Is Your Business Killing Creativity? How to Cultivate Breakthrough Innovation

By Scott Jeffrey

In today’s hyper-connected, ludicrously-fast-moving global marketplace, businesses are racing to grow big - and fast. Wall Street and private investors alike demand double-digit growth year after year.

Many business owners and executives fail to realize growth results because they haven’t set the right conditions. Profitability and customer loyalty are consequences of a business’s commitment to evolve, innovate and exceed their customers’ expectations.

Ironically, a focus on obsessive growth can often stifle innovation, the lifeblood of a business’ growth and expansion. Just ask companies like Apple, Google, Netflix or any company that thrives in a competitive landscape. Or talk to Microsoft, Yahoo and Blockbuster to learn how the aforementioned competitors have trampled their market share and left them irrelevant to their former customers.

Consider Proctor & Gamble: In 2000, the company issued several profit warnings, sending the stock tumbling to half its value. A.G. Lafley arrives as the new chairman and CEO and shifts their focus to customer-centered innovations. Profits tripled and P&G is now one of the most valuable companies in America.

Conducting “business as usual” is a surefire way to make your business obsolete. Innovation and growth requires unbridled creativity to innovate, solve problems and create a fabulous customer experience, which in turn requires the proper inner and outer conditions to manifest. We must learn to eliminate the barriers to rapid creative innovation. Here are five lessons businesses must learn to unleash creativity and innovation in the workplace.

Lesson 1: Create an atmosphere where people are inspired to succeed rather than afraid to fail: Failure is a necessary aspect of invention (just ask Thomas Edison), but the fear of failure blocks the creative impulse. If employees are afraid of making mistakes, you can be sure that creativity will be stifled.

In a fearful state, the brain toggles to the more primitive lizard brain (responsible for basic life functions like digestion, respiration and reproduction) for survival, rendering access to the more evolved learning brain (responsible for memory, problem-solving, communication and creativity) impossible. Abraham Maslow, the founder of humanistic psychology, observed that creativity arises as a consequence of a positive mental state. When employees are happy and secure, you’re more likely to see an increase in creative contribution. Amy Edmondson, Novartis professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School, found that the optimal learning environment combines a high degree of psychological safety with accountability for meeting demanding goals. When employees feel safe, they are more likely to collaborate and learn on the job.

Creative business cultures cultivate environments that embrace failure as the precursor to success. Fail, but fail quickly and move on. One of Southwest Airlines’ secrets to more than 30 years of profitability is memorialized by their motto, “Risk More, Fail Faster.” Many times, failure is the gateway to a breakthrough idea. Instead of sweeping failure under the rug, realize its value.

Lesson 2: Track performance by innovative contribution rather than time on the clock: Why should we track how many hours employees spend at their desks, when what we’re really interested in is their success at innovating, making customers happy and growing the business? In a global marketplace, the concept of nine-to-five is almost meaningless. We are interested in outcomes, not time clocks - in results, not efficiency. One can be efficiently busy yet ineffective at achieving results.

Each person needs different conditions for creating. Some people prefer working from home; others prefer working at night. Realizing that some guidelines are needed, how flexible are you willing to become in the pursuit of a stronger, more profitable business? Financial service provider The Motley Fools offers unlimited vacation time as long as employees “do an amazing job” and meet deadlines.

Lesson 3: Focus on allowing instead of doing: Our Western culture is busy. In fact, corporate America has mistaken busyness with business. With an onslaught of e-mails, text messages, phone calls and meetings, there’s no shortage of busyness, always something to do. Little of our daily communication supports the creative process, which tends to favor allowing over doing. You’ve probably experienced a great idea popping into mind as you’ve aimlessly walked through the woods, showered or cruised the highway.

Give your employees space to wander, play and create - even on non-work-related activities. Google engineers, for example, spend 20 percent of their time working on whatever they want. Google trusts their talented employees to build useful and innovative things - some of which will become new projects in their Google Labs.

Lesson 4: Create an environment that lifts your employees’ spirits rather than drains their energy: Conditions in the workplace should support positive, creative thinking. Most office space feels dead and lifeless. If you don’t create an environment where people enjoy working, how can you expect them to perform at their best?

eBay’s headquarters has a dedicated meditation room. Google offers healthy, organic cuisine prepared by a gourmet chef. Check out high-rated companies from Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” and model their successful environments.

Research has demonstrated that fluorescent lighting collapses the body’s acupuncture meridians and hampers the brain’s ability to think clearly. Replacing fluorescent lighting with full-spectrum, natural bulbs can actually affect the bottom line. Surround the workspace with plants to infuse more life into the environment. Be aware of wall colors, mounted pictures and paintings, and the use of floor space. All of these factors affect the environment’s appeal.

For more inspiration, check out the “About Us” pages of your favorite, innovative companies’ Web sites.

Lesson 5: Foster creative collaboration rather than “just getting it done”:   Innovative companies understand that optimal business growth is directly connected to harmonious teams. If you’re focusing on policies, mechanics or systems of business instead of your people and the customers you serve, you’re bypassing the heart and soul of your business. Without positive emotion and heartfelt connection, the power of creativity is stifled.

Creative businesses support group collaboration and the free exchange of ideas. Consider creating a “idea room” with whiteboards, comfortable chairs, fun music, healthy snacks, creative dcor, even juggling balls. Team members use the brain room to hold brainstorming sessions or problem-solving collaborations. The highly innovative Brazilian company Semco, run by maverick Ricardo Semler, has an “Out of Your Mind!” committee that meets periodically to consider unusual ideas that aren’t relevant to their existing business. Providing a safe forum for employees to share their “crazy ideas” in an open and supportive environment can pave the way to extraordinary innovations.

Have fun, be creative, innovate, and watch your business grow!

Read other articles and learn more about Scott Jeffrey.

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