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How to Amplify Creativity and Innovation

Image of creativity

According to a recent survey conducted by the Partnership for Public Services on the best places to work in the Federal government, Americans need to prime the creativity pump in both the public and private sectors.

A whopping 92% of government employees say they constantly look for ways to do their jobs better.

Contrast that with the 60% of private employees who expressed the same sentiment, and you get a sense that our economy may continue to stagnate. Unfortunately, when it comes to implementing innovative ideas, actual results fall short for both sectors.

Institutional Support Has Gone Missing

Why, when people want to exercise their creativity to improve performance and results in the workplace, do we prevent them from doing so? On the public side it boils down to a lack of institutional support. The survey found:

  • 35% of Federal employees do not receive an opportunity to improve skills
  • Another 35% do not get the chance to demonstrate leadership capabilities
  • 47% do not respect senior leaders
  • 49% express dissatisfaction with their involvement in decisions that impact personal work
  • Only 50% receive rewards for high quality performance
  • 54% have disengaged because they’re not allowed to modify work processes

It appears as if a significant number of government employees feel stuck when it comes to demonstrating their most impressive critical thinking, problem-solving, and creative skills. The same can be said for employees in the private sector, who experience many of the same dynamics, but for different reasons.

Short-term Focus = Long-term Decline

Market forces drive corporate behaviors to pursue short-term profits. Senior management strives to hit projected growth figures quarter after quarter. At some point, that model can no longer sustain itself. FastCompany does a good job at breaking down the motivations that underpin innovation and change in The Number One Killer of Corporate Innovation, so we won’t rehash that here.

Research also shows that people actually tend to be extraordinarily creative in established companies, but the  corporate structure and goal for “x” amount of short-term growth kills innovative projects before they get too far off the ground. As noted in The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M. Christensen, companies either have to buy new technologies or develop them under a different umbrella after a the organization reaches a certain level of maturity.

Cannibalize As A Pre-emptive Strike

Established companies consistently cannibalize new, in-house projects before they hit the market as  factions compete for resources. In addition, the incentive for developing innovative products or services diminish as the company grows larger. New markets provide very small opportunities at inception. If you make the right bet, however, over time innovation drives tremendous growth as existing products or services reach maturity. So, really, the choice is where in the lifecycle you need to cannibalize your product line in order to remain a vibrant, growing company at every stage of your lifecycle.

Image of a Starting Line

© Sergej Khackimullin –

How then, do you tip the scale to enable new products and services to enter the development pipeline and make it to market? Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen give some clues in their work, Great by Choice. Among other techniques, they suggest a company establish a 20-mile march—essentially a consistent, long-term growth goal independent of market dynamics.

A long-term mindset makes a tremendous difference in acceptance of employee recommendations for improvement and the company’s longevity. Consider the painful process IBM went through on the way to becoming a services company—and how it paid off long-term. Tipping the scale from complacency to transformation that changes the face of industries requires leadership that gives people the chance to dream big.

No Sacred Cows Allowed

And along the way, you have to cut through preconceived notions about markets, products, and people. For example, I often begin by engaging teams with a “What’s Working; What’s Not Working Exercise.” We eliminate sacred cows during the discussion.

To warm the team up for breaking through creativity barriers before the What’s Working exercise, I sometimes ask employees to write something creative about corporate issues. Their work can be in the form of a poem, a limerick, or a haiku. We go around the table and share before moving onto anything else on the agenda. If you try this, your people will surprise you. In one instance I discovered that my team of engineers was far more poetic as a group than my project managers. And together, with the right mindset, we eliminated the barriers to innovation in a company that had been stuck in the past.

© 2012. All rights reserved.

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