Gini Dietrich

Innovation and Creativity As Part of Everyone’s Jobs

By: Gini Dietrich | September 21, 2010 | 

Last week we conducted a mini poll to see how many of you have skunkworks teams at work. Turns out, with the exception of one, none of us formally have skunkworks teams, or a team of people whose sole job is to come up with new and innovative products or services.

The reason I wanted to know is because I’ve been reading a lot about skunkworks teams and why they don’t work, in any sense of the term. The example that resonated with me the most was one from Harvard Business Review

“The Razr phone is a case in point. It was developed by a small group within Motorola, with strong support from CEO Ed Zander and CMO Geoffrey Frost. Frost noted that company research showed that there was a total world market of two million units for a $499 phone, the most expensive phone that anyone had yet sold. The conventional thinking was that this would be a halo product for Motorola — glamorous but low-volume and money-losing.

Of course the Razr went on to become one of the biggest selling phones of all time, selling over two million units in the U.K. alone. The traditional market research relied on historical precedent, so it missed an inflection point occurring right then in 2004 when mobiles shifted from being utilitarian devices to fashion accessories. The Razr capitalized on that shift brilliantly, and catapulted Motorola from mobile phone has-been to powerhouse.”

But let’s be real – this kind of thing happens only once. It’s nearly impossible for us, as human beings, to be put in a room and told, “Come up with something brilliant” and we do.

So there are likely three scenarios, right? The first is making innovation and creativity part of everyone’s jobs; the second is creating a process for developing innovation (i.e. first we did this, then we did this, then we did this) in order to make it repeatable; and the third is to have a dedicated team (don’t worry, Erik Hare…I won’t say skunkworks again).

But, according to a second Harvard Business Review article (I like reading them, what can I say?), none of these work. They say if it’s part of everyone’s job, you get a lot of little ideas accomplished, if there is a process it really only works for improvements (and really, if you have a process for innovation, does that really work?), and we’ve already discussed the issue with the third option.

I disagree with their first option claim. I do think you can build a company culture that is open to innovation and creative ideas. I’m not saying you reward innovation with money (like I wrote about a couple of weeks ago). Rather making it part of the company culture; part of the values. If you lead a business, this decision has to come from you and you have to live, breathe, and value innovation at all levels. If you don’t lead a business, there is a huge opportunity for you to get in front of the executives to affect change.

As we move toward a bigger vision at Arment Dietrich, we’re redefining our values. A week ago I asked everyone to take a week to think about the values we currently live and the values they’d like us to live. We discussed those values in our staff meeting yesterday. Do you know that every, single person said we already live entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to create ideas and execute them? Does that mean we’re the bee’s knees in terms of a replicable culture? Not yet. But we’re working on it and I think it’s going to work.

Not every idea is carried through, which I think is the difference in what HBR says won’t work in the first model. But you can bet that if the idea fits the vision and moves us more quickly to where we’re going, the person who had the idea has full autonomy to do with it what she or he wants. Innovation and creativity is part of our values and it’s part of everyone’s jobs. We think it will work.

What do you think?

* Cartoon courtesy of Harper’s Magazine

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

  • This reminds me of Daniel Pink’s book, “Drive,” when Dan says, “solving complex problems requires an inquiring mind and the willingness to experiment one’s way to a fresh solution.”

    I think the ability to give employees this license to experiment is one of the greatest gifts a leader can give their team.

    And, in a “chicken and the egg” sort of way, empowering people also validates for them that it’s okay for their minds to be inquiring. What people believe shapes what people achieve.

    So perhaps THINKING your company is innovative and creative is just as important as actually making it a reality. Looking forward to reading more about how these issues effect the evolution of your company.

    • Jennifer – I LOVED “Drive!” When I worked in the big agency world, they always wanted us to be creative, but then squashed our ideas when we had the guts to think of something new. As an employee, I wanted the ability to experiment, but never had the opportunity. So I hope I’m giving my team that license you describe. And I hope you’re right…that thinking the company is innovative and creative is just as important as being both.

