For Innovation-how to generate ideas

It has been reported recently that the famous 20% idea time through which Google encouraged employees to work on their own projects, is no longer in use.
However on further research it would seem that it is in principle still possible for Google employees to work on individual projects but the pressure of time is such that employees often end up working 120% overall.

  Why is this an important topic?business concept

  Well my take on this is that innovation, or rather creativity and idea generation which proceeds innovation, takes  time, requires commitment from the organisation and engagement from employees. Therefore it calls for a process and systems to manage the flow of ideas.

 Google were not the first company to introduce this ‘idea time’ concept. In the 50 ties 3M had an approach that  encouraged people to spend 15% of their time on new ideas.
One of the most famous results of this was the post-it which originated with Spencer Silver, a researcher at 3M, who discovered a new kind of light adhesive in 1968. This was initially shelved because it had no obvious commercial application. A decade later, his colleague Art Fry turned this product into the now famous Post-it product.

There are many examples of companies supporting and managing the generation of ideas through a variety of means.
Companies such as Texas Instruments and IBM encourage innovation through collaboration and crowdsourcing.

IBM introduced the concept of Innovation jams which provide online space for collaboration both inside IBM, and outside with clients. One example given by Liam Cleaver, VP  of the IBM Social Insight group, is of a Jam with Nato which is about building a collaborative community across the whole organisation.

Texas Instruments leads a global innovation challenge for students which involves setting competitions worldwide to encourage students to collaborate on a design  project that uses TI technology. This is a great example of utilising outside expertise and fresh ideas to push the boundaries of existing technology.

Other schemes I have come across involve funding being available for employees to develop their ideas through their own projects. This type of scheme usually demands having some justification for the funding and a sponsor or champion being allocated to support the project.  Robert Rosenfeld at Eastman Kodak developed the concept of the Office of Innovation in the 1970 ties which encouraged collaboration across functions,  the development of ideas and management of them them through a process of screening, review and sponsorship.

What is important, irrespective of the type of idea generation scheme that is introduced, is that ideas are encouraged and from as diverse a  background as possible; both fresh ideas from outside the organisation through the type of collaboration that IBM and TI encourage or ideas from your employees. This latter group interact daily with your systems, processes, products, customers etc and are in the best position to come up with new ideas, or ideas for improving upon what already exists.

The question is how will you support this?

  • As in the example of Google or 3M, will you allow people to take some time outside their normal work to try out new projects?

  • Will you both empower and encourage your employees to try out new projects?

  • Will you fund this project, or allow free access to your resources?

  • Will you provide a champion who can be a support for the new ideas?

  • Will you offer recognition to people trying out new ideas even if they fail?

  • Will you offer support for the employee in selling this new idea/project internally?

Do you already have an idea management scheme? If so I would love to hear from you how it works.

The Importance of Positivity in the Creative Process

I have written before about conditions for creativity and recently have revisited this theme. This morning I was reading a blog written on the subject of innovation and its importance for the future

This refers to a study by PwC which found that 78% of CEOs surveyed believe innovation will generate “significant” new revenue and cost reduction opportunities over the next three years.

One interesting point in this article was the mention of the importance of creating a culture around innovation. This is an area I have also written on and it brings me back to the conditions for creativity to happen. I am taking creativity here to be an important prerequisite of innovation.

We can look at conditions for creativity as an organisational issue and also as an individual issue.

Here I want to focus on individual conditions for creativity.  Jane Henry, one of the authors of the Open University Business School module, Creativity, Innovation and Change, on which I tutor, claims that the 4 Ps are important as conditions for creativity.

These are:

  • Positivity
  • Playfulness
  • Passion
  • Persistence

Today I would like to focus on the first of these Positivity, which is defined here as:

an attitude of mind, one that sees even a bad situation as an opportunity for learning rather than a failure or terrible trial; in essence positivity entails looking for and working with opportunity rather than focusing on failings and problems. This requires sufficient tolerance to accept your own and others’ failings.

