For all the hype around innovation and creativity — one recent survey of 1,500 CEOs pegged creativity as the top skill for business leaders – these muscles remain some of the most underdeveloped in organizations. Even with the best innovation strategy in place, companies can’t develop new ideas and products until their teams become more creative. And the reason teams aren’t creative is because leaders have failed to understand how creativity really works.
In our work with companies and as design professors, we’ve found that most leaders who are frustrated with a lack of employee creativity have day-to-day systems and processes in place that don’t reflect their innovation goals. They’ve stifled nascent creativity with busy work and bureaucracy — think boring, in-office whiteboarding sessions, remote workdays packed with meetings, or advanced software that monitors worker “productivity.” In fact, one study found that “the single largest behavioral shift among employees (during the pandemic) was a statistically significant decline in curiosity.”
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Our time in meetings has tripled since before the pandemic. Managers use time tracking software to ensure that workers are doing something — anything — that seems useful.
These expectations about what work looks like are dampening creativity for everyone. Today’s organizations need to move away from defining work in terms of efficiency and productivity; creativity is rarely efficient. When it comes to innovation, effectiveness is what counts. If imagination and inspiration are fueled by rich, unexpected inputs to our thinking — experiences and insights that connect the dots in new ways — then the challenge is deliberately seeking new inputs and allowing ourselves the time and space to synthesize them into fresh connections. Creativity that leads to breakthrough innovations often doesn’t look like work, let alone efficient work.
We have helped dozens of organizations move from innovation efficiency to effectiveness. This includes helping financial services companies develop profitable ideas to reach young savers by studying environments like Urban Outfitters, working with premier golf brands to get more young people interested in golf by immersing themselves in tween boutiques, and partnering with Japanese conglomerates to reinvent workplace communication by spending the day with a doula, where they learned that “scripts” enable successful navigation of stressful situations.
The common thread behind these unique experiences? Leaving the office (or home workspace) to mine the world for unexpected insights. We have dubbed this disciplined pursuit of unexpected information seeking inspiration. Designers and “creatives” have sought fresh inputs to drive their creative outputs for generations, but for whatever reason, in the corporate context, “inspiration” has largely referred to cheesy posters in the halls that say things like “teamwork” and “courage.” Inspiration, from a cognitive and operational perspective, is actually about obsessing over the inputs to one’s thinking.
You might be thinking, Wow, this would require a real culture shift in my organization! Where does an individual leader begin to affect change in this area? As Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors notes: “They say [culture] can’t be changed, or it takes 10 years. To me, it’s behaviors. And that can be changed right away.” Culture change starts with giving folks permission to deviate from the conventional behavioral norms, and to try on new behaviors that result in new results. Ultimately, beginning to change the little things can eventually change the big things.
What are some of the foundational changes we’d recommend leaders champion amongst their teams, to affect the broader cultural transformation the above seems to require? Here are five to try.
Generate lots of ideas — not just the good ones.
Legendary Stanford Professor Robert McKim is responsible for coaxing countless innovations and innovators into the world. Anytime a student asked for feedback on a new concept, he would give the same response: “Show me three.” He knew that options are often the key to breaking through.
Astro Teller, CEO of X, Google’s “moonshot factory,” agrees. “I ask teams for five ideas so consistently that teams actually try to game the system,” he told us.” They bring me four ‘dummy’ ideas alongside their pet favorite, but what they don’t realize is this: Often, one of the dummy ideas is every bit as good as their favorite. Forcing folks to generate options always improves outcomes.” Indeed, as leadership strategy coach David Noble and Harvard Medical School assistant professor Carol Kauffman recently noted, “great leaders generate options so that when an opportunity arises or a crisis hits, they can pivot in real time and make the optimal move.”
Our students and clients also find immense value in doing an idea quota: a deliberate practice of generating lots of options to solve a problem, instead of hemming and hawing over the “right” answer. One Singaporean executive told us, “The first four or five ideas are hard to come by, but then I remember ‘I don’t have to follow the rules.’” She said the floodgates always open “when I tell myself to try to think of something illegal.” She’s quick to note, “I don’t actually do the illegal thing. But the point is, there’s something about removing the barriers I usually carry around that really opens up the possibilities.
One of the most elegant questions a leader can ask a team looking to solve a wicked problem facing the business is, “What else are we trying?” It acknowledges the need for options, while giving permission to move forward in a lightweight manner.
Create a space for failure.