  • I think innovation and creativity are what differentiate organizations. Organizations that are not afraid to try new things, are filled with passionate people who want to succeed, and never forget the basics like goals & measurement will always outpace the all too common status quo. FTW Gini!

    • Anna, it’s rather scary how much alike you and I think. Now to go to the next level and begin to build a customer-centric culture. 🙂

  • Ok Ok Ok… i’ll be on your skunkworks team… or i mean your creavitvation team… i see that we shouldn’t say skunkworks..

    Here are my thoughts on creativity and innovation in a company (much comes from personal experience)… true creativity and innovation that I have will look nothing or little like your creativity and innovation. Sometimes they have strings of being similar, but I have seen the best come out when you allow the ideas to go beyond your comprehension.

    Most of the things that I see for myself are that my ideas are gauged through the lens in which my superiors see creativity and innovation. This leads to a process that is hard to progress through and it gives to a lot of ideas looking identical with slight twists.

    So, with that all being said.. does a company really want creativity and innovation? that just means that you have to let loose of control a bit and filter out the junk.. breed ideas.. let them build.. and see what sticks.. and you are guaranteed some failures!

    go team creavitvation

    • Bryan, are you good with Dallas’s suggestion of Ginovation? If so, report to work at 9 a.m. tomorrow. God bless you.

  • First, I have to blush at being the one who brought up the copyright issues – but as a struggling writer I am … sensitive to these things? 🙂

    But seriously, IMHO this is a very important issue not just for companies but for our whole society. We need a culture where people keep their eyes open, their minds active, and their hearts full of the fire of possibility they once had as a child.

    Is that going to necessarily bubble really big ideas up to the top? I can see that this often brings up mostly little things that don’t seem like “game changers”. So what? It’s usually enough to make a stable, joyous living. What more does anyone want?

    Companies that make this happen are providing examples to the rest of our economy and culture. I think it’s great that Arment Dietrich not only works through this process but does it so gosh darned publicly!

    • Erik, I was giggling to myself when I wrote that line to you. I’m with you – I don’t care so much if ideas are game changers. What I do care about is if people are thinking beyond their jobs and are energized to contribute to business growth. I think that comes from allowing autonomy and creative thinking…no matter the name for it.

  • Good Morning: Well, since I am the company at the moment, I guess I already have a skunkworks function in place. But in previous work environments, I found:

    1. Leadership/management did not encourage or even accept innovation or creativity.

    2. Some colleagues subscribed to the “It’s not my job” policy and wold not even consider offering suggestions on how to make things better.

    I personally believe that companies/organizations/governments that do not regularly re-invent themselves, will not be around much longer.

    • Edward, Years ago as an intern, I “was allowed” to sit in on a brainstorming session but was also told not to speak. That’s #1, powers that be being open to creative input from anyone. FWIW.

      • Davina, you’re allowed to visit the blog but no longer allowed to contribute. That is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard, but I had the exact, same experience! Until the client asked a question and no one in the room could answer it…but I knew the answer. So I feebly spoke up (I was so painfully shy back them). I could almost hear my bosses gasp. I never want a culture like that. Ever.

  • I have worked for and with several, let’s say, “Entreprenurial” companies and the fact that someone can come up with an idea and yes, even get management sponsorship and go as far as implementation is, well, not enough.

    Many ideas, products and services have been built in the vacuum of creativity without the benefit of voice of customer or research. I am hoping that when we dicuss special teams devoted to creativity and innovation we are saying that they have the benefit of market research that helps set boundaries.

    In my humble opinion, the most creative products and services were built within the boundaries of budget, time, implementation and market realities. That, my friends, is where true successes are made.

    • Melanie, YES! To my half-sarcastic point to Anna above, we all need to be thinking about how creativity and innovation fit into a customer-centric culture. One that not only looks at research, but allows the customer to provide input along the way. And one thing I’d add to your boundaries is within the company’s vision.

