Getting My Company Into A Creative Groove (Part III)

Strategy MattersHOW DOES YOUR company become more creative in solving problems? Why is it that other companies, not yours, come up with truly great ideas? The short answer is teamwork – the more inclusive and engaged, the better. The means by which this is achieved is addressed in this third post of my series on creative thinking.

Here’s a recap of the takeaway points on creative thinking from Part I & Part II:

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  • We are all creative at coming up with good ideas to solve problems
  • We are not equally talented; some people are more creative than others
  • We can strengthen our ability to think differently, to make greater use of our natural abilities to be more creative in thought
  • We can think and act differently by practicing divergent thinking, breakthrough thinking, & brainstorming as a means to get more creative.[/message]

Group SettingWhile we as individuals can get into a creative groove, the greater challenge is among the masses at the enterprise level. This is where added synergy is created among a wide range of experience and knowledge. Think of your company’s past attempts to engage a community of like-minded types to work together and solve problems through creative thought. To do so represents a tremendous asset, of which many companies fail to take full advantage of when trying to generate great ideas.

Problem Statement

Perhaps the greatest lip service ever played is how “our employees are the company’s number one asset,” followed by how “innovative we are” in being a market leader. If this was the case, why did 51% of U.S. workers not feel engaged while on the job, and another 17.5% felt “actively disengaged” according to Gallup’s recent survey of the workplace? This sums to over two-thirds (66%) of the workforce feeling disengaged. The problem is even worse among Millennials, who polled at only 28.9% engaged.  These dismal numbers speak to a weak organizational culture at many companies.

It should be no surprise that most organizations struggle at innovating creative ideas when factoring Gallup’s survey findings into the process. A multitude of studies suggest the failure rate for innovation ranges anywhere from 60 to 90% depending on the industry and product type. The consulting firm Doblin surveyed more than 5,000 innovations over the past 15 years to understand how well companies perform. The findings were sobering in that only about 4.5% of the outcomes proved to be successful. One can’t help but ask, why such a low success rate? Why do so many companies boast about being innovative yet fall short of success when compared to the stated benefits in the business case? While there are several reasons why organizations struggle to innovate, a disengaged workforce can be a limiting factor when it comes to discovering and acting on problems in need of creative ideas.

Indeed a wake-up call is warranted for most business leaders. On average, the Gallup survey inferred that far too many of their employees are apathetic toward company initiatives; meanwhile good money is being wasted on attempts to innovate. While purposely blunt, this statement makes a compelling case for change in how companies utilize their workforce. Specifically, leaders need to get serious in convincing employees that they are truly valued, and give them the opportunity to participate in meaningful ways, especially on important initiatives where greater levels of creativity can help solve company problems.

Creating an Engaged Enterprise

Unfortunately there is not a universal approach to prescribe to leaders on how to solve this problem. If one was to summarize five key areas for leaders to focus their attention, this author’s list of essentials would include:

Part III - hierarchy to creativityOrganizational culture is one of those topics that gets a lot of attention among academics while, in many companies, internal leadership pretends to understand but fails to evolve it in ways that enable new ways of thinking. Simply put, how work gets done is a function of the employees’ attitude, behavior, and trust in leadership.

In fact, a company is comprised of several subcultures among multiple groups (e.g., marketing, operations, & finance) to further complicate matters when trying to influence the need to change. With such a high percentage of disengaged employees, as cited in the Gallup survey, it’s no wonder that organizations are falling short of expectations.

Edgar Schein is a seminal source of knowledge on organizational culture. His research shows how difficult it is to change organizational culture, but it can be achieved over time with proper leadership and strategy. To effect change, people need to feel comfortable to open their minds to new direction without fearing ridicule or reprisal. Leadership should encourage them to get further involved in company initiatives, such as campaigns to solicit ideas on ways to improve the customer experience. Doing so can lead to a more engaged workforce willing to offer up ideas. In contrast, forcing change onto a reluctant workforce while ignoring the culture will likely backfire.

Inclusive models to innovation are designed to attract a wide range of participants from within and outside the company – i.e., individuals that share a common interest to solve problems. Engagement comes from when people who make up the organization feel empowered to act. It is through a diverse source of participants that ideas from various perspectives take shape in creative ways. For instance, someone familiar with designing customer interfaces will have ideas far different than an accountant or engineer.

Ideas can be built up and strengthened as groups of employees, business partners, and customers are expanded in size and diversity. Working together, participants can feel more engaged and valued as part of the solution.

Senior leadership’s direction and active support. In the Whose Job is it to Make Us Innovate article discussion is focused on how critical it is to get groups of talented people working together to deliver exceptional results. It is here that leaders need to influence others to adopt new ways of thinking, to cultivate a culture of shared purpose and community among all employees.

