Fostering Creativity: Christopher Rice

Fostering creativity among technical professionals is certainly on the

minds of managers today, particularly in industries where research and

development play a crucial role. Yet in a survey of 898 executives, we

found that leaders in high-tech environments – such as financial

services, pharmaceuticals, high technology, and manufacturing – have

been slow to cultivate risk-taking and innovation within their own

teams.

Since new ideas are at the very core of their companies’ missions, we

hardly expected that only 69 percent of these executives would rank

risk-taking and innovation as extremely or very important to their own

effectiveness as leaders. Far more highly rated were actions necessary

for effective day-to-day functioning, from building collaborative

relationships, cited by 93 percent of the leaders, to receiving

feedback from others, cited by 83 percent.

These leaders of technical or expert employees certainly know the

pivotal role played by innovation, yet they seem to shy away from the

actions needed to cultivate it. I wonder whether they consider the

responsibility for coming up with the "next big idea" to be someone

else’s job. Or perhaps they imagine the necessary focus on innovation

to be somewhere outside of their teams’ daily responsibilities.

Despite its commitment to innovation, senior management invariably

tries to curtail "out of control" research and development spending

and to squeeze each function or department for a better margin and

profit.

Our conversations with leaders have suggested a number of potentially

effective approaches for putting an organization on an innovative

track:

Formally support new ideas. Knowledge workers in particular thrive on

brainstorming. They like to share ideas with each other. So let them!

Create the physical and electronic means for them to do so. Just make

sure there is a process defined for owning and executing great ideas.

One leader we interviewed warned: "Ideas are cheap. Implementation is

hard."

The president of Avenue A/Razorfish warned that innovation would be

accompanied by lots of mistakes and that those would be forgiven. He

emphasized, in fact, that not making mistakes could be seen as not

making an effort to innovate.

Integrate innovation into everyday business activities. Dee Bliss,

director of organizational development at Avenue A/Razorfish, told

about an ideas lab that looks at several employee ideas quarterly and

then awards the creators of one idea 90 days "off the job" to bring

the idea to launch stage. An employee "Wiki" was established as a

place where employees can log their ideas and also brainstorm client

issues.

Model from the top down. This is especially critical if your

organization espouses creativity or innovation in your core values.

There’s nothing more demotivating than lots of talk with little

walk.Stay close to customers. Customers are often the first to think

of new product applications or process improvements. One leader’s

advice: Listen for phrases like "wouldn’t this be neat?" or "we really

would like." Bliss describes another good reason for partnering with

clients: "It’s faster and it enables both sides to assess and make

decisions on the inevitable risks that go along with pushing out the

boundaries."

Build a strong, authentic communication platform. Employees need to

understand how your leaders define innovation. They need to hear

stories of risks that succeeded and lessons learned from those that

didn’t. Individual leaders can make a difference by sincerely asking

for new ideas, listening with an open mind. One leader reminded us:

"People share ideas because they want to be heard. Any leader can do

this with his or her people."

Based on the discussions, leaders’ definitions of innovations range

from creating a completely new product, service, or process; creating

a new approach to an existing system; or simply small changes – but

all leaders understand that it is central to their companies’ future

success. If they don’t take steps now to integrate creativity into

their everyday business activities, they will squander the

intelligence they so want to keep, and they will fall behind in the

marketplace.

Creativity Wins Out

To map the future, use the compass of the past, said the late Leonard

Sragow, who spoke at the 2007 Trenton Computer Festival. A 1944

Brooklyn College alumnus, Sragow was both a stand-up comic and a

futurist. For more than 50 years he hit the computer prognostications

right on target with a simple formula: look at today’s inventions,

bundle in all the current technologies, and multiply them out to their

logical conclusions.

In Sragow’s view technology has already led us toward a less greedy,

thing-oriented society. While many may point to the frightening

materialism all around us, he invites us to look at the sharing world

of cyberspace.

"Fifteen years ago, who would have ever thought that Wikipedia could

have existed and maintained itself," he asks? On literally billions of

websites and blogs people contribute their information and

understanding for no material gain. Citing the philosopher Spinoza, he

says that humankind’s creative urge is natural and far stronger than

the unnatural urge of greed. Certainly the web attests to the fact

that we want to create more than we want to own.

– Bart Jackson

Innovation at Xerox: Sophie Vandebroek

As chief technology officer of Xerox, Sophie Vandebroek’s very

existence rests on her ability to cull crazy, sci-fi dreams and ask,

Okay – how can we actually pull this off?

To listen to this 45-year-old Belgian talk about how innovation,

invention, and creativity are fostered at one of the world’s premier

technology firms is to imagine a real life, Space Age rendition of

Raphael’s School of Athens; an intellectual wonderland that, once

entered, can nurse creative thought and reward its most inventive

inhabitants.

There is a cover charge, of course – advanced scientific prowess,

technical credentials, and an enthusiasm tempered with the

understanding of physical limits. But once you’re inside one of the

company’s five research centers, the world (as it could be) is yours

(U.S. 1, November 14, 2007).

Her dream factory at Xerox, which she stocks with the best and

brightest scientific minds she can get her hands on, belies a

decidedly pragmatic undercurrent.

Far out ideas, such as printer that can print on a blank page today

and then print something entirely different on the same piece of paper

tomorrow, have to get put through the proper paces. Though

Vandebroek’s initial reaction to the everlasting page was "Wow, that’s

cool," her subsequent reaction is filtered through the practical

concerns of making it real.

