From Vineyard To Vat - Encouraging Innovation and Creativity

Posted by A.C. Ping
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"The Innovator makes enemies of those who prospered under the old order, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new."

So wrote Machiavelli over four hundred years ago, but in today’s ever changing world, innovation and creativity are fast becoming essential for any business wishing to stay ahead of the competition. So, how does an organisation encourage innovation ? and, why are some organisations continually coming up with new ideas whilst others flounder ?

Drucker advised that innovation is "capable of being presented as a discipline, capable of being learned, capable of being practised" and a review of books such as Alan Robinson’s ‘Corporate Creativity’ would support this notion. But is there a process ?

I believe that the first step in encouraging Innovation is to consider it to be akin to growing the grapes for a fine wine rather than the simple process of selecting and purchasing the wine at a bottle shop. What I mean by this is that there are several key elements to growing good grapes. Firstly, one must have the right soil - this could be considered as the culture of an organisation. Secondly, growing good grapes requires the right structure, they must be planted in the right orientation, encouraged to grow along the trellises and pruned if necessary - innovation has the same requirements. Thirdly, grapes require assistance to grow, in the form of water and other nutrients - innovation also requires nurturing. Fourthly, grapes require time - nothing kills grapes or innovation faster than pressuring growth. Last of all, to grow good grapes we must be focussed on what type of wine we want to produce, a Merlot will of course require different grapes to a Chardonnay - innovation also requires such focus.

From this analogy, we can construct an Innovation checklist consisting of five elements:-

  1. Culture
  2. Structure
  3. Tools
  4. Time
  5. Focus

Just as with growing grapes, innovation requires the presence of all five elements. If one or the other is missing, innovation will be missing. So, what do they all mean ?

Let’s start with culture. Alan Robinson pointed to the comments of Frank Jewett, Vice President of R&D at AT&T from 1925-44 who said,

"The real creative ideas originate hither and yon in the individual members of the staff and no one can tell in advance what they will be or where they will crop up."

From this we can take the key point that participation is vital. Innovation requires a culture which encourages participation from all members of the organisation. A study of Projects in Japan that had won national awards from the Science and Technology Agency and the Japan Institute of Invention and Innovation revealed that more than half of the award winning projects had been initiated by individuals and had not bee anticipated by management.

Structure is also crucial, as an organisation gets bigger it is more likely to contain the elements of creativity but it is less likely that the elements will come together. This means that as Managers, we need to provide more opportunities for people within organisations to meet and, we need to provide more diverse stimuli. Xerox tackles this problem by hiring anthropologists to work alongside their computer scientists.

Time is perhaps the most critical element for encouraging innovation and creativity. The creative process has four key steps; Preparation - the time when all of the facts are put on the table and the problem is considered from a logical perspective; Incubation - the period when any attempt at logical thought is abandoned, the seed has been planted and must be allowed to germinate; Illumination - that stroke of divine inspiration that often happens on the golf course of whenever else you might least expect it; and, Verification - when the idea is brought back to the office and tested to see if it will really work.

Encouraging innovation therefore requires allowances to be made both for ‘play time’ and for the incubation period. Cannondale, the maker of arguably the world’s finest bicycles, encourages staff to jump on the latest bikes and go for a ride on the tracks that surround the factory. Their attitude is that they want people to work for them who are not only brilliant technicians and engineers but who are also passionate about cycling.

Innovation and creativity also require tools to help us break out of our patterns and to encourage lateral thinking. Edward De Bono has developed several lateral thinking tools including Random Word, Provocation and Challenge. Challenge is probably the simplest to explain and it also relates closely to the work of Joel Barker, author of ‘Paradigms’. Challenge simply questions the assumption that the way things are done is the best way of doing things. It requires an examination of the dominant ideas and paradigms that surround the problem. It then requires these ideas and paradigms to be challenged. For example, how many people would know that the reason London Taxis are the shape they are is that a law was passed requiring taxis to have enough headroom such that a gentleman could enter without having to remove his top hat.

Focus is the last element on the Innovation checklist and it has two levels. Firstly, a ‘big picture’ focus is required - how does the work that each person performs fit into the achievement of the overall company vision ? This requires clear and direct two way communication from the CEO and Board, down to the shop floor.

The second level of focus needs to be much more immediate - it needs to prepare the mind and plant seeds for incubation. Edward De Bono’s recommendation is a ‘Creative Hit List’, a list of not more than twenty items prepared by members of a group or department, which formally requests some creative thinking on specific issues. The Creative Hit List should be placed on Bulletin Boards and given to all members of the workforce. Such a list supports a culture of participation and gently prompts all involved to at least consider the issues.

In summary, Innovation and Creativity can be encouraged to ‘grow’ within an organisation, provided the five elements; Culture, Structure, Tools, Time and Focus, are present. What should also be remembered is that the finest wines are generally only savoured after a period of storage which rewards only the most patient among us.

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