The Yes Blog

Play Your Way to Innovation

Encourage and stimulate creativity and innovation. Get the edge on your competition. Keep up your interest and passion for work. Retain employees who love their work. Excite your clients, increase referral business, and create a buzz.

This will be an article about cultivating a culture of creativity and innovation in business (and elsewhere). But first, a context.

Many of our clients come to us because their companies have become stagnant, and they’re wanting to shake things up. One client, the Artistic Director of a small theater company, said, “We’re doing ok, but we need to be doing better than that. We’re basically doing the same things we’ve been doing, but we need to be doing the things we haven’t been doing. I just don’t know what those things are yet.”

If they’re honest, we’ve found that a lot of business leaders – in the arts and beyond – can relate to this conundrum. Businesses find a model for success. They execute that model. They achieve success in whatever way they’ve defined it for themselves. And then that model becomes a security blanket or a life raft. They know they need to make a change, but they cannot see around the status quo to the solution.

Whether the broken or ailing status quo is a model for product production, for providing customer service, for marketing or for something else, the life raft often starts taking on water as soon as it has done its initial job. In other words, the initial idea works great for a while, but then the market shifts and the company’s relevance and/or its vibrancy begins to wane. Competitors may make a better mousetrap and crowd us out of the market, or our own company and its leadership may begin to get bored with doing today what we were doing yesterday. How many times have we all heard the common refrain, “Same s#*t, different day?”

Stagnancy in any business leads to:

  • Failure to capture a bigger market share
  • Loss of market share
  • Loss of productivity
  • Client retention problems
  • Talent/staff retention problems

And now, to pull this article out of a power dive, I arrive at the destination promised: Creativity and Innovation. No matter the initial reason business leaders come to me, many soon ask for help with freeing up creativity and innovation.

Creativity and innovation lead to:

  • Excitement in the company and the marketplace
  • Increased market share
  • Growth of the market through viral sharing that brings new people to your sector/category
  • Increased motivation and productivity
  • Client referrals
  • Personal fulfillment and satisfaction within the company
  • Talent/Staff retention and ease of recruitment

And the burning question in all your minds… How do we get some of that? How can we be more creative as entrepreneurs? And how can we get more creativity and innovation out of those who work with us?

Before I tell you, answer me this – Do you punish failure? If your employees take risks to try something new in good faith, and their risks result in failure, are they encouraged to keep trying new things, or are they ridiculed, chastised or sanctioned? Or, do you instead, if your team takes measured and calculated risks that don’t pay off, thank them for taking the risks, engage them in learning the lessons that failure inevitably offers, and reward them for their efforts by extending your trust again in the form of responsibility? The latter will bring you great results – failures, yes, but also great successes. They key is to fail in these initiatives quickly, learn and regroup quickly, and try something new. Nothing quells creativity and innovation like the fear of failure. It is rumored that a reporter asked Thomas Edison how it felt to fail thousands of times on his way to inventing the light bulb. His famous response, “I never failed. I just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.”

Perhaps it is no surprise that fear of failure dampens creativity. But this will surprise you. Incentives for creativity and innovation also dampen creativity. When offered rewards for innovation, adults, and even the greatest innovators in the world (children) suffer a marked decrease in “out of the box” thinking. Attention goes to the reward instead of to the creative process.

The engine of the creative process is play. Google, perhaps the most innovative company in operation (notice how many applications they have in beta testing) has learned this lesson well. Its employees are asked to attend to their regularly scheduled tasks for 80% of their work time. The other 20% of their time (called 20% time) is given to employee pet projects. When someone believes that they’ve got something worth taking to the market, they share it – without fear of negative repercussions if it should flop. More companies would do well to emulate Google in this.

And what of the solo entrepreneur? The same goes for you. Give yourself permission to take risks and fail. You already know that you’re resilient in the face of failure, or you’d have given up entrepreneurship long ago. Set aside time every week for exploring strange new ideas.

What Google calls “twenty percent time,” I call “Star Trek Time” – time in which your mission is to boldly go where no one has gone before.

I could go on about creativity and innovation for page after page, but I will leave you with one suggestion for priming the creative pump.

Brainstorming is a concept with which you’re all surely familiar. The team identifies a problem and throws ideas for possible solutions onto a board without regard to the viability or quality of the idea. Everything that comes into the mind goes onto the board.

Stanford School of Business professor, Jennifer Aaker, suggests turning the brainstorming session on its ear. Brainstorm and record ideas as usual. Then double the number of ideas by listing also the inverse of each idea the team came up with. For example, if one idea on the board is to, “appeal to a broader market by lowering prices,” then add to the list of ideas to, “pursue a narrower market with increased prices.” If an idea is to, “make a sweeter beverage in a larger size,” include also the idea to, “produce a smaller, less-sweet beverage.”

The results, according to Aaker (and my experience bares this out), is better than simply having twice the number of ideas. In the standard model of brainstorming, the ideas created fall on a bell-shaped curve of quality – a few terrible ideas, a few excellent ideas, and mostly mediocre ideas. When the inverse of those ideas is taken, the resulting ideas fall on a kind of inverse bell curve – many more terrible ideas, a few mediocre ideas, and surprisingly many excellent and exceptional ideas.

Start to breed a culture of creativity and innovation in your business today. Identify some problems specifically that you’d like to overcome, and dive in to the potential of play, freedom, fun and opportunity to solve those problems in ways you cannot now predict.

Want to supersize the potential for creativity and the unexpected? Think about bringing the improv team of The Yes Works to your company.