Chico Marx, of the famous Marx Brothers comedy team, was once asked if he loved his brother, Harpo. “No, but I’m used to him,” he replied. Does that remind you of the way your company does much of what it does, not because anyone loves it, but because everyone is used to doing it that way?
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Organizations are remarkably effective at squashing innovation. That’s especially true, unfortunately, when times are tough. Instead of looking for new ideas (and thus adapt to a new reality), many companies assume a bunker mentality and become more entrenched than ever, as if they are waiting out a long winter. A hibernating bear isn’t likely to blaze new trails. But you can. Here’s how:
• Learn how and why things are done the way they are. The status quo might not be the best way, the most efficient way or the smartest way to operate. But before you throw the baby out with the bath water, find out everything you can about the current approach and why it’s being used.
• Seek advice from unconventional sources. When you want to improve how things are being done, you’re better off rounding up the unusual suspects: vendors, other departments, customers and even company troublemakers.
• Understand how innovation happens. Harvard Business School psychologist Dr. Teresa Amabile identified four key stages of the creative process. In simplest terms, they are:
- Preparation: The creative person first becomes immersed in the problem
- Incubation: The mind is at work, even if the problems seems to be neglected
- Illumination: The A-ha moment
- Execution: The creator takes action on the idea
As the boss, it’s imperative to understand and support these stages. For example, pushing people to go from preparation to execution isn’t realistic. You can be most helpful during the fourth stage, because implementing an idea requires determination, effort and courage. Helping to gather resources and remove obstacles is vital to the process.
• Put star innovators in a bubble. You know who your most creative people are. Do your best to protect them from the red tape, noise and process that slow creativity.
• Celebrate the small innovations. Not every new idea is a bran-burner. But if you celebrate the small innovations then you foster a culture that supports the big innovations.
• Look to change the metrics. There are many rules in business (such as the best way to make more money is to raise prices) that no longer apply. The airlines learned that by lowering fares they made more money by increasing market share. What outdated notions do you have about your business?
• Get involved. Innovation is not a spectator sport. Get in there and get your hands dirty – work at being innovative yourself, and be an active partner in nurturing new thinking.
• Stay curious. Keep your mind actively processing new information by shaking things up: Force yourself to find a new route to work, for example. Try unfamiliar food. Read a book you wouldn’t otherwise read. You never know where (or how) inspiration will strike.
• Commit to seeing the best ideas through to completion. Nothing will kill innovation faster than if people see you give up on a good idea too soon. True innovation is a long process that demands stamina and patience; show people you can go the distance.
• Accept that there will be resistance. Resistance to change is the norm. Plan for it by getting potential resisters involved in the planning process. People tend to resist less when their fingerprints are all over the change.
Real Life Example
Sara Blakely’s story began by trying to find a way to wear white pants without unsightly panty lines. Then she had the light bulb moment: Cut the feet off pantyhose. That worked perfectly. Soon, Sara was working hard to sell her idea. Predictably, no one took her seriously. She needed mill owners to make her product, but they all said it would never sell. (She finally found her mill when the owner’s daughters thought Sara was on to something.) She sought lawyers to help with her patent and they laughed at her. (“They later admitted that they thought I had been sent by Candid Camera,” Sara says on her Web site.) So she did the application herself. And so it went. When she finally had a prototype, she asked the buyer at Neiman-Marcus for 10 minutes and then flew to Dallas on her own dime to make her pitch. “During the meeting, I had no shame,” Sara recalls. She asked the buyer to follow her into the ladies room, where she proceeded to demonstrate the before and after value of her product. Three weeks later the product was on the shelves at Neiman.
The rest, as they say, in history. She’s now sole proprietor of Spanx, a $30 million company – and she’s been on Oprah.