Thursday, September 25, 2008

Ten Keys to Cultivating Creativity

A company in Connecticut recently hired an outside consulting firm to help them increase efficiency. Employees at all levels of the organization submitted more than 1,000 ideas. When one of the IT leaders finished expressing her enthusiasm for the initiative, I asked her two questions:

I. How can you cultivate a culture that supports idea generation and implementation without the need for separate initiatives?

II. How are you going to avoid killing creativity as you increase efficiency?

She didn't have any answers. However, Harvard Business School does. Their faculty invited business leaders from highly creative companies (e.g., Google, pharmaceutical leader Novartis, design consultancy IDEO…) to a two-day symposium. (1) Their first conclusion: you don't manage creativity, you manage for creativity. Here's how:

1. "Capture every fleeting idea," states Sir Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Airlines (and hundreds of other Virgin companies). He is reminding us that none of us is as smart as all of us. To test this principle, Google's founders tracked the progress of ideas that they, the leaders, had backed versus ideas that were executed in the ranks without support from above. They discovered a higher success rate in the latter category. Creativity is the responsibility of everyone, every day.

2. Foster collaboration. The “lone inventor” is a myth according to Diego Rodriguez, a partner at IDEO. He points to Google, Wikipedia, and Mozilla as illustrations of collaboration both within the organization and with customers outside. Network and social structures that are fluid enable this type of cooperation. An over-emphasis on centralization or top-down management kills creativity faster than you can say "idea."

3. Celebrate diversity. Innovation is more likely when people of different disciplines, backgrounds, and areas of expertise share their thinking. The most innovative companies look outside their organization for people with different perspectives. If you're on the outside of a house, you can only see through your window. Asking those who are peering through different window provides a much clearer picture of what's inside. A single point of view is no way to see.

4. Don't kill ideas with process. Dr. Mark Fishman, President of the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research reported that when organizations focus on process improvement too much it hurts long-term innovation. He recommends that leaders focus their efficiency initiatives in the middle and at the end of the creative process. The fuzzy, initial stages of innovation are not places to seek efficiency.

5. Pass the baton carefully. The most passion for an idea resides in its creator. When it comes time to commercialize the idea, the handoff must be handled with care. Some organizations allow the “idea generators” to stay on the team as it goes through the commercializes process. This may keep the enthusiasm for the ideas high, but only if the tension between the creators and those who commercialize the ideas is managed well.

6. Filter the ideas. For every idea that generates revenue, nine generate only expenses. Gardens have weeds. Merck's R&D chief, Peter Kim, rewards stock options to "scientists who bail out on the losing project." Another idea is to let the customer be the filter by bringing products to market rapidly for testing. Be wary of product evaluation committees, they kill creativity.

7. Provide intellectual challenge. A study of 11,000 R&D employees found that early-stage researchers who were motivated by intellectual challenge were more productive. A strong desire for independence and extrinsic motivation (i.e., salary, benefits, job security) were also associated with higher productivity, but not nearly as much as the desire for intellectual challenge.

8. Encourage the pursuit of personal passions. Companies such as Google, 3M, and Novartis encourage their people to spend a significant percent of their time on projects of their own choosing. Some individuals are wired to work on version 10.0; others are always searching for the next big thing. Balancing these different forms of creativity and encouraging both is critical to innovation.

9. Appreciate progress. If you want people to exert Herculean efforts, reward effort. Too often leaders feel they should only reward accomplishments. Not true. If you want people to work hard, especially in activities that don't always pay off such as creativity, reward progress. What you appreciate appreciates. Stopping by to pat someone on the back, say a kind word, or applaud a small accomplishment may be all that's necessary for the next breakthrough.

10. Interpret failure is feedback. Fear of failure is an epidemic in most businesses. Kim Scott, director of online sales and operations for Google, observed that the firms in Silicon Valley that have had the most difficult time managing creativity are those that have been the most successful, because they developed an aversion to failure. Most company cultures reinforce the belief that failure is bad and when it happens, it's best forgotten as quickly as possible. Leaders need to adopt the experiment mentality of the researcher. The essence of experimentation is trial, feedback, learning, next trial. There is no failure, only feedback. Failure is an admission that we didn't learn from the feedback.

These are the top ten keys to cultivating creativity in that Connecticut firm. How can you adapt them to increase creativity and innovation with your team? Let me know how it goes.

See you on the mountain,


1. Teresa Amabile and Mukti Khaire; Creativity and the Role of the Leader, ‘Harvard Business Review,’ October 2008, 101 - 109.

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