity streams and other means of sharing common problems, solutions and ideas.

A CIO can foster a more innovative environment in many ways:

  • Realising many good ideas emerge from the bottom up within organisations, establish channels that encourage submission of ideas specifically framed around topics such as process improvement and cost reduction. Publish metrics on ideas generated, the business unit and staff involved and publicly recognise outstanding ideas.
  • Introduce staff leadership forums in which aspiring staff from disparate backgrounds are brought together in informal circumstances (perhaps over lunch) and work to a loose agenda discussing and generating ideas around identified problems.
  • Because competition encourages creativity, consider staff idea generation challenges when seeking solutions to business or technical problems.
  • Encourage experimentation. I often ask senior IT executives how much they invest annually on R&D projects. This is a leading question, sometimes resulting in bashful answers. However, having an R&D ethos, coupled with an acceptance that some R&D initiatives are bound to fail, provides a healthy climate for innovation.
  • Be patient. Changes of the type outlined involve cultural change and this takes time.

Rob McKinnon is an adviser with IBRS. Email comments to

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