By Steve Eaton
How innovative are you if the Beddelman report is due at 2 p.m. and it’s 1 p.m.? If the boss is expecting something of you right now, can you make time in your schedule to think up new ideas and game-changing strategies?
At the Huntsman School of Business we talk about the entrepreneurial spirit and emphasize the importance of innovative thinking. In today’s fast-paced workplace, however, tapping the creative powers of your employees and yourself can be more than a little challenging.Years ago I attended a memorable and outstanding workshop on creativity given by the late Gordon MacKenzie, author of “Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace.” He had worked for Hallmark and said that even though the company depended on creative ideas for its product, the culture didn’t always encourage things that weren’t part of the status quo.
“Trying to get an idea through Hallmark was like trying to drive a four-wheel drive truck through a mountain of cooked oatmeal,”he said. “You never have a sense of hitting a wall but eventually you come to a stop.”
At one point he was asked to take a new position that would be charged, in part, with encouraging innovation at the company. Gordon came up with the title “creative paradox.”
Once he got that title he decorated his new office with candles, a giant wood telephone wire spool for his desk, and signs that featured Chinese characters, even though he had no idea what they meant. He even hung from the ceiling an unsual chair he purchased from an artist. The chair had wings and a halo on the back of it and he dangled it just above his regular chair, tilted forward. He wanted it to look as if he had just fallen from the ceiling chair into his regular chair.People would come in to this strange, mystical office and present their ideas to him and he would listen intently and say, “Good idea.”
Employees, emboldened by the approval of the creative paradox would go back to their supervisor and tell him or her their idea, adding that the creative paradox liked it. The middle-managers would try to find the creative paradox on the company organization chart but Gordon's title wasn’t there. Fearing he might be above them in the pecking order, the managers would often allow their employees to proceed with their creative idea just to be safe. Hallmark used a “creative paradox” to free up innovative ideas.
A story in the Jan. 19 Wall Street Journal, “The Trouble With Tinkering With Time,” talks about how different companies have tried to give their employees more time for innovation. Google is famous for its “20% initiative” where employees are encouraged to work on projects that are not related to their job description.
The writer, Alec Foege, says that companies can be terrified to let people “tinker” with new ideas on company time.
“They’ve got enough to do already thank you very much,” he writes. “Innovation at its heart, is a torturous anarchical act. True tinkerers are dilettantes, free-form creative types motivated more by their own curiosity than by the bottom line. In short, they aren’t the kinds of employees most big companies like adding to the payroll in the first place.”
He writes that just one drawback of a firm officially structuring innovation time is that “being ordered to tinker robs the activity of personal passion.” He suggests that one radical approach would be to allow people to directly profit from their successful ideas. He warns that companies who embark on these initiatives have to make room for “genuine creative chaos without clear goals,” and that they need to know that repeated failure is part of the deal with such a strategy.
I was once asked to come up with a presentation that my company’s executives could use to help employees understand the firm’s latest goals. I came up with quite the unorthodox presentation that proved more than a little memorable. If you come to my office in the basement you can see a sign that reads, “Rewarding Top Employees With Spam.” That’s a left-over prop from that presentation.
One of my favorite parts of the song and dance I created for my superiors was a lightly scripted moment that had me bursting into a room while the executive was making the presentation. I would get into an argument with him or her that would eventually lead to me being thrown out of the meeting, much to the delight of my coworkers. I proved quite good at being booted from meetings and they even sent me on the road to be ejected mid-presentation in other places where the company had offices.
That was fun creativity for me but it came because the executives were willing to take the risk and encourage such ideas.
I’m not sure what the secret is to institutionalizing innovation. Gordon MacKenzie said creativity is not the kind of thing you can mandate and measure. The most innovative people I know are the right-brained sorts who are great at generating new ideas but not so good on the follow up. What do you do to keep yourself from falling into a rut? How do you reinvent your work? Send us a blog post or just share a new idea or two. Maybe you’ll end up being someone celebrated for revolutionizing higher education as we know it now or … maybe you’ll just get thrown out of a meeting. That’s all part of the risk you take. Are you up to the challenge, or are you going to finish the Beddleman report first?