I've had the great fortune to work with dozens of great companies in my almost 20 years of consulting and even more great leaders and teams. Whether the company is doing cutting edge technology, driving social change, or revolutionizing life science, all these companies have something in common! That thing is: they find creative and innovative solutions to old problems. This creativity becomes wrapped into their products and services and their customers feel it. So what drives creativity and innovation?
1. DIVERSITY When people come together from different ages, ethnicities, genders, and personality styles a plurality of voices emerge. While this divergent thinking can create more conflict and take more ramp up time, it also forces groups to synthesize and synergize multiple viewpoints. This in turn disrupts in-the-box thinking and drives creativity and innovation.
Successful companies with wise leaders don’t stumble on a diverse workforce by accident, they intentionally assemble diverse teams. This ensures that creativity is built into the culture of the organization, and by extension their products.
Bottom Line: Divergent thinking is good and can be fostered by hiring and fostering a diverse talent pool.
2. INTERDISCIPLINARY (CROSS-FUNCTIONAL) TEAMS When an innovative organization encounters a new problem and needs an outside-the-box solution, they will often put together cross-functional teams. By bringing multiple disciplines together, individuals can stretch one another’s thinking. Customer Service can tell the Engineers about common complaints; Sales and Product Marketing can struggle through timelines and go to market strategies, each bringing a fundamentally different perspective.
While interdisciplinary teams, like other forms of diversity, may need more time to norm and manage group process, the end result can be very worth the investment. Another positive outcome may also be higher levels of teaming across business units that have previously struggled with one another. That intangible by-product can drastically improve the performance of the organization.
Bottom Line: Create opportunities for teams from different parts of the organization to interact and problem solve.
3. DRIVE DECISIONS DOWN Many organizations make all their decisions at the top. Successful companies know that empowerment and involvement, at all levels, are critical to on-going success. Employees on the front line usually know what customers and the market are saying, so gather their input. Keeping strategic decisions at the senior level, minimizes the plurality of voices that may identify a brilliant solution.
By driving decisions down, an organization is increasing the buy-in of employees. Since these will be the people charged with implementation, this will ensure that the new idea doesn’t fail upon execution.
Bottom Line: Increasing employee involvement improves the chance that creativity and innovation will thrive during implementation.
4. DON’T ACCEPT FIRST IDEA I worked with a company a few years ago on Strategic Planning and Goal Setting for a 3-year timeframe. To accomplish this we began with a SWOT Analysis. Instead of stopping the activity when the ideas began to trickle out less freely, we decided to commit to 20 more minutes to idea generation. By doing this, we ended up generating about 10 more Opportunities that could be pursued. Once we rank ordered all those opportunities, it turned out that Number 17 made the list of Top 5 objectives for the mid-range 3-year period. In fact it came in at Number 3 in terms of priorities. Had we not committed to 20 minutes of brain storming that idea would never have surfaced and that objective never identified.
It is critical that organizations engage in generative problem solving on occasion. These are the moments when breakthrough thinking can occur and creative and innovative solutions can surface. Do not think that the first idea, or the loudest voice, is the best! The best may happen after the group has purged itself of all the old ideas that have already failed to get traction.
Bottom Line: Don’t stop when it gets difficult, dig deeper for sparks of brilliance.
TAKEAWAYS Organizations that foster creativity and innovation set themselves up to survive changes in their industry and the economy. They are more likely to remain agile and see change coming before it is thrust upon them; leaving them to play catch up with the market. This sets them up to remain on the cutting edge of their industry.