Igniting Innovation-III Building the Innovative Organisation

The flame of innovation is ignited when the innovative consciousness of people finds an enabling environment to express itself. This article examines some of the vital factors for creating such an enabling environment.

Creative Liberty

Creativity requires an atmosphere of liberty or freedom. Our human mind requires four kinds of freedom for its creative flowering:

  1. Freedom to think and express ideas.
  2. Freedom to question the status quo.
  3. Freedom to experiment with new ideas.
  4. Freedom to make mistakes or fail and learn from them.

Amy Edmondson, in a thoughtful article in Harvard Business Review argues that to promote learning and innovation leaders must foster, “psychological safety” which means an environment where it is safe for people to express their ideas, questions and concerns freely and frankly, and also to make mistakes or fail. She gives the following examples to show what psychological safety means:

  • Ayn Ryan instituted a series of training initiatives called “Safe to Say” to let employee know that their voices were not only welcome but required for success.
  • Eli Lilly’s Chief Science Officer introduced, “failure parties” to honour intelligent experiments which failed.(1)

Creative Balance

Another important factor which needs management attention is to find the right balance between ideas which are oriented towards the fulfillment of customer or market needs and free innovation which are not related to immediate customer satisfaction. In business, creativity and innovation cannot be entirely for its own sake but has to be predominantly customer or market driven. But still, some part of the creative energy of the organisation has to be reserved for free-floating innovations which are not tied to customer or commercial consideration.

If the entire creative force of the company is oriented towards the customer or the market needs, then there is no scope for break-through innovations which the customer has not thought of or not yet in the market. Here comes the limitation of customer surveys or market research. As Robert L. Sutton points out some of these limitations in an article in Harvard Business Review:

“Companies that want to avoid getting stuck in a rut should be especially wary of opinions from customers who use their current products or services, and from the marketing and sales-people who represent their views. Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney, put it this way in an interview in the January-February 2000 issue of Harvard Business Review: ‘Most audience or customer-research is useless.’ Just because everyone loved Titanic, he argued, doesn’t mean they want another movie about a love affair and a sinking ship. Most of the mainframe computer users that IBM surveyed in the 1970s couldn’t imagine why they would ever want a small computer on their desks. And Bob Metcalfe, the founder of 3Com, wrote in MIT’s Technology Review that the financial success of 3Com’s Etherlink, a high speed way to connect computers, happened because he ignored reports from sales people that customers were clamoring for a slight improvement in a popular product.” (2)

In a deeper and more universal perspective we may say that any organisation with sufficient resources, where knowledge and ideas are vital for its success, has to deploy a part of its cognitive energy to pursue knowledge and ideas for their own sake. Such a disinterested pursuit of knowledge releases a higher quality of mental force with a moral content which brings its own material results in the long-term. For example, the intellectual and moral force released by the disinterested pursuit of scientific truth by early pioneer of modem science like Newton and Galileo, is perhaps the deeper source of the technological achievements of our age. As Sri Aurobindo explains the principle in the context of knowledge generation:

“When knowledge is pursued for its own sake, then alone are we likely to arrive at true knowledge. Afterwards we may utilise that knowledge for various ends; but if from the beginning we have only particular ends in view, then we limit our intellectual gain, limit our view of things, distort the truth because we cast it into the mould of some particular idea or utility and ignore or deny all that conflicts with that utility or that set idea.” (3)

What is said above applies to all forms of knowledge including corporate innovation and creativity. One way of doing it in the corporate environment is to provide sufficient freedom and time for creative people in the organisation to pursue ideas of their choice or which they love, irrespective of their practical benefit to the organisation. The management of 3M, a great innovator among companies, seems to have perceived this principle. In 3M, technical people are encouraged to devote 15% of their time and effort to pursue ideas and projects of their own choice.(4)

Creative Time

There is one more factor which needs management attention for nurturing innovation: providing sufficient time for a free and relaxed thinking. Too much of speed and fast change and a constant pressure for short-term productivity is not conducive to creative thinking. People have to be given sufficient time off from their routine work to relax their body and mind and allow the deeper and more creative layers of the mind to come forward. As Tony Schwartz CEO of the Energy Project points out,

“Creative thinking requires relatively open ended uninterrupted time, free of pressure for immediate answers and instant solutions – the best way to insure that innovation gets attention is to schedule sacrosanct time for it, on a regular basis…. This third stage of the creative process, incubation, occurs when we step away from problem, we’re trying to solve and let our unconscious work on it.” (5)

Enabling Systems and Structures

Consciousness and the environment are the two most important factors in fostering innovation and generating creative ideas. But in the corporate world ideas have to move quickly from the mental level to action and realization. This requires effective systems and structures for implementation.

Quality Circles, which is an integral part of Total Quality Management (TQM), where employees are invited to offer their ideas and suggestions, is a well-known and effective system for harnessing the thinking and innovative potential of employees. But in a bigger organisation where large number of ideas are generated, there must be a screening and filtering mechanism for selecting and funding good ideas.

According to the well-known management Guru Gary Hamel, the best way to do this is found in the Silicon Valley, where, “If an idea has merit, it will attract venture capital and talent, it doesn’t, won’t.” Gary Hamel believes that Silicon Valley model can be replicated within a company by creating a “dynamic internal market for ideas, capital and talents” and gives some examples to show how it can be done. One of them is Royal Duth Shell Co. which had set up a panel for screening and funding creative ideas. Any employee of Shell who has a creative idea is invited to give a ten-minute pitch to the panel, followed by a 15 minute Q & A session. If the members agree that the idea has real potential, the employee is invited to a second round of discussion with a broader group of company experts whose knowledge or support may be important to the success of the supposed venture. Ideas that get the green light are provided with funds within eight or ten days.(6)

The other organizational problem in corporate innovation is to create systems for effective implementation of ideas on a large and diffused scale within the organisation. In this domain some of the systems and process evolved in Procter and Gamble, an exemplar in corporate innovation, can provide useful clues for managers. There are three organizational systems of P&G, which have a universal relevance for all companies. They are:

1. Continuous Training

for inculcating the mindset, thinking process and behaviour of innovation in the consciousness of employees.

2. Sustained Mentoring

through role models who become project guides and teach the teams nurturing innovative project on how to begin, proceed and progress towards successful commercialization of the idea.

3. Guiding Manuals

Which provide detailed and exhaustive guidance and instructions on the principle and methodologies for nurturing innovative projects from conception and planning to execution and marketing.

The author is a student and practitioner in the path of integral yoga.

Courtesy: VILAKSHAN: XIMB Journal of Management


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