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Cartoon: Probably the least creative spot in the universe - the office desk 

A Dozen Ingredients for a Culture of Innovation

Jeffrey Baumgartner

No matter how much you invest in suggestion software, innovation consultants and brainstorm sessions, if your company lacks a culture of innovation, your investment will come to naught. If your corporate environment does not welcome original thinking and the realisation of the resulting ideas, people simply will not waste their time developing original ideas.

If your company does not have a culture of innovation, panic not. This article will detail precisely what you need to do. If you have a culture of innovation, but it's not working, think of this article as a practical checklist.

Definition of a Culture of Innovation

Before we go any further, let's define the term "culture of innovation". As is the case with many business terms, it is a phrase more widely used and abused than understood.

A culture of innovation encourages both creativity and implementation. People need to feel that they can share unusual ideas without fear of ridicule and thoughtless criticism. They also need to feel that their creative ideas may realistically be implemented. Both aspects are important. If you have the freedom to be creative, but believe your ideas have absolutely no chance of being implemented, there is no reason to waste time with creative ideas. On the other hand, if creativity is discouraged, you will have no original ideas to implement.

Got it? Great! Now, let's list the ingredients you need to make your culture of innovation work.

1. Top Management Buy-In

A culture of innovation has to start at the very top of an organisation. If top management do not embrace innovation, they can hardly expect their employees to do so either. If you are not top management and your firm does not have a culture of innovation, forward this article to the CEO now! Better still, replace the CEO with someone more innovation friendly. Doing so is probably the best action you can take to boost innovation.

2. Trust

Several surveys into innovation, including one by PWC earlier this millennium1, cite trust as being one of the most crucial ingredients to a culture of innovation. This is not surprising. Being creative, particularly in a corporate environment, is risky. Sharing a creative idea with your colleagues might well result in your being ridiculed. Worse, if the idea conflicts with the pet project of another employee, especially if she is your senior, it could easily get you in trouble. Even in firms that value creative ideas, there is the danger that a manager might steal your idea and present it to top management as her own in order to get credit for the idea.

Moreover, if you take your creative idea to the implementation stage, you need to feel confident that if things go wrong you will get support from management. You should also be able to quit a failing implementation project without fearing reprimand or worse.

If people trust top management, their colleagues and the firm itself, they can be more comfortable about sharing, developing and implementing ideas without fear of unpleasant consequences.

3. Priority of Innovation (Often Confused with Time)

Several surveys I have seen, including one published in Report 1032 have indicated that lack of time is a major hurdle to innovation. But a moment's thought suggests that this is nonsense. Every full time employee in Europe works at least a 35 hour week. Most work more. Americans and Japanese tend to work much more. Clearly people who say that they do not have time to innovate are wrong. They have time. But, in their firms, innovation is of a very low priority. They give priority to other tasks ahead of creative problem solving, creative thinking, experimentation and the implementation of innovative ideas.

Employees in very innovative firms do not have access to a time warp device that gives them more time in a day. Rather, their firms give innovation a top priority.

If you want a culture of innovation in your firm, creativity and innovation have to take priority over excessive reporting, PowerPoint slide making, long meetings, reading irrelevant e-mails and other tasks that take priority in non-innovative firms.

4. Freedom to Take Action

In many firms, especially large bureaucratic ones, taking action on any idea requires that you follow complex procedures, obtain multiple approvals and often undergo trial by ultra-risk-averse committees. Getting an unusual idea (most creative ideas are unusual ideas, otherwise they would have been thought up long ago) past all of these hurdles is nearly impossible.

In a culture of innovation, on the other hand, it should be easy for employees to take action on creative ideas. Of course safeguards should exist to control risk. But you do not want to avoid risk at all cost. Instead, you need to identify when an idea is not working and stop its implementation so that a new creative idea can be developed.

In a culture of innovation, employees should constantly be experimenting with new ideas and reporting on results whether negative or positive.

5. Freedom to Make Mistakes

Of course if employees have the freedom to take action (as described in point 4), they will make mistakes. In many firms, mistakes lead to consequences ranging from reprimand to dismissal. In a culture of innovation, on the other hand, employees must have the freedom to make mistakes, the opportunity to learn from them and the means to share what they have learned without fear of consequences. That said, you also want to ensure that people do not make the same mistake over and over again. Repeatedly trying old, unsuccessful ideas is not at all creative.