  • So much of what drives success or failure in this process is ego-driven. People are afraid to fail, or look bad, or to be overshadowed by superior thinking from a “subordinate” when their jobs might be on the line…a company that can take ego out of the equation and give good ideas full consideration, regardless of which employees provided them, can become truly successful. You still need experience to execute ideas. It’s those little serendipitous accidents that can result in big-time innovation. Look at Stickie Notes.

    • Rusty, I love Stickie Notes! I agree with you about the concept of people being afraid to fail. My point is exactly what you say – to take out the ego and LET people fail. It goes to what I wrote yesterday, too. If people can fail, they are more creative and they’re better professionals.

      • Amen to Rusty and Gina. You have to create a culture of safety. Failure is ok, and in fact a great lesson and potential fodder for the great idea that DOES work!

  • I think we call it the Ginovation Team! You’re welcome Gini.

    • Deb Bruser ( JoyFull_deb)

      Awesome…I love the “Ginovation Team” idea.

    • Nice.

  • When I was in graduate school, I had the opportunity to work on a case centered around innovation and a company called Veriphone (when you “zip” your credit card, that’s Veriphone).

    We found that a primary difference between innovation INSIDE a company versus OUTSIDE a company is the implications of failure. If you are inside a company, you feel you can always go back to your “normal” job if things don’t work out. If you are an entrepreneur who has bet it all, you operate with a sense of urgency, and perhaps desperation, which cannot be duplicated in a cozy corporate environment.

    To solve the problem, the CEO cut innovation teams off from the rest of the company — actually re-located them to a warehouse or something — and acted as a VC for the venture instead of a boss. This seemed to create the entrepreurial urgency that was lacking in a more informal skunkworks.

    • Mark, I think what you’re describing is a true skunkworks team. How did it work at Veriphone? The Harvard Business Review articles I read said that model can’t and doesn’t work because it’s putting people in a box and telling them to be brilliant. But I agree with you that, until you have some skin in the game, you don’t take a lot of risk. It’s certainly true with me. It wasn’t until I was fighting to make payroll that I had to figure out a new way of doing things.

  • P.S. The world’s best book on institutionalizing innovation is “Entrepreneurship and Innovation” by Peter Drucker.

  • Hi Gini!

    In my experience, you need three key elements for creatively driven inspiration to thrive:

    1. All players must be awake, engaged, and fully aware of the end goal.

    2. The players must be situated in an environment conducive to the safe and enthusiastic sharing of ideas.

    3. Removing barriers represented by conflicting agendas must be willingly entertained and/or acted upon.

    I think it must be a dynamic experience to serve on your team. Keep racing the wind!

    • Deb Bruser ( JoyFull_deb)

      Sally….you #ROCK !!!

      • Sally, dang. Now I know why staff meetings are so long. No one is awake at 9 a.m. on Mondays! 🙂

        I think you’re absolutely right – and to Rusty’s point, people need to know it’s okay to fail. No one here has ever been let go because they failed after an experiment. I hope I’m truly creating the culture I have in my head.

        And Deb is right…you do rock!

  • Gini, I agree it goes back to core values and culture within the organization.

    If you’re in an environment where it’s always “Great idea, we’ll take it and not share back.. Now what have you done for us lately?” there’s not much to encourage creativity. If it’s a company that embraces different ideas, even the stupid and crazy, “forgives” mistakes and “empowers” employees think and innovate, many may go that extra mile just to see what they can do.

    Agree that it’s not just about financial rewards, but also how those contributions are valued and recognized. Sure you’ll find a way to “make it work” as Tim Gunn would say. FWIW.

  • AndrewW

    You’re very cynical. Some people ARE innovating and solving problems:

    • Gini Dietrich

      Hi Andrew. No cynicism meant – I was simply reacting, as a business owner who is innovating the PR industry, to some articles written in mass media about innovation not working…at all. I’ll check out the link you sent.

      • AndrewW

        I would think about what Einstein said “imagination is more important than knowledge.” I have found over the years (as an angel investor) that many people loose or obscure their imagination in favor of knowledge. I’ve seen it many times – the more someone learns, the less they rely on imagination.

