Personal Innovation: We Need to Stop and Think

Innovation experts love to make lists of obstacles to innovation. These lists include issues like lack of time, resistance to change, poor communication, middle management and so on. Employees like to cite obstacles such as these in part because they place the blame on the organisation and their mangers rather than on themselves. And, indeed, can you imagine a middle manager responding to a questionnaire on obstacles to innovation with the answer: “Why, I believe I am a major obstacle to innovation in this firm.”? But the truth is, possibly the biggest obstacle to innovation is simply that people do not stop and think!

Let’s think about this for a moment, if you will. The first element of the innovation process is creativity. Creative ideas, which are implemented and generate value, usually through increased revenue or reduced operating costs or both, become innovations. Without creativity there is no innovation.

Moreover, most creative thinking in organisations follows, at least to some extent, creative problem solving (CPS) methodology. At minimum, this means examining a problem in order to identify the underlying issues, formulating a challenge and generating ideas that could potentially solve the problem. For instance, if your firm decides to launch a new product, there will be a number of implicit and explicit creative challenges you and your employees will tackle, including: the appearance of the product, functionality, how to build it, where to build it, market placement and so on. Even if you do not use formal brainstorming sessions and idea management tools to  generating ideas to solve these problems, your employees will informally generate and evaluate ideas.

Of course, with a major action like launching a new product, it is inevitable that people will focus on generating ideas, creative thinking and innovation. But with minor issues, this is often not the case.

Taking a creative approach with routine tasks

For instance, imagine you need to make a Powerpoint presentation to a new client to whom you want to emphasise your company’s strong customer orientation. If you are like most people, you will pull out your standard corporate Powerpoint presentation, which is follows corporate style guidelines, includes your mission statement, some attractive numbers, a few colourful bar graphs and some slogans. You will most likely add an extra couple of slides about customer service and some numbers comparing your firm to the competition for customer satisfaction. You’ve done it before. It’s easy, fast and you will be done in time for lunch! But it won’t be a very creative presentation. Why not? Because you won’t have spent any time thinking about the presentation, the purpose of the presentation, the client or their expectations.

Another approach would be to stop and think.

In doing so, you might realise that neither the client nor you really want a typical business presentation. So, instead, you tell a story about a client with similar needs to the new client’s. You tell how the client came to your firm, how your people went out of their way to serve the client and the results achieved. Rather than bar graphs, numbers and bullet points, each white slide has a single word on it, a word emphasising a key point in the dialogue.

Or perhaps you decide to do away with Powerpoint all together and use children’s wooden building blocks to demonstrate how your firm works, to present information and to show links to customers. You might also include an exercise in which you and the client build something together in order to demonstrate how you collaborate. At the same time, one of your colleagues washes the client’s car, just to emphasise your deep commitment to customer service.

Either of these alternative presentation methods would be more fun that a standard presentation to develop, would doubtless make a lasting impact on the client and would certainly demonstrate creativity. But they would require that you stop and think before starting what is usually a mundane task.

Google: Creative friend or foe?

When faced with a problem for which the company does not have an established action, many people still don’t think. They Google. Using the famous search engine, they find a few relevant web pages, read them and follow whichever approach seems best. This can be a quick way to solve problems, but following someone else’s established and published actions is hardly creative. Bear in mind, no organisation ever became an innovative leader in their market by following the competition’s every move!

To use a non-business example, let’s imagine you want to make a spinach quiche. You have some cooking experience, and can imagine what is probably in a quiche, but have never actually cooked one before. Moreover, you do not own any cookbooks. What do you do? If you are like many people, you Google spinach quiche recipes, look at a few and select the best compromise between what looks good and what you can make in terms of available ingredients and so on. Then you follow the recipe. No doubt it will be a very good quiche – and the planning will only take a few minutes. But it will not be a terribly creative quiche.

A much more creative approach would be to use your imagination in order to determine what would make a yummy quiche. Probably you will do a little idea generation in your mind, imagining certain ingredients and how they would taste together before deciding on what to include. Once you’ve planned the recipe in your mind, you put everything together and hope for the best. This approach will take a little longer to get started, but will certainly result in a more creative quiche. However, it is also a riskier approach. The quiche might not be as good as a closely followed recipe – at least not the first time. However, if you persevere in your quiche experimentation, you will soon be making a delicious and creative quiche in your own style.

The middle approach, of course, would be to use Google for information and inspiration. In this case, you would search for spinach quiche recipes. But rather than follow any one of them precisely, you might combine elements of two or more recipes and add your own modifications as well. The resulting quiche would likely be very similar to one of the recipes you found via Google, but it would also be somewhat creative as a result of your modifications.

In the business environment, Google is widely used for quick problem solving. However, the creative executive should always stop and think about a problem before using Google. And, she should normally use Google for research and inspiration rather than finding and following a strict recipe.

Stop, listen and think

Even when people do stop, think, devise creative ideas and share those ideas with their managers, those managers often fail to stop and think themselves. Rather, they tend to reject unusual ideas with statements like: “we don’t have time for that”, “we don’t have budget for that” or “that’s not how we do things here.” When this happens, subordinates’ creative ideas are not elevated and those subordinates become demotivated.

Indeed, imagine that an enthusiastic new employee is assigned to make a presentation to a new client. She wants to impress them. So, as we did above, she generates some alternative ideas, chooses to use building blocks to present the company and then tells her manager about her plan.

It would be nice to think her manager would listen to the idea, think about it and be impressed. But in truth many overworked managers are likely to say: “don’t be ridiculous. We always use the company Powerpoint presentation. You can find it on the intranet.” Boom! A creative idea is shot dead.

Of course, it is not possible to stop, think and generate ideas for every problem that occurs in an office. In many cases, established protocol is the easiest and most efficient way to get things done. But it never hurts to stop and think for a moment before starting a task. Ask yourself: is there a better way? Often there is. Moreover, the better way may also be easier and less time consuming than established protocol. And that is always useful in a busy workplace.

By Jeffrey Baumgartner

About the author

Jeffrey Baumgartner is the author of the book, The Way of the Innovation Master; the author/editor of Report 103, a popular newsletter on creativity and innovation in business. He is currently developing and running workshops around the world on Anticonventional Thinking, a new approach to achieving goals through creativity.