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How to inspire and promote a culture of creativity by shaking things up

  • July 8, 2011

Executives across the Silicon Valley received a wake-up call in January, when Eric Schmidt stepped down as the CEO of Google. Rumor had it the tech giant and former Wall Street darling had missed the social network boom and lost its innovative edge, as Schmidt focused on day-to-day operations while digressing from Google’s legendary 70-20-10 rule, which requires technical staff and management to devote 10 percent of their time to dreaming up new ideas.

Although leadership is the catalyst and source of organizational innovation and creativity, busy executives don’t need a complex plan to inspire and encourage an imaginative culture, as long as they’re willing to shake things up and not punish failure.

“Creative leadership is about giving people permission to dream and encouraging them to try something different,” says Dr. Terri Swartz, dean and professor of marketing for the College of Business and Economics at California State University, East Bay. “You get there by shaking things up and not letting employees settle into the status quo.”

Smart Business asked Swartz to describe the activities and behaviors that inspire and promote an innovative culture.

How can executives inspire creativity by shaking things up?

Although bureaucratic processes and formal protocols create the organizational discipline, which often produces short-term productivity gains, they actually threaten a company’s long-term financial health and stability by discouraging outside-the-box thinking and the development of new products and services.

Give people permission to dream by launching meetings with a brain teaser instead of a reading from the latest financial report and allow them to play with simple, creative toys like Legos, pipe cleaners and Silly Putty during conferences instead of leaving them to text message co-workers or read e-mails.

Next, invite new perspectives on old problems by holding meetings outside traditional conference rooms. Stroll the campus while you meet, congregate in a local park or shake up a stale routine by asking participants to sit in different seats. Finally, change the menu in the cafeteria and even the background music in the office on a regular basis, so employees learn to anticipate and embrace the unexpected.

What other simple, cost-effective techniques incite innovation?

Employees need breaks and a change of scenery to get their creative juices flowing; otherwise, they’ll spend all of their time with routine activities and putting out fires instead of dreaming up new ideas. In fact, carving out creative time and changing venues were simple but effective practices under Google’s 70-20-10 rule. Technical staff were asked to spend 70 percent of their time on core activities, 20 percent of their time on secondary business pursuits and one day each week in a different room or locale, just so they could focus on new ideas. Yet all too often, companies put the kibosh on telecommuting or non-traditional work schedules that break up daily routines and actually encourage forward thinking.

How can executives encourage risk-taking and companywide participation?

It’s easy for companies to digress into a culture that shuns risk and thwarts new ideas as they become mature and successful. But executives can dissuade group thinking and invite companywide participation by maintaining an open door policy and soliciting everyone’s opinions once an idea is suggested. Keep naysayers from getting the upper hand by scripting the positives as well as the concerns when weighing the merits of an idea. And don’t allow risk managers or lawyers to quash new products or ideas until they’re fleshed out.

Finally, travel the hallways and visit the cafeteria to solicit new ideas from everyone. Encourage new behaviors by writing down employee suggestions and recognizing every submission.

What else can executives do to encourage innovation?

First, hire and retain the right people. At first glance this may seem simple, but think of the relationship between elephants and fleas. Elephants are big, organized and successful systems, much like today’s corporations, but they are established and set in their ways. They cannot survive change without fleas. Fleas represent creative individuals or groups. They see themselves as different and want to make a difference. Unfortunately, bureaucracies often isolate or suffocate ‘fleas,’ killing off their ideas and passion, ultimately leading to their own demise.

Second, encourage and reward creative ideas from any source. Also, encourage employees to play together because participating in outside activities or playing group games during lunch breaks builds familiarity and trust, which is essential to the creative process and aids in the acceptance of new ideas. Use instruments, candid feedback and pulse surveys to gauge your open-mindedness and temper your reaction to new ideas and departures from the status quo. Executives may unconsciously quash new ideas by expressing a contrarian view or allow personal biases to interfere with their objectivity.

Next, lead the way by changing your routine and asking line managers to do the same. Finally, be willing to invest in the future. Although investments in dream time and allowing employees to roam the property may not produce immediate financial rewards, there’s no doubt that encouraging innovation will yield dividends in the future.

Dr. Terri Swartz is the dean and a professor of marketing for the College of Business and Economics at California State University, East Bay. Reach her at (510) 885-3291 or

Read this article on the Web site of SMART BUSINESS

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