Structuring For Creative and Innovative Processes

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Never doubt the power of something new.

In technology, innovation drives everything from sales cycles to the flow of venture capital. It also drives your career. If you disagree, remember that at one time, people made good money writing code for Tandy or programming in DOS. Today they can’t make a dime.

Yet innovation — the creative spark — is hard to manage. In fact it’s hard to muster because no muse responds to commands. You can’t force your colleagues to be creative anymore than you can force them to be smarter, but you can encourage inventiveness and even structure your business to get more of it.

Be Smart
First, be smart about the way you use technology. (For a technologist, anything less would be a cosmic act of incompetence.)

Start by trimming the use of e-mail, which lets people talk without really talking. Better to have colleagues meet face to face, exchanging thoughts with their mouths, eyes and hands and not just a copy of Outlook.

If you must talk electronically, use systems that promote relaxed expression. Translation: Get rid of memos with their dry, tortured prose and set up blogs and wikis. Just be sure the blogs and wikis, useful as they are, don’t go the way of e-mail, replacing face-to-face exchange with a blitzkrieg of ones and zeros.

Last, play around with software that helps you think better. Mind mappers are one such tool — they build concept charts in the shape of human neurons. The charts give you the big picture and the details at once, and they’re strangely useful for mapping out plans or product designs or for plain, old brainstorming. Among the best mind-mapping vendors are Mindjet at and Visual Mind at

“Mind Time”
A morning person is likely to find the Next Big Thing before sunrise, and a night owl is rarely sentient before noon. What’s more, some of your team members’ best thoughts will come when they’re least expecting it: in their cars, hot tubs or golf carts — relaxing is a first-rate catalyst for invention.

The bottom line? Flex schedules help team members take advantage of peak times, working when their minds are sharpest.

On a grander scale, you might start a policy for sabbaticals or learning breaks. Giving people a way to get out of the office — but stay at work, learning new skills, technologies or trade secrets — can pay for itself.

Remember that universities, the ultimate learning companies, give professors a paid sabbatical every few years to keep their minds sharp and turn minor currents of new thought into major tides.

Get Lost

Speaking of sabbaticals, it pays to evict your crew members from their cubicles. A day or two will do or even an afternoon. Use it for a field trip to someplace useful or just an unhurried lunch to chat up the wonders of Python or Perl.

You also can plan a yearly retreat to recharge your team’s batteries. Just don’t go to the hotel down the street — the goal is to get away from the office, and a conference room four blocks away is no good. Neither is a retreat on the weekend, which is little more than a rude incursion of your colleagues’ time. A weekday retreat, in contrast, gives them a sense of time off, and it helps them relax, which in turn frees their minds.

Remember that Bill Gates, when he was still the day-to-day chief of Microsoft, took a week for himself yearly, spending time alone in a well-appointed cabin and dreaming strategies.

Learn (Daily)

Blogger Lee Iwan offers a great way to work innovation into the fabric of your business: Pay your team members to read.

Give them an allowance for books or start a book club or discussion group. You also can turn lunchtime into class time, inviting experts to lecture on key subjects over Chinese takeout or subs. Free food — all the better if catered — attracts hungry knowledge workers like nothing else.

Loosen Up
How sterile is your office? If you have gray walls and gray cubicles (and perhaps gray carpet), you’re sending the wrong signals — your work space has all the pleasure of a hospital ward. Or to put this in simpler terms, how do you expect your team to innovate, that is, to stand out from the pack, if your office is a portrait of conformity?

Of course it’s expensive to bring in designers and invest in pricey wallpaper or leather sofas, so don’t. Let your team members decorate your digs. You can even encourage them by having a small budget and setting a day or two aside for the project.

It’s a simple thought: People work best — and think best — in a place they enjoy.

Keep Secrets
One of the best ways to kill a good thought is to poison it with office politics.

Too often a junior team member stifles a brilliant notion because he thinks someone will steal it or simply laugh at it. And we all know what happens when the boss comes up with a real screamer that no one critiques, fearing it would be a promotion-killer.

Hence, an antidote: Let new concepts — say, for product designs or process improvements — be put forth anonymously. Then debate them collectively, without telling the team who submitted the concept. Without knowing the source, and without knowing who they’ll offend or who they’re supposed to patronize, team members will tell you what they think. They’ll praise the good and pan the bad, and they’ll dissect a new idea (or make riffs on it) with something that’s rare in today’s office space: a sense of liberty.

After your team brainstorms an anonymous concept, if you decide it’s good enough to pursue, then reveal its source. If you decide to trash it, leave the source unknown.

Know the Rules
Speaking of “credit where credit is due,” make that notion an official rule in your workplace. Make it known that no one — no team leader, senior programmer or the boss — ever will take credit for an underling’s innovation. And set forth a few other rules too. For instance: no carping, belittling or putting down. No holding back, either, as long as tact always is used.

And don’t forget the power of the almighty dollar. If you really want to draw out your team members’ inventive side, give them a financial incentive to innovate and tie the incentive to corporate goals. For instance, if you want new ways to trim the budget, offer a $100 bounty for each concept that trims more than $1,000. Or offer a percentage of the savings on a sliding scale.

You’ll find people will speak up as never before. After all, nothing brings out the muse so well as money. And nothing can help you prosper as a little imagination can.

David Garrett is a Web designer and former IT director, as well as the author of “Herding Chickens: Innovative Techniques in Project Management.” He can be reached at

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