Is Innovation & Creativity Mere Lip Service in Organizations?

By Jayaram Rajaram

How to create and sustain an Innovation Culture in your Organization?

I have interacted with many-a-CXO over the last 10 years in business and almost every single time I have heard the words ‘Innovation’ and ‘Creativity’ being used. While I find that there is unanimous vote when it comes to the importance of innovation, it’s the MBA-clan and managers who sit inside boxes that are talking about the urgency to innovate. While the desire to innovate is a good starting point, most leaders and teams seem to just get stuck with the desire alone. Unfortunately most Business schools stifle creativity and innovation by equipping future leaders with analytical tools designed to mitigate risk. Innovation and creativity can never happen when leaders tread cautious paths. Time and again people say they want innovation but are even scared of embracing a slightly off-beat advertisement campaign maybe in a not-tried-before media vehicle; leave alone allowing collaborative creativity that is required in creating innovative products, innovative distribution channels or coming up with innovative solutions to sales or operational challenges and most importantly to people issues.

Over the years, I have been tracking companies that have excelled despite recessionary environments, with customers falling over each other to buy their over-priced products. Yes, the first company that comes to everybody’s mind is Apple then there’s 3M. Yes, Google gives its employees time to pursue their passion and allows them to fail. While this is a very good step forward for innovation and has yielded great results, why do so few companies come to our mind when we think of the word ‘Innovation’? I am not saying that there aren’t more companies that have taken the innovation pledge seriously. There are a few hundred companies that are continuously creating the right environment to nurture creative thinking amongst employees and their customers and shareholders are rewarding them with premium margins and share prices. But the point I am trying to drive home is that, in order to be able to create, nurture and sustain an innovation culture, the right leadership is required. I am sad to say that many companies are stuck with leaders who have suppressed their own intuition for way to long and have prevented anybody else to get creative in the true sense.

Before I offer a solution, let us analyse why Apple has been so successful? In my opinion it is because their products were designed with the arts in mind. Arts are more human, arts have a heart and Steve Jobs was inspired by Calligraphy, Zen and simplistic design- the arts. He intuitively built products that he would love, rather than asking customers what they wanted. Asking customers what they want only gives you iterative improvements and rarely radical innovation (I am so happy Steve Jobs came along, as finally people listen to me about meeting unrealized needs!). Steve Jobs honed and acted upon his gut because he got in touch with his core through Zen meditation. More importantly he had the guts to defy corporate risk aversion and create & take-to-market products that revolutionized the world. . How many CXOs have such gumption to stand out and say the buck stops here?

Now that the problem is clear, what can be leaders do to enhance and sustain creativity and innovation in their organizations? While you don’t find a Steve Jobs every day, every single organization can take the following steps to nurture creativity within.

  1. First and foremost every leader must give employees opportunities to realize that they too have a creative side. Not only by acknowledging and accepting suggestions and ideas from even the junior-most employee, but by acknowledging talents in the arts.
  2. Leaders and Talent Heads must start recruiting people who have pursued some art form like music, dance, visual arts etc. as they would understand how the arts have the ability to impact people at their core, and apply it to their work- if given the right environment and opportunities.
  3. Try to create opportunities for people to look within and de-stress. This could include meditation sessions, exposure to creative arts performances by musicians, dancers, artists and maybe even cooking sessions, photography, drama sessions etc.
  4. Incorporating a system whereby employees, especially leadership teams interact and attend workshops conducted by real creative geniuses, to understand the essence of tapping into their innate creative zones and understanding how to create the correct environment for innovation to happen.
  5. Get new perspectives by engaging in and also helping your employees engage in creative interests (even during work-hours whenever possible), to understand the emotions that they feel while doing so. These are the emotions that should translate into products and experiences that the company offers to its customers (Remember- that’s what Steve Jobs did). I call it taking advantage of your goose bump moments to intuitively know what makes people tick. I’m hoping your employees and customers are people, if not this may not work J
  6. Cut-out power-point presentations and focus on real idea generation and open-ended brainstorming sessions. Encourage people to move from head to heart in every meeting. Believe me customers are fed-up with information overload and want to work with companies that are more human, while delivering results of course.
  7. Encourage people to dress-down and meet customers like they meet friends (This is innovation in sales). This is a pet topic of mine and will tell you more about the importance of this in a separate post.
  8. Encourage action and systematic action to put creative ideas into real-world action. Nothing happens without systematic action and even the best and most creative ideas will remain just that-brilliant ideas without leaders who ensure they are acted upon.
  9. Last but not least, allow people to take risks and FAIL!

About the Author:

Jayaram Rajaram is the Managing Partner of Bril, a company that works on a Mission to Make Living Fun for its customers and consumers, through its world-class school stationery, baby and children’s products. For more information about Bril please visit www.brilindia.com  (Bril’s Facebook  Page: www.facebook.com/brilconnect) . Jayaram is also the Managing Director & Chief Dreamer of ELSA Learning Private Limited, a human development company that works towards nurturing and enhancing creativity amongst children and adults and also helps organizations take innovation seriously through its BrilArt@Work offering. For more information about BrilArt please visit www.brilart.com