Does Your Company Innovate Like Dunder Mifflin or Google?
I’m privy to all kinds of cultural change programs in my work as a coach, and behind nearly every one is the aspiration to infuse innovation into the organization. Companies know they will wither without sustained creativity, and a cadre of leaders with the agility to dive into change and keep swimming.
A study conducted by IBM asked 1500 CEOs to name their most important leadership characteristics. Creativity was ranked higher than integrity, intelligence, and a global mindset.
Yet, in most companies, there’s still a wide chasm between this ideal and the reality of daily work. There’s a reason satires like The Office strike a chord. Most of have at least some Dunder Mifflin in our days.
The more ingrained the culture, the harder it is to shift behaviors. Consider culture like a web. If you move one strand, others will join to hold the form.
Even companies known for innovation can find it challenging to maintain. As this recent article in The Washington Post highlights, while Apple’s sales figures still make other companies salivate, it’s struggling to live up to its own history. Apple’s products have revolutionized our relationship with technology, but there’s a limit to the Steve Jobs legacy. The company now needs employees to come up with entirely new concepts that could be the root of more innovative inventions.
Unfortunately, creativity doesn’t come from desire or proclamation. Innovation is bred one person at a time, through individual managers. Even with the most inspiring cultural change initiatives, success comes down to the people and the decisions they make.
For leaders, this is heavy lifting. How can you promote creativity in your company? And, once you’ve established a creative environment, how can you keep the ideas and innovation flowing? Here’s what I’m seeing companies do:
1. Hire creatively. Although everyone has creative potential, some people are intrinsically drawn to develop and innovate. If you want more innovation in your organization, when hiring new employees, make creative thinking a top job requirement.
Start by using creative thinking exercises in interviews, a la Google, even for roles like finance or sales. Assessments like StrengthsFinder measure traits like ideation and creativity, and are easy to administer. Also have your most creative people interview candidates. Like minded people will be better able to see the same qualities in each other, and aid in recruitment.
2. Instill a creative environment. To bring out the creativity in your employees – or to inspire your already creative employees — you have to go beyond basic ideas like communal brainstorming sessions. Put skin in the game by expecting innovation, and tying it to performance goals. Publicly reward those who take risks or challenge the status quo. Openly encourage new ideas and ways of thinking.
One client of mine does regular cross-functional teaming sessions where he gives project groups a compressed time period — anywhere from one day to one month — to solve a vexing corporate issue. Google’s practice of letting employees work on any project of their choosing for 20 percent of their time is legendary for developing new products like Gmail and Google News.
It’s a point well taken. Last year, Apple rolled out its own version.
3. Allow disagreements and failure. Fear of retribution will smash innovation. New ideas get better with each iteration. That means the culture must support disagreements, half-baked concepts, and even failure. Otherwise, employees will never take risks. Patrick Maggitti, Dean of the Villanova School of Business, sums it up this way, “creativity requires a culture that respects effort and failure, so ideas and inspiration flow freely.”
4. Change your perception. As Stanford Professor and leadership scholar Robert Sutton says, “managing for innovation often means shifting your traditional, rational approaches to hiring, management, and risk 180 degrees.” While most companies make efficiency a top priority, creativity is often fostered by doing things that seem to be the exact opposite of efficient.
Be open to projects that seem unconventional. It wasn’t that long ago that companies kept a tight clamp on vacation days and doled out time off like a precious resource. Now, it’s becoming increasingly popular for companies to offer unlimited vacation. Giving employees more vacation days or allowing them to take breaks during a project may seem like major losses of time, but studies show these strategies can increase employee productivity and alertness.
5. Expect innovation to be in every individual. Creativity doesn’t come with a specific job title. If you stress the expectation that everyone must innovate from where they stand, you can create change top down, and bottom up — and encourage innovation from the people closest to the outcome. Similar to the Pygmalion effect, people will rise or fall to our expectations. And might even surprise us along the way.
Do you have ideas for instilling a culture of innovation? Share here or @kristihedges.
Kristi Hedges is a leadership coach, speaker and author of Power of Presence: Unlock Your Potential to Influence and Engage Others. Find her at kristihedges.com and @kristihedges.
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