A big shout out to everyone who attended the St. Louis Business Journal’s annual Women’s Conference today! I had a great time hearing all the speakers, and having the opportunity to present on infusing the workplace with creativity and innovation. I’ll be posting my slides here over the weekend, so check back if you are interested!
Innovation thrives in environments that allow for and nurture curiosity. Curiosity is a critical ingredient for any culture of innovation, and it includes being curious about what your neighbor does, what another department does, what your clients do, and what’s going on in the world.
Being curious takes time out of the day to explore, to ask questions, to understand things that are foreign. If you are in a position to do so, are you providing the time and space for your employees to be curious? Are you on the lookout for those people who are naturally curious, and are you fostering that in them? Are you personally figuring out how to make the time to understand things that are outside of your immediate perspective? We are all accountable for being personally curious, and those of us who have the opportunity to nurture that in others need to do so whenever possible.
Curiosity = innovation. It’s that simple.
Innovation, going back to Terwiesch and Ulrich (2010), is “a new match between a need and a solution”. In ways that are often comical to the casual observer and tragic to the people caught in the middle of it, that match often requires an onerous “stage gate” process through which the life and spirit of the innovation is sucked dry. Management types will argue vehemently in favor of these processes, pointing to failures avoided, disaster averted. They do have some merit, especially when they are used to help build out and encourage an idea forward. But too often they are focused on proving why something won’t work, rather than why it will, and humans have an uncanny knack for proving themselves right. If you have an innovation lifecycle, re-examine it for purpose. Is it structured for success or failure? Is it designed to “stress test” or to “reinforce” an idea in the early stages? If you move too quickly to the stress test, you run the risk of shutting down great ideas before they have time to stabilize and grow.
Tom Fishburne did the process justice with his cartoon, licensed to share below:
A friend asked me yesterday what I thought would be the lasting inventions of our generation – what would bump something like the Alphabet off of the to 50 greatest breakthroughs of all time? I was surprised that what came to mind for me were brands more than products. Google, Facebook, Twitter, even Apple, invented in the 70s, was reinvented in the 2000s. I wonder if that’s a growing trend – that brands themselves are the innovation, and the products they spin out are cloaked in the mystic of the brand in ways that make them indistinguishable. We won’t know for another 50 years or so, but it will be interesting to see what happens then!
Breakthrough ideas have been happening since long before the first management book was written. In fact, the alphabet used to write said books, as well as the printing processes, fonts, and technology used to produce them, are all the result of a breakthrough idea making it to a viable market.
The Atlantic recently published the 50 greatest breakthroughs of all time , an article by Jim Fallows that looks at all of the ways in which our worlds have been shaped by invention. To me, it was fascinating to realize that of the 50, which range from the alphabet to paper money to steam combustion engines to television, none of them came about in the last 35 years. In fact, only three of them are attributed to the 60s and 70s (the Internet, the personal computer, and the birth control pill). Maybe that’s just context – in another 50 years, some of our generation’s greatest thinking will bump something off the list – one can only hope! But still, it makes me wonder, have we muscled innovation out of the workplace because a fanatical focus on efficiency and process?
Creativity and innovation both sound pretty good, and a lot of people report that their work environments are sadly lacking in both. I think in truth, most people use the terms interchangeably, and that’s completely fine.
There are, however, some different definitions that might be interesting to consider. In management science, which is behind most MBA programs, talk about creativity, they are generally referring to the right-brain, colors, shapes, music types – artists, musicians, and let’s face it, those people over in Marketing….. Creativity is about an environment that fosters the right brain thinkers and is generally more open, fluid, and colorful than most traditional workplaces. Innovation is more about process – taking creative ideas and putting them into action. Terwiesch and Ulrich (2010) define innovation as “a new match between a need and a solution” – it is about the matchmaking more than about the dreaming up of something new and different.
In social science, the definitions are actually often the opposite. Innovation is about the spark, the idea generation, and creativity is about how you take that idea and put it into action. Maybe that’s because without the discipline of management, it seems like only someone who is very creative could figure out how to turn something into action.
However you define it, there are two important forces at play – one that opens the brain up to thinking differently about the world and can conceive of new patterns, relationships, and thoughts, and another that matches those dreams to the reality of the workplace and how to effect change for employees or customers by delivering on an idea. Over the next week or so, we’ll talk about both, using the traditional management science perspective that creativity is about ‘the spark’ and innovation is about ‘the action’.
I’ve talked here before about how many people claim to want creativity and innovation in the workplace, when what they really want are the outcomes – clever, satisfying solutions to persistent problems or cool new gadgets to sell. I do believe that creativity and innovation have a place in the workplace, but we need to be thoughtful about how we create a place where that can happen.
I’ll be presenting at the St. Louis Business Journal’s annual conference at the end of the month on this topic, and I thought I’d start a few posts about it to get the thinking going. Stay tuned for more!
There’s been a lot of discussion about NetGen, or the Millinials, but to me, the defining characteristic of today’s generation is transparency. Kids are growing up in an environment where everything they do and say is shared with broad audiences, and where digital archives are an accepted part of life. People in their 20s and 30s have spent the majority of their work lives in a digital world, where easy replication of once sensitive information is commonplace. Perspectives on what is private and what is OK to share are changing rapidly.
Transparency has some wonderful results – once taboo sujects like abuse, rape, hazing, government overreach, and workplace dangers are brought out of the shadows and into the national conversation, helping survivors to heal and assisting in the prevention of such behaviors going forward. In the workplace, sharing ideas, solutions, and having broader, more open conversations help drive creative solutions. Collaboration requires transparency and authenticity to be successful, and learning to work in a transparent world is a critical skill.
But transparency also introduces new problems for society to understand and address. Intrusions on privacy, protecting corporate practices and intellectual property, and respecting individual boundaries are all areas that start to shift when transparency is more accepted. What is private, the perceived need to protect, the value of sharing, and where exactly individual boundaries lie are all changing, and management approaches, policies, and social contracts need to keep up.
If your workplace isn’t thinking about the impact of changing social mores around transparency, now is the time to start. Try these three questions to get the conversation going, and see what happens then. Keep in mind that assumptions are usually driven by people with more tenure, and may be hard to surface if you don’t really dig deep.
- What are current assumptions about what is confidential and what isn’t?
- Are those assumptions really reflecting current behaviors and common understanding?
- If not, do you need to update the assumptions or address the behaviors?
Once a company moves out of start up mode and into major operations, it is easy to become cemented into ways of doing things, ways of thinking, and ways of reacting that slow down even the coolest, fastest, most innovative companies. Many entrepreneurs take intentional steps to try to prevent it, but the inertia is tough to fight.
Growing but staying nimble is a constant balancing act for companies because being nimble means taking risks, and growth means you have more to lose. It requires having a culture that can absorb and respond quickly from a common core foundation, which is easy to say….. tough to do.
Adam Bryant’s new book Quick and Nimble is reflected in a New York Times article today, and highlights some of the key ways leaders and managers try to maintain that balance through strong cultural commitments. He shares some of the lessons learned in his research of companies grappling with this kind of challenge – check it out for a good read.