6. Rewarding Rather than Stifling Creative Thinking

If an employee shares with you a crazy idea that you know top management would never approve and for which you could not possibly get the budget, how do you react? Most people, of course, would immediately say to the employee: “that's crazy! Management would never approve an idea like that and we don't have the budget anyway.” But such a response is detrimental to creative thinking. It tells the idea-sharer that you won't even consider highly creative ideas.

A much better response would be to pause for a moment, think about the idea and reply: “That's brilliant! I love the fact that you are thinking creatively. But you know management will have some problems with your idea, not least of which will be budget. How might we convince management to give it a try?”

This time, you have verbally rewarded the idea sharer with a complement and, more importantly, you have given her a creative challenge to improve her idea even further. That shows respect for her thinking.

7. Freedom to Flee Your Desk

For the typical employee, the least creative place in the entire universe is her desk. Office desks tend to suck the creativity out of people. Clearly, then, if you want people to be creative, you want them to leave their desks. People need the freedom to find alternative places to think and develop ideas. They should be free to take walks in the mid-afternoon or work from their favourite coffee shops from time to time or to take a break from corporate monotony and visit an art gallery.

Giving people freedom to think freely makes it

8. Places and Opportunities to Talk

Creativity and innovation require collaboration to develop ideas and implementation plans. That means people need places they can meet up to talk, draw, play or do what they need to do to develop ideas. Conference rooms are one obvious venue, but tend to be only slightly, very slightly, more conducive to creative thinking than desks (see 7 above). Clusters of sofas and arm chairs, tables near windows, picnic tables outside and rooms designed to encourage creativity (often furnished informally and full of toys, drawing materials, craft materials and a decent espresso machine) are all good places for people to meet and collaborate. Ensure your office space not only offers these spaces, but the freedom to occupy them.

9. Places and Opportunities to Work in Isolation

While collaboration is critical for innovative thinking, people also sometimes need to be able to work in isolation, undistracted by colleagues. They may need quiet or the opportunity simply to sit and think without fear that they will look like zombies. In open plan offices where people face each other and work in crowds all day long, employees do not have the opportunity for quiet thought and meditation. If your office is an open plan one, be sure there are not only places for people to meet up, but also places for people to go in order to be alone!

10. Access to Information

In order to develop and analyse creative ideas, people need access to information. Fortunately, Google makes it easier than ever to find data. But information does not come only from web pages. Being able to call contacts in other firms, participate in web forums, attend professional events and even visit the library is important in the development of ideas.

11. Transparency

Employees should also be able to access internal information of all kinds. In a culture of innovation, the organisation should operate with maximum transparency, sharing not only ideas, but information on the evaluation and implementation of those ideas. Management should keep employees informed of new strategies, anticipated changes and more. The more employees know and understand about the operations of their firm, the better they are able to help the firm innovate. Moreover, transparency leads to trust. And we have already learned about how important that is to a culture of innovation!

12. Humour

Humour and creativity go hand in hand, particularly in the business world. In the most innovative companies, you will regularly hear people laughing. Employees share jokes and appreciate jokes. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, humour is very similar to creativity. It is about bringing together disparate concepts in unusual ways – ways that are funny in the case of humour. Secondly, if people are in a comfortable, trusting environment, they are more likely to relax and laugh. And this is important for creativity too. When people relax and joke about ideas, they become increasingly likely to come up with really crazy ideas. And every now and again, one of those really crazy ideas becomes the basis for a breakthrough innovation.

Wrap Up

There you have it. A dozen basic ingredients for a culture of innovation. Unfortunately, you cannot create a culture of innovation overnight. It takes time to build up trust, introduce new tools and processes and implement change in the way people work. But if innovation truly is important to your firm, you need to begin working on establishing a culture of innovation now.

On a positive note, this article could also have been entitled “A Dozen Descriptors of a Really Great Place in which to Work!” That's because a culture of innovation empowers creative thinkers, enables them to take pride in their work and allows them enjoy what they are doing.

Footnotes

(1) PriceWaterhouseCoopers Innovation Survey (Undated), Frank Milton

(2) “A Survey of Organisational Creativity” 2005, Wayne Morris, creativejeffrey.com Creativity & Innovation Library (PDF document)

 


A version of this article originally appeared in in the 4 April 2006 issue of Report 103.

© 2006, 2009, 2016 creativejeffrey.com

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Jeffrey Baumgartner
Bwiti bvba

Erps-Kwerps (near Leuven & Brussels) Belgium