For me positivity is about seeing opportunity and having hope, even when things do not look so good. The half full versus half empty example is a useful metaphor here.

When we are positive we are open and we see opportunities that when we are not being positive can be overlooked.

There is another important consideration here and this is the impact that our attitude has upon our demeanour. When we are positive we smile, we stand and walk more upright, we engage with others and we exude confidence. This impacts upon everyone we encounter–we feel confident and happy and our encounters reflect this back to us, so the feeling is enhanced. Equally the opposite can occur, when we are negative this can become a downward spiral and either way this can lead to a self fulfilling prophecy.

So what to do if inside we are not feeling positive but need to in order to face a possible opportunity. Act it out. Play at being positive, put on a smile, put on clothes that make you feel good, and then act the part. Surprisingly you will soon develop a more positive approach and it will stop being an act.

As a leader here are 5 important actions which can be taken.

  1. Encourage people to become more positive, encourage  a debate of ‘yes and’ rather than ‘yes but’
  2. Use mistakes as learning opportunities
  3. Adopt a coaching approach to empower people to think more positively
  4. Accept other ideas and encourage them to develop these
  5. Develop a climate around tolerance of others

Perhaps you can add to this list of actions for leaders?

Do you have a story to share about opportunity happening when being positive?

To Innovate or to Improve? That is the question!

One of the issues that I came across this week concerning innovation was around the question of radical versus incremental innovation. Most innovation is incremental, building upon previous ways of doing things, or improving on existing products. Very little innovation is radical, where something new is created.

So what is the value of radical innovation? In another discussion I had, it became clear to me that if there had been some blue sky thinking and radical innovation  around a product/service then it may have created a buzz in the marketplace that is currently missing. This would have allowed for key differentiation between that service and its competitors and thus improved their competitive advantage.

Two of the most influential writers/academics who have proposed radical innovation are Gary Hamel and C.K.Prahald in their book ‘Competing for the Future’.

They stipulate that to create the future a company must

‘Change in some fundamental way the rules of engagement in a long standing industry, redraw the boundaries between industries, create entirely new industries’

This requires radical transformation and not just incremental change.

How to start thinking in terms of radical innovation?

4 key questions that need to be asked are:

  • How do we want this industry to be shaped in the next five or ten years?
  • What must we do to ensure that the industry evolves in a way that is maximally advantageous for us?
  • What skills and capabilities must we begin building now if we are to occupy a leadership position?
  • How should we organise ourselves for opportunities that may not fit neatly in the current business units and divisions?

This way of thinking is what is often called blue sky thinking and it can lift peoples thinking beyond where they are now.

How do we enable people in organisations, or organisations themselves to develop this type of thinking?

One approach is to use creative thinking techniques and tools to challenge mindsets, to take risks, to envision a future that is different from the one we have now.

Here are 5 key points for thinking more radically:

  1. Dream the dreams of those who are not limited by practicalities such as time and financial constraints. You can work out how to get around these later.
  2. Never assume that something is impossible. There may be a way to do something, and every suggestion and request deserves consideration.
  3. Encourage blue sky thinking as an opportunity to challenge current ways of working.
  4. Ban negative thinking in blue sky thinking. It serves no purpose.
  5. Encourage all staff to be equally involved in any blue sky thinking and creative thinking exercises you develop.

It would be great to hear your comments and also your experiences of radical innovation.

Recruiting for a creative climate

Last week I came across a short article in the International Herald Tribune which contained an interview with Michael Lebowitz, founder and chief executive of Big Spaceship, a digital marketing and communications agency.
What I found fascinating about this company, which clearly regards creativity is its key strategic asset, were the following:

 Creativity is regarded as belonging to and the responsibility of all, not just a design or development group. Everyone in invited to brainstorm for ideas and there is an attitude that everyone has something to contribute.
 Recruitment takes this into consideration and much time is spent assessing how well people will fit in to the culture and contribute as well as being flexible to roll with other ideas.
 Finally the culture is important and there are positive steps taken to foster this creative culture. For example Friday afternoons are spent, not on client work, but on working on internal ideas after sharing a joint lunch.

