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How do you foster innovation excellence?

We know that in the world of technology, wealth flows directly from innovation. We know too that for innovation to flourish we must create an environment for it. The ideal environment for innovation consists of multi-talented groups of people, working in close collaboration, exchanging knowledge, ideas and shaping the direction of the future.

In a world of change, the focus is not on solving problems but on looking for the next opportunity. It is the ability to use creativity to find hidden connections and insights into new products or services, desired by the customer. “Repetition, sequels, copies, and automation all tend toward the free, while the innovative, original, and imaginative all soar in value.” (Wired Magazine, Sept. 1997)

What do companies actually do to foster creativity and innovation? I did some scouting to find out. I talked to people at IBM, Microsoft, MDA, SAS Institute, Sierra Systems, Cognos and Dynapro.

They all hire highly skilled self-motivated engineers and technical experts. They also place a premium on soft skill competancies in leadership, communications, team building, and creativity.

They provide training in soft skills, though not in creativity or innovation per se. When asked where ideas come from, most said ideas come from everywhere, including customer interaction.
Strategies to develop talent and enhance innovation

1. Make sure your vision and mission are clearly communicated.

Ron Matthews, CIO of Phillips Hager and North, offers this advice: “You want innovation directed where it will provide the biggest return. Executives must cascade strategic plans down to the employee level. Employees need to know where the ship is headed so they can direct their energies to what is important to the business.”

Communication of organizational and project changes, decisions, and policies should be available to everyone.

2. Remove the obstacles of bureaucracy that strangle creativity.

Welcome open ended inquiry and experimentation in the workplace.

3. Create a climate for an open flow of ideas, collaboration and knowledge sharing.

Encourage interdepartmental conversation. Sierra Systems and SAS incorporate design and aesthetics in the workplace, to enhance creativity and employee well being.

3. Freedom and trust are key to pushing the limits in creativity.

A highly collaborative environment demands a high trust culture. Not all creative endeavours lead to success, and smart companies turn failure into learning opportunities.

4. Embrace diversity.

IBM trains all employees in a two day workshop on diversity. The workshop encourages sensitivity and tolerance to the issues of minorities and women in business. This fosters a pro-active global spirit that embraces diverse viewpoints and cultures. Outsiders provide fresh points of view.

Sierra Systems hires or contracts expertise from non-technical areas, including a doctor for their health practice and professional foresters for their forestry practice.

5. Give employees an opportunity to reap the rewards of the success they helped create. Money talks.

IBM Canada initiated the Team Achievement Plan, to solve the “it’s not my job” issue and ensure everyone is fully accountable to customer service and profitability. 5% of an employee’s income is held back until an aggregate Customer Satisfaction target is reached, (3% better than Best of Breed) measured by an outside organization. Another 5% is also held back and tied to achieving profitability objectives.

If a target is missed the employee gets nothing. Individual performance is recognized with scaled payments, i.e. top performers receive a premium, others less. IBM Canada’s Customer Satisfaction is now 5.2% better than best of breed of all its competitors with a four fold increase in stock value.

6. Stage celebrations to benchmark success.

To stimulate the flow of creativity, recognize it and reward it. A sure fire way to attract and keep talent. Reward the individual as well as the team.

At MacDonald Dettwiler, success depends on “individual initiative and innovation which, because of its nature, is often taken in the face of passive indifference, if not outright hostility, on the part of the individual’s peers and in some cases even by management.”

Anyone who overcomes these hurdles to launch a winning idea, deserves to be recognised. MDA created the ITUS Award and it stands for I TOLD U SO!

7. Cultivate Continuous Learning.

Sierra Systems motivates people by giving them the opportunity to stay at the forefront of new technology, and giving them a variety of assignments in a fast paced environment.

Although employees are responsible for their own career development, they have a career advisor who assists them with positioning. Employees are provided with the tools and training they need to grow, including access to self help instruction and tutorials on the intranet. Staff are mentored for success.

8. Revitalise by cultivating outside interests.

(i.e. music, art, and nature). Microsoft has a Work Life Initiative to help employees maintain a balance in their lives. To encourage a wide variety of interests, they created public folders (electronic bulletin boards) on topics from child rearing to public art. Staff are also free to go for a run or play pick-up basketball to clear their heads—no questions asked.

9. Innovation requires strong leadership and support from the executive level.

“It is up to management to sustain a culture that encourages creation and innovation and enhances opportunities for success.” (3M)

Fostering an idea-friendly environment encourages groups to develop their imagination, unleash breakthrough ideas, and generate solutions. This is the motive force that results in a thriving, fun and productive organization. Harness the creative resources of your people, and you have the energy that fuels revenue growth.

This article was first published in the Canadian Information Processing Society (BC Chapter) Journal May 1998

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Copyright 1998 Creativity at Work