Yet innovation remains such an elusive, sometimes baffling, entity. Innovative thinking contributes to scientific progress–as in paradigm busting–but it’s difficult to be scientific about what produces innovation. Let’s look at a couple of analogies to set the tone for this article. Few contemporary books on personal development and career fulfillment have more renown than Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. But would Covey or any sensible reader argue that those seven habits are scientifically validated? If we wait for scientific proof about what makes people effective in all areas of their lives, we’ll put off applying the “useful wisdom” that’s available. By “useful wisdom” I mean what takes place when your intelligence, your experience, your values, and your intuition combine to tell you that something you’ve come across makes sense, that it’s worth a try, and then when you implement the idea it proves to be helpful. The same can be said for recent “success-formula” business books on organizational victories and leadership processes in such firms as Southwest Airlines, Ben & Jerry’s, GE and Starbucks. We read their ideas, use our best judgement about which ones are worth pursuing, and move forward. This article is in that tradition.
Consider these eleven points, garnered from innovative organizations, in answering the tough but essential question, “What might help our organization be more innovative?”
Encourage “Puttering.” One of the most innovative corporations in the world, 3M, wants employees in product development to fiddle around for 15% of the workweek. Why? Major breakthroughs have occurred in a phenomenon called the “happy accident” in which inventors, scientists, engineers and other professionals chance upon an unanticipated event that leads to a useful product. However, as Pasteur reminded us, “Chance favors the expert.” In other words, waiting for the fortuitous fluke is no excuse for not developing expertise; only knowledgeable people can capitalize on the unlikely happening or the puzzling or seemingly absurd event. An ordinary mortal would have ignored the mold that led Fleming to develop penicillin. But the fact remains, validated over and over again (e.g., the discovery of Teflon, Velcro and other products) that chance discoveries may pay big dividends. (see Royston M. Roberts, Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries in Science, John Wiley & Sons, 1989). Does your organization promote occasional “dilly-dallying,” or is it an “always keep your nose to the grindstone or you’re in trouble” culture?
Tolerate Mistakes. The earliest steps on the path to discovery usually involve stumbling here and there. The Director of R&D for a chemical company on the East Coast told me of an inspiring practice at the annual awards banquet of his department: every year they give a beautiful engraved desk set to the R & D scientist who made the most intelligent mistake of the year. Every organization must determine the nature and extent of tolerable goofs, but wherever all mistakes are punished you can plan on the suffocation of risk and exploration—necessary precursors to innovation. In commenting on the organizational culture he seeks to build at Disney, Michael Eisner said, ” . . .the only way to succeed creatively is to fail. A company like ours must create an atmosphere in which people feel safe to fail. This means forming an organization where failure is not only tolerated, but fear of criticism for submitting a foolish idea is abolished. If not, people become too cautious. They hunker down—afraid to speak up, afraid to rock the boat, afraid of being ridiculed. Potentially brilliant ideas are never uttered and therefore never heard.”(pp. 63-64 in Selling Power, September, 1996) How safe is it to fail in your organization?
Develop Imaginative Surroundings. In your mind’s eye, picture a company with all of its facilities located on the open floor of a huge factory, formerly a brewing plant. There are no walls. Each employee’s “office” consists of (1) a computer on wheels and (2) a rolling dolly with storage space. “Jurgen from R&D, Anna from Marketing and Peder from Engineering, go to that corner and work on Phase III of Product G.” They scoot over to the corner and work as a team for a few days or months or whatever it takes. Then they are assigned to another team and locale. That’s Oticon, a Danish producer of state-of-the-art hearing aids, including a new digital model. Now picture the mid-Manhattan offices of Nickelodeon. There are no square or rectangular offices. They’re all oval, round, pinwheel, etc. The assumption is that if you surround people with imaginative physical stimulation, it helps to stir up creativity. What could you do to bring more sparkle to your physical plant?
Engage in “War Games.” More than once in the past decade, Royal Dutch Shell has been rated as the most profitable corporation in the world by Fortune. One of Shell’s superb tactics involves bringing together experts from all over the world twice a year to create imaginative scenarios of the mind: “What if X happens? How can we prepare for it? What if Y occurs? How will we respond?” When Iraq invaded Kuwait and some oil companies suffered, Shell did not miss a delivery; they had planned for such an eventuality. What if a storm shuts down off-shore rigs in the North Sea? What if there’s a revolution in Venezuela? And so forth. What eventualities might occur within or without your organization, and how could you be innovatively proactive?
Hire for Creativity. If you scan ho-hum resumes and conduct blah interviews, you’ll probably attract and hire boring people. I’ve often asked students and participants in Creativity seminars, “Have you ever flown Southwest Airlines, and if so what do you remember best?” A typical reply: “Oh! The informality and sense of humor of the cabin crew.” No wonder. In interviewing applicants for jobs at Southwest, one interview question involves completing the sentence, “One time my sense of humor helped me was . . .” What a concept! Ferret out the very qualities you seek! Another item in the interview is, “A time I reached my peak performance was . . .” And remember, reader, the safest airline in the United States is the humorous, unorthodox Southwest Airlines. Creative humor doesn’t rule out serious attention to essentials. Here’s a pertinent question asked of job applicants by Doubletree: “Tell me about the last time you broke the rules.” What questions could you ask of potential employees to attract innovative people?
