Tips for Spurring Innovation

By Carl Robinson, Ph.D., copyright 2006

Do you want your employees to be more innovative? Yes, of course. Who doesn’t? However, spurring innovative thinking and action is not easy, otherwise everyone would be creating Ipods, Google, and Post-its. In this briefing I’ll offer some tips on fostering a more innovative workplace drawn from my own work and research and from others such as the folks at IDEO, the world famous design firm.

Creative ideas come from prolific idea generators. The notion that geniuses go away and think up one great idea is absurd. Really creative people produce many many ideas, most of which are duds but within that garbage heap of castoffs there tend to be one or two good ones. Remember that Thomas Edison was famous for running thousands of experiments of his ideas before he and his team came up with a working light bulb. Therefore, you need to create an environment where people are given the opportunity to brainstorm, vet and champion ideas and projects that may fail and yet not punish them for failing. By the way, most people do not run brainstorming sessions correctly (I can teach you how).

You also need to break down individual isolation and create opportunities for your people to bounce ideas off of each other. Force people out of their cubicles and offices to meet in small groups to discuss issues, trends, opportunities and threats, etc. The diversity of ideas will provoke and inspire even more new ideas. Ideas feed on each other if you are open-minded. 60 – 90 minutes max is the optimum time for groups to kick around ideas according to the folks at IDEO. IDEO call these types of groups – Hot Groups. The notion is that you pick the brightest and most passionate and put them together in small groups to kick around ideas or to work on projects or problems. In addition to the great ideas that emerge from these types of groups, the “energy” generated by them will permeate the rest of your organization and inspire and raise the innovation bar for others.

Foster cross-pollination. Bring in a diversity of people to work on a problem. Invite team members from all over your company, not just your department. People from outside your domain will have different viewpoints. They literally will see the problem from a different angle and may see things that you can’t because you’re too close to it.

Expose the group to fresh ideas: hold an “open house” and invite other people outside of your company to look at your idea/products and engage in conversations with them. Ask them what they think of it. “Change hats” – deliberately take the perspective of others and attempt to view your problem from those perspectives.

Breakdown hierarchy. Put a premium on creative and innovative ideas regardless of where they come from in the organization. When you pull together a group to work on ideas, establish ground rules that allow everyone to speak freely. There needs to be someone in charge to ensure the free flow of ideas and to focus the discussion but they need to be careful that they don’t stifle the group by inadvertently promoting their own ideas. Subordinates tend to shut up once the leader puts in his/her two cents worth.

Create a sense of urgency. Set an aggressive time table. Acknowledge to your folks that the timetable is tough and say, “I know you can do it!” Tight time frames increase the heat and help focus the attention of the group. It’s a false belief that you need unlimited time and resources to be creative and to execute big endeavors. Remember that President Kennedy said we were going to land on the moon in 10 years. How many people probably said, “Impossible! We need more time.” Look for competition to foster urgency either externally (we have to be first to market or x will beat us out) or create internal competition (two different teams working on the same problem).

Limit the scope. Challenge your people to think outside of the box by staying within the box. For example, the PDA was designed to be “small” – a handheld. That limitation was a challenge for people to figure out the best and highest use of the product. Features creep needs to be limited deliberately for the first few iterations to get a product to market.

Reward creativity and innovation in personal and creative ways. Most highly creative people are not motivated primarily by money (see my archived executive briefing Evidence Based Management - The Science Side of Motivation). Find out what excites your employees and reward them accordingly for hitting important milestones or for new ideas or ways to do things. For example, someone might love going to theater or motocross races. Give them tickets. Another may be a gamer: send them and a few of their friends to GameWorks. Even having a pizza party to celebrate reaching a particular milestone is meaningful. None of these are expensive. One company I know puts the picture of their outstanding employees on a mockup box of Wheaties… the breakfast of champions! ... and hangs the box on the lobby wall for all to see. Find fun, high energy ways to reward employees.

Reward and celebrate incremental successes… not just the attainment of a big goal. Unless the project/goal will be completed in less than a month you need to acknowledge progress toward it to keep people motivated. Establish incremental milestones and have small celebrations for passing them.

Foster a playful and challenging environment. Creative people tend to be irreverent and have fun. Make it ok for people to joke around and be playful with each other. Richard Feyman, Ph.D., the Nobel price winning physicist was a notorious jokester at Los Alamos... and they, for better or worse, developed the A-bomb in a remarkably short period of time. The folks at IDEO are well known for having a fun work environment and they came up with successful designs for the Palm V, Heartstream's defibrillator and hundreds of other products. All work and no play does make Johnny a dull and uncreative boy.

These are just a few ways to spur innovation. I will follow up with more at a later briefing. In the meantime, in the spirit of innovative thinking, if you have any tips you’d like to share with others, please let me know and I’ll pass them along and, of course, give you due credit.