Hard Wired. How to get imagination and innovation on demand

We have had decades of innovation that has inspired putting astronauts on the moon, the design of macro technologies used in mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads that allow us to capture instant photos, record events, and download information in an instant, and lifesaving medical devices that would have been unimaginable in past decades. When I think innovation, the first thing that comes to mind is the vast intelligence and creativity that's imbedded in many companies and how little it's encouraged with other companies and their employees. Think about this: employees are the heartbeat and life force of an organization and without those worker bees, companies become extinct. If you're a leader, it is your responsibility to ensure both creativity and innovation is fostered into the organizations culture. If you're not, you should be.

I recently had the honor of being a part of a leadership study mission and was one of the panelists amongst community leaders asked to share perspective on innovation. A great question was directed to me by an audience member after the conference. He asked, “What are some barriers to innovation in groups or companies?” The first thing that came out of my mouth was “people!” Why? Innovation means taking risks, having the courage to think outside the box and doing something different. For those companies that want to promote innovation, create a culture of creativity and entrepreneurialism, feel a bit of heartburn when going out on a limb. What this boils down to is thought and behavior which are the two dimensions of innovation. Why? Because only through innovation does thought carry so much weight (someone thinks of an idea) and does behavior so profoundly affect thought (Someone implements or kills the idea with their behavior).

The need for innovation is becoming greater and greater

Over the past 10 years I have seen more organizations aggressively looking for ways to stay on the competitive edge, differentiate who they are and ways to capture the creative and innovative spirit of their employees and organization. Companies are investing in building an innovation infrustruction to become stronger and better at innovation to stay ahead of the competition, and be the trail blazers within their industry.

For leaders it's important to recognize that we can't come up with all the answers and ideas ourselves and that's why we surround ourselves with (even hire) talent that we then partner and collaborate with to foster innovation. Organizations are bringing innovation into their interviews. By strategically articulating thought provoking questions, hiring managers are listening for cues and waiting for the “right” responses to see if the interviewee is plugged into creating innovative solutions and if they can get it on demand. Achieving the optimal talent mix can boost company growth. In doing so, leaders want to ensure employee ideas are in alignment with the organizations vision and goals.

Innovation doesn't just happen at the executive level or in product marketing. It happens from the front line staff, in customer service, in production departments and travels throughout the organization. Regardless the size of a company origination is an on-going process and should be sparked in differing ways to fit many different purposes. Modernization can elevate an organizations products or services from drab to fab. It can take a company that is drowning in quick sand to becoming a catalyst for innovation. Case in point ~Chrysler was caught off guard by a serious challenge from small fuel-efficient Japanese cars after the oil crisis of 1973. With oil prices rising tenfold by 1980, consumers were less interested in “muscle” and more interested in price and fuel efficiency. When Lee Iacocca (a former engineer) joined Chrysler and learned the company was on the brink of bankruptcy he headed straight to congress. He took a risk and handed Congress a bill of facts which included the enormous job loss and devastation the organization would leave if they didn't get financial aid from the government. Mr. Iacocca took a government loan approved by Congress, then paid it back in full with interest totaling $3.5 million.

Taking the fear out of creativity

Being creative can be a daunting task for some employees. By purposefully creating an innovation focused company, you as a leader are creating a “fearless” atmosphere. Imagine asking an employee during a meeting to come up with a way to solve an existing issue. Suddenly, the employee becomes paralyzed and appears to have stopped breathing. This happens. At some point an employee may have been traumatized by a former employer where ideas were shot down by “nay-sayers” or if the idea didn't work they were highly criticized and often reminded of how they failed. What happens is that the employee is not so compelled to speak up with their great ideas or fearful that if the idea doesn't work out they will appear as a failure. Sound familiar?

By encouraging creativity and imagination we are invoking trust, showing you value your employees, and building collaboration and cooperation. Also, a leader needs to allow for opportunities for growth in an individual and a team. It's about allowing direct reports to be innovative, take risks (and own it), and think outside the box. This allows them the space to develop in their roles, build skills, and develop self- confidence. Another perk is you really get to see where true talent lies.

Make creativity work for you and your company. Best practice models

Create opportunities within your organization. If you want innovation on demand and strong employee engagement in and out of meetings that will supports ideas, encourage brainstorming and problem solving, and yes, even retain employees (!), then make the best use of employees' time when asking for feedback, insight and ideas. Also, be transparent when ideas are not used. Employees should get recognition for an idea regardless if it used or not. It's important to immediately follow-up when an idea is not used and let the staff member know. That way, they will know that their feedback is valued (it's not personal) and they'll be more compelled to stay engaged and share future ideas without reluctance.

Cultivate a culture for teaching and learning creativity. Everyone has a bit of genius in them. Some are more hardwired and can almost mindlessly crank out creative ideas where others may have to work at it a bit more. Some believe that creativity can't be taught successfully and to assume that it can't be taught is much like assuming the Wright Bother's would never have gotten off the ground. Just because one hasn't seen it happen doesn't mean it can't happen.

Build a framework on which to build and manage effective innovation teams. In order for a company to be successful at innovation they need to first change how people work together, create an environment where creativity thrives, and build a model that everyone understands. One that's based on the full dimensions of the people involved. After all, we are talking about multiple behaviors, perspectives, and opinions.

Final words of wisdom, "Without distinction, you're headed for extinction." If we're not innovating, then we're dying.

For more information on cultivating innovation in the workplace, building innovative teams, or learning more about how behavior and thought is inspiring or detracting creativity in your company, contact us at:

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©  Laura Perez Ehrheart | October 31, 2014

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