Those ideas that survive are considered financially – not just how

much it costs to develop, but how much the new product will cost the

all-important customer. Ideas need to be explored and innovation

nurtured, Vandebroek says, but for ideas to become products, they must

be affordable to those people who would use them.

Racing across this kind of tightrope at dizzying digital speeds takes

a sense of balance that, it seems, comes best from being a combination

of scientist, mother of three, European, and dreamer. So far, since

she was put in charge of Xerox’s Innovation Department in 2005,

Vandebroek’s balancing act appears to working. According to Forbes

magazine, Xerox’s innovation revival under Vandebroek’s watch has

helped the company turn $1.2 billion in profits.

So how does she actually achieve this balance? How does this holder of

100 patents, who oversees 5,000 scientists and researchers and an R&D

budget of $5 billion, who rubs elbows with presidents and deans of

research, run a company whose reputation is chained to its ability to

routinely pole vault across the cutting edge?

Simple. She doesn’t take everything so seriously. "No matter what you

do, you have to have fun," she says. "You just do so much better work

that way."

It also helps, she says, to keep your perspective aimed squarely on

the positive. "Unless you view every challenge as an opportunity," she

says, "it’s impossible to keep up."

Vandebroek has a lot of jobs in her life as a CTO and as a mom. Though

her children are older now, Vandebroek says she still learns from

them. As they’ve grown, she says, she’s learned an increasingly

complex and useful set of relationship skills that makes her more

patient, more centered, more balanced.

Vandebroek’s passion for fearlessness is a popular theme. "It’s about

not being afraid," she says. "Or, if you are afraid, on making sure

you overcome it."

Vandebroek encourages employees of any company not only to be unafraid

of failing big (because that simply means you have dreamt big), but to

be unafraid of getting fired. Be willing to stand behind your

convictions, she says, and be completely unwilling to be shy – ask

questions, speak up, and keep looking.

Vandebroek believes you have to be in an environment that not only

supports imagination, but depends on it. And that is only accomplished

when those charged with coming up with ideas are allowed to run with

them.

In the end, it all comes down to relationships, whether in everyday

life or on the job. Good relationships – never to be taken for granted

– are what build solid companies and solid societies, she says. "It’s

really all about people. You can’t do it alone."

– Scott Morgan

Diverse Teams Yield the Best Ideas

Every individual is creative. Humankind’s urge to always come up with

something new takes a back seat only to survival itself. Employers say

that they want to have all of this creativity used in their companies,

but do they? Many employers give lip service to the importance of

creativity, but do little to foster it in their own shops.

Both John Sarno, president of the Employers Association of New Jersey

(www.eanj.org) and Jim Barrood, director of Fairleigh Dickinson

University’s Rothman Institute for Entrepreneurial Studies (E-mail:

rothman@fdu.edu), continually tackle the innovation problem. "Bringing

forth innovation is simply getting the very best out of the people you

are paying," says Sarno (U.S. 1, June 20, 2007).

Culture creation. If innovation is so natural to the human condition,

why is it so relatively rare at work? Unfortunately, Sarno says, the

creative urge too often runs counter to many common strands found in

traditional corporate culture.

The aggressive supervisor who hovers and judges each action forces all

around him to play it safe and merely perform the routine. Ruling with

swift discipline is another sure way to quell creativity. At the same

time, the supervisor who stays aloof, communicating only by E-mail,

will illicit the same "who cares?" attitude that he is sending out.

"You have to give people the sense that their contributions are

valued," says Barrood. "This means both with the daily work and the

new ideas." A variable rewards system that includes pay bonuses,

perks, recognition, and increased responsibility should be

custom-tailored to the whole business and fine-tuned to each

individual.

Avoid mere cheerleading "Building a culture of creativity entails

keeping the atmosphere open, but skeptical," says Barrood.

Establish the process. Employees have to know that ideas are mulled

over both formally and informally. This means establishing a

commonly-known innovative process through which ideas are honed. At

the same time, while rewarding creativity, failure must never be

penalized. Inaction and not taking advantage should be the only

business sins.

Align the mindset of managers. "We encourage innovation, just so long

as it doesn’t involve change." This tacit signpost in too many

companies indicates a management-set mood that ideas may be welcomed,

but their odds of making a difference are nil. "People have to feel

they are effective," says Barrood. "For the manager this involves

instilling two messages." First, each individual in the company must

have all of his tasks linked into the greater goal and the firm’s own

mission.

The second message is that the idea, not the source, is what matters.

Companies that have a "creative department" are announcing that the

rest of the employees should just keep their heads down and let the

special folks do the thinking.

Marry to a team. For Barrood one of the manager’s most important jobs

is skillfully building relationships. Like a well kindled fire,

creativity feeds one person to another. Ideas bounce back and forth.

Obviously, the easiest way to unify a team is to imbue them with the

importance of the task. "Not everyone may feel that they are moving

the company forward," says Barrood. "In such cases the manager must

entice a sense of commitment from those folks who feel cut adrift from

the main stream."

Unity seldom comes from homogeneity. It is well proven that the best

ideas come from the most diverse teams. "As we grow more global, we

have a chance for much greater diversity and the enormous business

innovation it brings," says Barrood. – Bart Jackson

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