Leadership at all levels should reinforce this message so that employees are convinced of its authenticity. One way to ensure this happens is to include innovation as part of the leadership criteria tied to compensation and career advancement. Clearly part of building an innovative culture is having leaders that value creativity and are actively committed to new ways of thinking.

From my experience, it seems that many companies have organizational policies, controls, & approval levels that go too far, that stifle creativity at the employee level. Part of the issue is the tradeoff between efficiency versus effectiveness. Leadership often times is more concerned with ways to generate added efficiency through process improvement,  than exploring options to become more effective through product innovation. It is the latter that senior leaders should try to make it easier for employees to get involved, where added insight into problems could help surface fresh ideas to fulfill customer needs.

Team leadership is the lubricant to organizational change. As a facilitator, team leaders should openly talk about new concepts and ideas with the entire group to make them feel as though they are part of the solution. As a catalyst to change, team leaders are key to influencing cultures; they are typically in a position of authority to reinforce and clarify corporate direction, and instill an environment where individuals can feel and act in creative ways. Team leaders can be helpful when it comes to buffering the staff from organizational bureaucracy, while keeping individuals focused on problem areas that can lead to innovative ideas.

Individual attitude is what influences whether one cares enough about the organization, its coworkers, and customers to get engaged. It is no surprise that the real traction to creativity resides within the individual. S/he needs to feel motivated enough to want to contribute to the team and organization, to take it upon them self to ask questions, listen, read, collaborate, analyze, think some more, and offer creative ideas.

Creativity must be a willing driver of it – people must ‘want’ to be excited, emotionally charged, switched on, enthusiastic about finding new and better ways to do business, to create and deliver value to all key stakeholders, especially the customer. One can argue that employee engagement is the fuel that drives the creative process around innovation.

Yet image how engaged employees feel when told “no” early in the innovation process to a potentially great idea in need of further consideration. Think of the negative effect on other employees willing to participate when leadership shuts down the discussion. As noted above, leadership needs to be sensitive to this situation by clearly communicating vision, strategy, engagement process, and the criteria for moving ahead with creative ideas. Employees need to feel comfortable and appreciated enough to invest the time to get engaged.

Imagine the untapped potential of the 66+% of the workforce, on average, that are disengaged from the company, according to Gallup’s survey. As mentioned in Part I of this series, virtually EVERYONE can be creative at coming up with good ideas to solve problems. It clearly makes sense to tap into as many employees, business partners, and customers as possible to generate fresh ideas from which to innovate.

One way to kick-start creative thinking among the workforce is through training programs and on-the-job experience. For instance, the appliance maker Whirlpool demonstrated what it took to train over 15,000 of its workforce to think and act differently when it came to problem solving. Gary Hamel is a visiting professor at the London Business School who published an article (2015) in the Harvard Business Review that outlined what Whirlpool leadership did to train its workforce. In short, over 15,000 employees were exposed to four essential elements in how to:

  • Challenge deeply ingrained beliefs that stifle new ways
  • Harness underappreciated trends in the market
  • Leverage a company’s competencies and assets
  • Address problem areas that go unnoticed or ignored

What Whirlpool did to train its workforce symbolized real commitment to its valued asset (employees) and goal to be an industry leader in innovation. It reasons that those involved felt far more engaged and part of the company than in the past. As Hamel and his co-author Nancy Tennant noted, “any innovation program that doesn’t start by helping individuals to see the world with ‘fresh eyes’ will almost inevitably fall short of expectations.”   When the then chairman of Whirlpool (Dave Whitman) committed the company to building a culture of innovation back in 1999, he made it clear that it would be a journey over at least five years, and how ultimately “every job and every process will change.”

Fast forward to 2016, Whirlpool was named as one of the World’s Most Admired Companies for the fifth consecutive year. It does not seem a stretch to assume that an expanding employee base in problem discovery and idea generation was a contributing factor to Whirlpool’s number one ranking in the home equipment industry category.

Other notable companies that have trained their employees to think and act like innovators include Procter & Gamble with its “Innovation College,” General Electric with its Management Development Center, and DuPont with its innovative employee development programs.

Referred to as “crowdsourcing,” this a relatively new method of getting ideas, content, support or other types of solutions from diverse groups of people. Being able to collaborate like this brings people together on a potentially large-scale while driving creativity and innovation. Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and General Mills are three examples of well-known companies that have successfully used crowdsourcing to connect to their respective customers, employees, and business partners. Each had presented a challenge to solve that led to the discovery of fresh ideas among many participants.

