Innovative thinking
Jason Clarke - Founder - Minds At Work
Jason Clarke
Jason Clarke

Together with efficiency (doing things right) and effectiveness (doing the right things), innovation, or doing something new, is fundamental to business improvement. Jason Clarke, founder of Minds At Work, an Australian company consulting in leadership and innovation, argues that innovation should start with organisational annoyances, proceed beyond mere generation of ideas, and harness the different thinking styles within the organisation. Why has innovation become an important issue for companies to focus on?

Jason Clarke: Innovation has always been important, but the last decade has upped the ante. Information technology has empowered small, nimble operators to snatch global markets from lumbering multinationals… so competition can come from any angle and whoever sees the future first, wins. Then of course there’s globalization – new markets to catch up to, new competitors to stay in front of, and that’s a race that only gets faster. Add to all this, the challenge of sustainability: resources we take for granted are depleting, and the things we used to think of as waste are about to become major business costs, so now’s a good time for some fresh thinking.

"What companies think of as ‘the problem’ is usually a symptom of old cultural issues"

This is on top of the old reasons, which are still valid: people want to buy from, contribute to, work for, and invest in innovative companies. When businesses hire people, they are simply renting bodies, but if they encourage their people to innovate, they’ll get their brains for free. That sounds like a good deal to me. Do you need a different approach for product versus process innovation?

JC: Yes you do, and you need to do both – there’s no point having a clever product if your processes aren’t just as smart. I know of a few companies who give complete freedom to the product R&D guys while strangling the people who deliver the customer experience. The result is innovative products from companies no-one wants to deal with.

Start small. Assemble teams to focus on the things that just aren’t working: soul-destroying meetings, death by email, departmental silos, endless distractions, that sort of thing. Empower people to address these issues and they develop an appetite for innovation that’s hard to stop. Then let ‘em loose onto processes and products. But in most organisations, the problems you’re talking about are often chronic, longstanding issues. Why do they persist and how do you break them?

JC: When staff say ‘Hey, this might be dumb but it’s from Head Office’ you know the problem gets diplomatic immunity by hiding within company hierarchy. When it’s ‘That’s not how we do it here’ you know it’s hiding in company tradition or even the mission statement itself. For the first three weeks on the job, a new employee can’t help but notice all the things that need to be challenged… until they realise no-one is listening, which is when they force themselves to stop noticing.

What companies think of as ‘the problem’ is usually a symptom of old cultural issues. Ask yourself ‘why don’t my people innovate?’ and you’re getting closer to root causes. Fix those and you’re free to grow. Ignore them and the problems will persist. Is there a perception that idea generation and innovation are the same thing?

JC: Yeah, some people still get confused with that. Creativity is a vital component of innovation, but it’s not the whole story. Innovation is the orchestration of diverse (some would say contradictory) thinking styles - creativity, problem solving, commercial pragmatism, cynicism - and then encouraging them in a specific sequence.

Once you’ve accurately identified a target, you want to stimulate imaginative, unorthodox, almost naïve, thinking. Then you want to channel that into more practical creativity, bounded by clear, unambiguous parameters. That gets you into design and development mode, the style of thinking that lawyers, architects and engineers are so good at. Then you want a smooth transition into logical, critical thinking to evaluate the designs before involving the more convergent, focused minds you’ve got, the ones that will take it through to implementation and execution.

Typically, all this requires more than one person – it’s a rare human being who can do all these things well and the real trick is in managing the relationships as you shepherd a thought from wild idea to practical reality.

The good news is you’ve probably got all these different minds already on the payroll. Bad news is they don’t know how to work together… yet. How do you keep people’s creativity on task?

JC: If you ask ‘any ideas?’ you’ll get high quantity, low quality ideas. But focus people’s minds on a specific challenge and you’ll get fewer, better thoughts. Suggestion boxes around the country are filled with ideas about next year’s Christmas party and staff bonus schemes and every now and then, lost amongst it all, might be a half-decent idea for a new customer initiative… but who’s going to sort through all that to find it?

Why not set specific challenges as ‘lightning rods’ to attract and focus creative energy? Invite people to ‘improve the customer experience’ ‘reduce our greenhouse emissions by 25%’ or ‘cut operating costs by 30%’ and see just how smart your people are. Attach incentives to the process (think beyond cash, it’s not everyone’s motivator and some of the more interesting ideas often come from people with other values) and see what happens when they have a vested interest in the success of the business.

When the process starts to bear fruit, invite everyone to celebrate the harvest. What do you see as the CEO’s role in the innovative process?

JC: People look to their CEOs for cultural clues – if you want innovation, show people how much. If innovation is just your latest corporate mantra, don’t be shocked if your people just add ‘innovation’ to their language until the fad blows over.

Remember they don’t listen to what you say, they watch what you do, so if you take genuine steps to encourage innovation, it’ll happen. If you reward it, it’ll happen faster. If you remove the cultural barriers and crack down on people who kill original thinking, it’ll fly.

Try to participate in the process as just another mind, not as the boss. People don’t tend to think freely around those they are intimidated by. Also, people want to be acknowledged from the top and that recognition sends important signals to the organisation. Thank people for their idea – even the ones you won’t use – and they’ll keep thinking for you.

If you’ve already established a strong reputation as an idea-killer it’ll take a lot of action before people will take you seriously so you may need to allow a little lag time between the stimulus and the response, but it’ll happen.

The desire to create, to make something better is hard-wired in every human being. There’s a lot of passion and enthusiasm hibernating in the office cube farm. Give it a chance to wake up and you’ll get the brains you paid for.

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