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.
A nationwide survey of employed Americans corroborated the findings of the leadership survey. Only 26 percent of employees surveyed said they are often asked by an employer to seek new solutions, while 41 percent reported that they are never encouraged to take risks.
The survey also highlighted specific areas where risk taking is and is not encouraged. Risk taking tends to be encouraged most often among employees in the 35-to-44 age bracket, those living in the northeast and in metropolitan areas, and those with higher household incomes and more years of education. Women are less likely to be encouraged to take risks.
Another noteworthy finding was that for those employees whose managers encourage risk-taking, 50 percent receive praise when things work out well, 35 percent receive neither praise nor criticism, and 9 percent receive outright criticism for their efforts.
For many leaders, though, the issue may have less to do with how to encourage creativity than with a fear that releasing the creativity of their teams will inevitably result in the failures that accompany increased risk-taking. Leaders we have interviewed often described how an organization’s culture and “unwritten rules” can stifle creativity and punish risk-takers. They agree that it’s up to leaders to build a trusting environment, define what an “appropriate” or “informed” risk looks like, and help employees capture lessons learned from failures.
Creating a culture that fosters innovation and risk-taking means that managers need to reward for failure as well as success. At the Seattle communications firm Avenue A/Razorfish, for example, the president toured its worldwide offices and explained 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.
Given that one in three people are neither praised nor criticized for taking risks, it would seem that many leaders are not focusing on creating cultures that can deliver on the desired levels of creativity they are seeking from their workforce.
They must create a culture that, on the one hand, allows for innovation, but on the other hand, deals with the work that must be done day-to-day. Pressure on productivity and immediate results should not take priority over fostering innovation and risk-taking.
Yet even leaders who agree that innovation needs to be everyone’s duty have concerns about how to make it a workplace norm. If innovation is mandated to a subset of workers, for example, the rest may abdicate their responsibility for creative thinking. One leader we interviewed gave a group of engineers the specific responsibility to “be innovative.” The result: they did — but then everyone else didn’t.
Other leaders expressed concern that unless everyone is completely aligned with the organization’s business strategy and goals, a firm can end up with innovation just for the sake of it (“17 new ways to turn your computer on and off”) — instead of something the organization or its customers really need.
These research findings go to the root of the dilemma facing science and technology-driven organizations. On the one hand, these organizations need transformational leadership, and senior management must modify its directive leadership style if it is to overcome both institutional inertia and the inevitable opposition to disruptive innovation.
At the same time, 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.
Perhaps it is not surprising that of the 69 percent of leaders who agreed that encouraging risk taking and innovation within their teams was important, only 42 percent rated themselves as effective at doing it. And even more worrisome were the 31 percent of leaders who don’t think that encouraging innovation is important to their own success.
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.”
Integrate innovation into everyday business activities. Dee Bliss, director of organizational development at Avenue A/Razorfish, offered a number of specific techniques. An ideas lab 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 communicate and log their ideas and also brainstorm client issues.
Model from the top down. The leadership behaviors that effectively encourage innovation in your organization need to be modeled from senior levels on down through the leadership ranks. 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.
BlessingWhite is a global consulting firm dedicated to creating sustainable high-performance organizations (www.blessingwhite.com). Based on Orchard Road, with locations in London, Chicago, San Francisco, and Melbourne, the firm has worked with almost 3 million professionals in thousands of organizations since its founding in 1973.
CEO Christopher Rice did simultaneous bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics and Slavic languages at the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 1976. He has worked for Prentice Hall, Xerox Learning Systems, the Gallup Organization, and Drake Beam Morin.
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With its technology-based learning platform, Blessing White (www.blessingwhite.com) focuses on personal and corporate growth. It has 45 employees on Orchard Road, and a total of 75 worldwide.