Automated crowdsourcing tools like Brightidea, Chaordix, and Spigit can be configured to allow participants to submit, add to, and vote on ideas that they believe best address the defined challenge. They let participants review and shape ideas intended for development. This gives everyone an opportunity to have a say, even if they do not have specific ideas. Not only do many ideas emerge, but so do the participation levels and interest in the company.

Closing Comments

While individuals can strengthen their ability to be creative, the focus of this paper is getting the company’s workforce on board, to generate added value by scaling creative thinking across the enterprise. Argument is made for greater employee engagement at the enterprise level as a means to become more creative at solving problems. Companies known to innovative are able to tap into the collective knowledge of many, and letting everyone involved weigh in to shape ideas. This is not an easy task. Yet the alternative of trying to innovate the same way without creative thinking en masse can lead to disappointment, as Doblin cited in its survey.

Key takeaway points in this article include:

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  • Companies can realize key benefits in creative thinking as employee engagement levels increase.
  • Engagement comes from when employees feel valued and fulfilled from company initiatives that intersect with their interests.
  • Engagement brings about fresh ideas. Collaborative initiatives at the enterprise level (e.g., crowdsourcing) can pull in wide circles of people that share a common interest, how this gives everyone the chance to have a say, even if they do not have specific ideas.
  • Inclusive models to innovation can allow organizations to harness the ideas and hidden talents of many different people – employees, business partners and customers –while keeping them engaged over time.
  • Innovative companies will grow at an average rate of 62.2% over the next five years, as compared to a much smaller 21% rate among the other companies analyzed, according to the 2015 Global Innovation Survey conducted by the consulting firm PwC.[/message][su_spacer]

Addressing the five areas outlined in the body of this paper should go a long ways in enabling the organization to become far more inclusive and creative in solving problems. As business leaders, you are encouraged to continue thinking about more effective ways to influence employee interest, motivation, and participation levels. Imagine ways in which employee morale can be boosted to stimulate greater engagement on critical company growth activities. Consider various methods that your company can employ to become more successful at implementing change initiatives that matter to the customer and top-line growth. Being able make progress in these areas can help your organization be one of those most “innovative companies” forecasted to grow at a 62.2% clip over the next five years. It starts and ends with a workforce that is motivated, capable, and creative enough to contribute to great ideas that customers will value and pay for over time.

While the benefits for greater participation levels are compelling, leadership needs to exercise prudence by thinking through the following challenges:

  • Ways in which employees can participate in company-wide initiatives while still performing their job duties, including overtime pay issues among some.
  • How increased volumes of ideas and review comments from a wider scale of participants will be managed in a timely Expectations will need to be met among those who willingly participate in company initiatives.
  • While not all ideas can be acted upon, how participants can be recognized for their efforts and made to feel positive from the experience.
  • How to manage the risk of strategic disclosure to rivals on specific ideas when many are involved, including external participants.
  • Ways to prevent Intellectual Property issues when ideas come from others who may claim ownership and/or the right to royalties.

It reasons that some give and take is needed to come up with a viable approach to greater participation levels. Leadership may want to gradually scale up to the enterprise level while learning and adjusting along the way. One thing is clear, however; the ability to discover and act on problem areas is greatly enhanced through creative thinking, and the more inclusive and engaged the participants, the better.

It is a pleasure to share these ideas on creative thinking, and hope that it is of value to you and your organization. Part IV shines the spotlight on the organization and its ability to plan, organize, and execute activities around innovation. I welcome all likes and comments on the article.


Other Related Readings on Strategy & Innovation:

Other Related Readings on Strategy & Innovation:

For more, follow me on Twitter: @bornhofen1 and visit my website.


Dr. Robert Bornhofen
Dr. Robert Bornhofen
Dr. Robert Bornhofen is a scholar-practitioner with over 25 years of experience. As a scholar, he currently teaches strategy at Cornell University and the University of Maryland Global Campus. As a practitioner, his corporate career includes a variety of leadership roles at Fortune 500 companies IBM, Delta Air Lines, & Citibank. Dr. Bornhofen earned his Doctorate degree at the University of Maryland, a Master of Science degree from Colorado State University, and a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Minnesota. As a conference speaker, Dr. Bornhofen presents at various industry forums. His current focus is on innovation within the water utility sector. As a researcher and author, Dr. Bornhofen published over 20 papers on topics related to innovation strategy. Passionate about change, Dr. Bornhofen embraces the creative spirit that goes into problem-solving, where smart people come together to transform great ideas into extraordinary outcomes. His articles reflect this passion and desire for continuous learning.

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