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
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
Our conversations with leaders have suggested a number of potentially
effective approaches for putting an organization on an innovative
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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:
firstname.lastname@example.org), 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
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
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
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