Emphasize Innovation in Performance Reviews. At 3M, heads of profit centers must prove that 25% of revenues from the current fiscal year come from products that did not exist five years earlier. No wonder 3M has thousands of products. You can imagine the sales personnel asking customers questions about needs for new adhesives. You can picture the internal 3M process that made Post-Its possible. An “inferior” glue became part of a major product line in a company well-known for strong adhesives. Actually, 3M has exceeded the goal stated in the first sentence of this paragraph. A recent report indicates that 30% of profits in the company came from products introduced in the past four years. What drives innovation in your organizational culture? Is innovation a criterion for performance evaluation?
Transcend Boundaries. Jack Welch coined the word “Boundarylessness” at GE, and he applied it to the optimum integration of all essential resources within the organization and also linkage with relevant outside resources. The free flow of creative ideas across all boundaries is essential for innovation. The boundaryless organization transcends hierarchy for hierarchy’s sake and rises above isolation by functions or by geography. Everybody talks candidly to everybody as needed. Mere rank or function will not distort communication. Also, a sense of close cooperation exists with customers, suppliers and venture partners. Tragically, in informal surveys of employees of large aerospace corporations that I conducted several years ago, eighty percent of the employees reported that in their organizations various departments deliberately withheld information from other departments or even sabotaged the work of other departments. In your organization, to what extent can people nurture ideas, get needed information and cooperate across all types of functions, ranks or distances? (See pp. 285-286 in Tichy and Sherman, Control Your Destiny or Someone Else Will: Lessons in Mastering Change—the Principles Jack Welch is Using to Revolutionize General Electric, Harper Business, 1993.)
Watch Trends and Find a Niche. When the Center for Disease Control advised physicians, nurses, dentists and all health professionals to protect themselves from patients’ body fluids, the demand for disposable latex gloves zoomed. With a 25% share of the latex exam glove market, Safeskin is number one in the field. From 1991-1996, Safeskin averaged an annual return on equity of over 100%. Safeskin went right to the people who were wearing the gloves and asked them about their needs. One result of their survey and innovative follow-up—the first powder-free hypoallergenic glove. How does your organization track trends in demographics, technology, customer preferences, etc.?
Develop Idea Champions. The individual with a keen idea for an innovation usually needs seed money for equipment, space, materials, an assistant, etc. At Texas Instruments, there’s a committee that provides support for idea development. More significantly, each member of that committee is empowered to provide initial funding to support promising ideas. In other words, at the critical early stages, you don’t have to get approval of the entire committee—just one member. Where can people turn in your organization for support to nurture a new idea?
Combine the Uncombined. For millennia, people have had the rooster for a wake-up call. For generations we’ve had the wind-up alarm clock, then the electric clock, followed by the electronic model. For decades we’ve enjoyed the radio alarm, followed by the tape player alarm and the CD alarm. Some models include the blessed Snooze button. Ah, but now you no longer need to fumble for the Snooze button, because Motorola has introduced the “motion sensor” snooze feature—simply pass your hand or arm in front of the unit and the snooze feature is activated. So here’s the Stereo FM/AM Clock Radio and Compact Disc Player with Motion Snooze feature, battery backup and line out for headphone or extra speakers. Of course, motion sensors have been around for awhile, as have all the other features of this innovation. But, in the tradition of incremental innovation, Motorola combined the previously uncombined. So did a coin-operated Laundromat when they incorporated a gymnasium. Put your duds in the washer; work out for twenty minutes; move the clothes to the dryer; work out again. Voila! At “Lean and Clean” your body and your wardrobe stay in prime condition. What can you combine to produce or enhance a product or service?
Respect Non-Linear Thinking. There are significant differences among the following terms: Rational, Irrational, Supra-Rational. Supra-rational thinking is not necessarily irrational. When Albert Einstein was asked about his thinking processes, he replied that he usually thought in images, not words. He played with the images. Then when he reached a sufficient level of definitiveness, he formulated a theory, usually leaving it to others to test or prove the theory. For example, he once saw himself (in his mind’s eye) riding through space on a beam of light. This led to one of his most important and revolutionary theories, relatively speaking. Similarly, there are differences among logical, illogical and meta-logical thinking. Immunization has saved millions of lives. Was the first brave medical scientist who practiced it “logical”? At the time, was it logical to inject into someone the very poison you hoped to avoid or cure? How much room is there in your organization for supra-rational or meta-logical thinking?
How would you evaluate a small start-up company with virtually no tangible assets (in the typical sense of physical properties)? Suppose a new venture with hardly any traditional assets asked you to put up nine hundred million dollars for a one third interest in the new enterprise? Suppose the new venture was called DreamWorks SKG and Steven Spielberg was one of the three founding partners? (see John Kao, Jamming: The Art and Discipline of Business Creativity, Harper Business, 1996, p.xiv) In a competitive and fast-changing world, nothing is more valuable than the intellectual property of an innovative mind. Organizations that practice these eleven points will enhance the value of their intellectual property and enjoy a significant competitive edge.