        Thomas Edison experimented to find answers. Tesla, more of a scientist, thought of solutions. Both used their imagination.

        I would suggest a book called “The Arc of Ambition.” Because if someone isn’t ambitious they won’t even have an interest in exploring solutions. I haven’t met a lot of people in my life who are truly ambitious. I can tell who they are because they don’t complain, they don’t worry about failure and the never quit.

  • Hello, I work for the Creative Education Foundation (CEF) and I find much of what you are all saying to be very interesting.
    Rusty’s comment about creating a climate that says “It’s OK to fail” takes the cake for my kudos. But Gini, your comment about “does a creative process really work?” is what I want to address.
    CEF was founded in 1954 by Alex Osborn, the inventor of brainstorming. He was an Ad-man and Partner of the advertising company BBDO (he is the O) and with the brainstorming process he took his company out of the clutches of bankruptcy and back into prosperity. He started the company because he saw an urgent need to bring creativity into the classrooms and to make deliberate creative thought a natural way of thought.
    He and Sidney Parnes co-developed a deliberate creative thinking process called the Creative Problem Solving process (CPS). It is a six step process that takes an individual or a group from a “Goal, Wish, or Challenge” to an “Action Plan” that dictates: “What will be done, who will do it, by when it will be done, and who is accountable.” Creativity is woven through this process seamlessly and it produces useful and effective results.
    As a testament to this: Tony Baxter, the head “Imagineer” of Disney keynoted and attended our annual Creative Problem Solving Institute (CPSI) and fell in love with the process AND our YouthWise Program traveled multiple times to South Africa to teach the process to young South African children- they also fell in love with the process.
    “CEF has helped me stay away from gangs. The most important thing I’ve learned has been how to lead the people around me. Thank you, CEF,” says Tsuki, a 15-year old girl.
    You all seem interested in this field and I would love if you visited our website to check us out or get involved:
    Thanks for caring about this important issue!

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  • hi gini,
    if we do a root cause analysis on the problem that organizations innovate far less than they need to, we have to dig back into the roots of traditional management which define the assumptions behind virtually all the literature and practice of leadership, management and organization design.

    when you do that, you discover pretty quickly that frederick taylor and his cohort who were the inventors of “modern scientific management” very intentionally designed the process to minimize employee contribution.

    they conceptualized the organization as a machine (after all they grew up in a newtonian universe) and employees were expected to be good cogs in the machine. in one of his writings, taylor says, “under our system, a worker is told just what he is to do and how he is to do it. any improvement he makes in the orders given to him is fatal to his success.”

    the problem we face in business is that the assumptions that went into the invention of management as we know it have fallen into the culture of business. and as anthropologist edward t. hall wrote, “culture is largely invisible to its participants.” meaning that these assumptions have disappeared from view. today we treat the principles of leadership, management and organization design as they were inscribed on the tablets moses brought down from the mountain instead of the ten commandments.

    the good news is that the newtonian universe has given way under the pressure of quantum theory, chaos theory and a bit more recently complexity theory. we now know how to design companies that are largely self-managing and where employees are not whacked on the knuckles if they stick their noses outside their cubicles.

    in short, the innovation issue cannot be solved with bandaids. a deep questioning of every artifact of management is required. the key learning from all of this for me has been that 1. business is about behavior. 2. traditional management tries to manipulate behavior to achieve desired ends using essentially two tool: the carrot and the stick. 3. the reality is leaders and managers have very little direct control over employee behavior. 4. what actually shapes employee behavior primarily is the ecosystem in which they work. 5. the ecosystem is defined by the organizational artifacts of compensation; feedback; education, training and orientation. 6. to change the behavior, we have to change the system. it’s not about the people. it’s about the system. and while we have very little direct control over the people, we have virtually complete control over the system.

    if you want to generate innovation, change the ecosystem to support that. this is not a trivial undertaking, will take a minimum of 2-3 years and probably the turnover of 20% of employees (80/20 rule).

    this is a fundamental paradigm shift, but it works.

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