This culture then takes on board some of the ideas of Ekvall around creative culture and which are being developed by the CPSB – creative climate.

There is idea time, playfulness/humour, support, risk taking, and although not explicit in this article, challenge and freedom.

The big lesson for me here is that once you get the climate right for creativity to be enabled, you have to recruit people who fit with this climate and ensure that all your processes and systems also fit.

Importance of love at work – no, not an affair between colleagues but the positive valuing and respect of one colleague to another or a leader and his or her team.

‘Love,’ in a work context could be described as  genuinely valuing the people around you, and the context you work in, so as to provide the emotional space and security for confident exploration and learning. Quoted from the MBA module Creativity and Change (Open University Business school) and referencing Charles Handy (1991).

My last blog post referred to the importance of allowing for mistakes and forgiveness. This is closely related because in order to allow mistakes to happen and to learn from them, there needs to be a climate that is secure and enables growth of the individual.

As I write this I am taken back to the importance of love in developing children into adulthood. When a young child feels secure, and only then, can they freely explore. Insecurity results in a dependency and inability to take decisions or even accept responsibility for decisions.

In the workplace I have often heard managers and leaders complain that their staff do not take any responsibility for themselves and are always looking for answers from them, the manager. When this is said, one on my first thoughts would be how secure do the employees  feel about trying something different and maybe making a mistake? A recent similar discussion took place in a seminar I was facilitating; this was around the concept of empowerment and how difficult many managers find it to empower their staff, and by doing so, giving up their control.

So coming back to the concept of love, or if this feels too uncomfortable, try ‘unconditional positive regard,’ it is important in order to enable people to grow, develop, learn from their mistakes and become more effective employees. Through this, organisations may grow and become more innovative.

What can leaders do then to create a climate in which employees feel valued, and secure in order to develop?

  • Value and respect what each person who works for you brings to their work.
  • Show appreciation of what is being done well, this means more than just thanking them, it means acknowledging what they have done and specifically how it adds value
  • Coach in a supportive way around areas where mistakes have been made
  • Encourage team building so that the team feels valued and value each other.
  • Embrace differences and value them
  • Be open to new ideas when they are presented
  • Ask for idea sharing and value what comes out

None of this comes easily to a stressed leader, however one of the reasons why leaders often get stressed is that they do not empower and share responsibility with others through delegating.

There is however another element here which is crucial and which I will address in my next blog post– trust.

A paradox in France between the concept of democracy and power to the people and the hierarchical management style that so typifies French industry.

Last week was Bastille Day in France and as I listened several times to the words of the Marsaillaise it struck me that there is a real paradox in France between the concept of democracy and power to the people which somehow these words represent and the hierarchical management style that so typifies French industry.

A recent report in les Echos

suggested that France needs more independent minded innovation in its biomedical research facilities and blames the deficiency on the rigid French education system. To quote Alain Perez and as translated by my colleague John Gaynard @ jfitzgaynard

“ An education that is too conventional is not compatible with scientific creativity, which requires imagination and non-conformity to get away from the beaten path.”

Whilst I would to some extent agree with this, I would also suggest that when a workforce is micro managed and has little freedom to come up with ideas, or to challenge existing ideas and norms then creativity and therefore innovation cannot flourish.

France as reported by Hofstede has a hierarchical approach to management (high power distance) and as a result many people report that they are micro managed with little freedom for independent thought and action.

If people are to be empowered to come up with ideas and follow these through then this high hierarchy where micro management is rife has to change. Teresa Amabile of HBS (of whom I have already written) suggests that giving people autonomy around process fosters creativity because it heightens their intrinsic motivation and sense of ownership.

So back to the paradox – in a country in which people are ready to protest and fight for their liberty and rights on a general scale, why do they accept to be managed in a way which closes down their freedom and is not motivating?