Everybody dreads the f-word: failure. And, sure, there are certainly places where failure is unacceptable. But just because failure is unacceptable somewhere doesn’t mean it’s unacceptable everywhere. In fact, we challenge leaders to designate zones where failure is not only tolerated, but encouraged.
Our friend and longtime collaborator Philippe Barreaud, leader of Michelin’s Customer Innovation Laboratory, goes so far as to set a minimum failure threshold for his innovation unit: “If you consider prior probabilities, the odds of breaking through are exceedingly low, which means you’re going to fail a lot. And so we set a failure target for our team: We know that if we aren’t failing at least beyond a certain base rate, we aren’t exploring nearly broadly enough. If we don’t fail, then we’ve really failed!”
Certainly, there are places where we need to play it safe. But sometimes, not taking risks is the riskiest move of all.
Stop playing “schedule tetris.”
Most teams are effectively playing what we call “schedule Tetris,” cramming every possibly incoming meeting invite into every single opening, as if finding space for every meeting were the point of the game. And yet, when pushed to innovate, one of the most oft-repeated complaints is, “I don’t have any time.”
The most visionary leaders block time for unscheduled time. Jeff Bezos famously kept two days unscheduled to explore the internet and seek fresh opportunities. (And not just when they were a scrappy startup — he did it when Amazon’s market cap was 17 times that of Barnes & Noble, widely considered their primary “competition” at the time).
Unless your industry is entirely unique, your teams are going to face problems next week, next month, and next year. To solve those problems, they’ll need space to generate a volume of solutions and to commission experiments that create valuable data about the best path forward. Have them block that time now, before the Tetris blocks start fighting for their calendar space.
If you aren’t blocking time ahead of time, don’t be surprised if your teams “don’t have time to innovate” at the very moment a crisis strikes. Small changes can drive enormous impacts. One Irish IT executive bemoaned the fact that she had no time to try a new innovation technique we had taught her. “It’s Wednesday morning, and I’m on meeting number 32 this week.” Instead, we suggested that she write her future self a love note. “Just look at your calendar for the next glimpse of daylight. Could be two weeks out,” we recommended. “Create a new event titled, ‘Exploration Time.’”
When we checked in a month later, she was a different person. “I’ve always felt the calendar is what kept me from doing something new. I never realized I could wield it to protect space to work differently.” It was liberating for her to realize it was up to her to create space for the activities that really moved the needle. For innovation to thrive on your teams, block time for the core activities you know will be needed long before you know the particulars of the problems you’ll need fresh thinking to solve.
The old leadership adage, “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions” has never been uttered by a truly innovative leader. While everyone acknowledges the importance of problem-solving, the subtle art of problem-finding is poorly cultivated. Innovation leaders know that problems are the necessary precondition to novel solutions, and they cultivate an awareness of problems across their teams.
Robert McKim had students keep a “bug list” long before computer programming entered common parlance. He told them to write down things that bother them, or “bug” them, knowing that attention to problems seeds the soil for innovation for grow. Apple made the iPhone because Steve Jobs and many other leaders considered cell phones “pieces of junk.” Tony Fadell was inspired to build the Nest Thermostat after enduring far too many first nights at his Tahoe ski cabin too cold because he couldn’t change the thermostat until he arrived on the property.
Many organizations have “suggestion boxes,” or “idea competitions.” We recommend placing a “problem box” prominently beside those.
Delay your decisions.
One counterintuitive, but highly effective strategy is to delay decisions about which new solutions to move forward. Our efficiency obsession is most pronounced during the idea selection phase because we seek for what psychologists call cognitive closure: It’s distressing to leave things unresolved! Yet one of the best things a team can do is decide to not decide… yet.
After sharing ideas, schedule another time to make decisions. Leaving the issue “unresolved” triggers what’s known as the Zeigarnik effect, named after Russian psychologist Bluma Ziegarnik. People’s working memory will continue to consider the problem, often resulting in better solutions emerging.
. . .
The tactics we’ve described above are designed to help your team summon the energy required to create something new. If your day-to-day work doesn’t support creativity, your larger ambitions will continue to stall out.
Ultimately, it comes down to redefining what you think “work” is and giving your colleagues and employees permission to do the same. If work is all about efficiency-oriented measures, like response time to Slack messages and number of meetings attended, you’ll continue to squander the immense potential for creativity our people possess. But if you start thinking in terms of effectiveness — combing the world for rich inputs that drive fresh thinking or pushing your team to generate a volume of solutions to a problem before zeroing in on the right answer — then innovation will start to tilt in your favor.
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